The Litany of Loreto, one of the traditional Catholic prayers, recalls many titles ascribed to the Mother of Jesus, each followed by a plea for her intercession. Those titles are derived from biblical, spiritual and devotional sources. It’s a much-loved litany, especially in some countries. Throughout the month of May in Poland, people gather in churches, or by roadside shrines or crosses daily to sing the Litany of Loreto. It’s a lovely and sometimes heart-rending experience. Despite my love of the litany, I’ve always perceived it as painting Mary unwittingly as a sort of regal figure, perfect in her virtues and achievements, but somehow distant and difficult to imitate. I love the litany in its devotional aspect but speaking personally I find the biblical stories about Mary much more inspiring. The story in today’s gospel is one of my favourites about Mary, and it is surely one of most inspirational.
At first glance it looks like a very simple and ordinary story to any readers. A young woman visits an elderly relative. The only slightly unusual thing is that the older woman, well-known locally as being barren all her life, is now visibly pregnant. But the locals have had enough time over the past six months or so to get used to Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Perhaps the locals are more curious about the young woman who’s just arrived in their town. At this stage they don’t know that she’s travelled for at least 3 days from her own town about a hundred miles away. Nor do they know that she’s with child too, and they still will not know that when she eventually returns home 3 months later. To the locals, the young woman from the distant town of Nazareth in Galilee will remain merely someone who has helped their neighbour Elizabeth through the final trimester of her pregnancy.
I mentioned earlier on that this story is one of the most inspirational to me. On the face of it, it just cannot be more distant from the realities of my life. And yet, it is a story very close to my heart.
It all begins with the announcement by the angel Gabriel back in Nazareth, made to Mary, that she would be the mother of the Messiah. There could be no greater honour to bestow on a Jewish woman, no higher elevation than that! It would be so easy to fall into a trap of pomposity and self-importance. We’ve heard stories about people who have suddenly gained wealth or fame, but such a stroke of luck has turned them into unbearable, off-putting windbags. Mary does not fall into that trap. Instead, she undertakes a long journey to a distant town specifically to help and support her elderly relative who is expecting her first baby. Effectively, being elevated in the most honouring way possible to humanity makes Mary determined to help others. That’s what inspires me; whatever power, influence or praise I get (however little that might be) it ought to urge me on to serve more and to serve better.
There’s another aspect to the encounter told in today’s gospel. Mary brings Jesus to the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Interestingly, His name is never mentioned despite the archangel having named him at the Annunciation. Jesus’ presence is hidden, yet manifest through his mother’s gentle attitude, actions and manners. I think that can inspire each one of us present here. Over the Christmas holidays we will meet up with our relatives and friends. They might display a variety of attitudes towards Christianity or religious faith, from indifference all the way through to open hostility. Bulldozing them with verbal convincing will not do the trick. But perhaps, inspired by Mary, we can bring Christ to Christmas by making Him manifest through our attitudes and actions.