For many years I wore a necklace with a holy medal that depicted “The Visitation” of Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45). I bought the medal at the Church of the Visitation on a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in the mid-1980s. Tradition says the church is built on the site of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. A natural spring bubbles up in “Mary’s grotto” and brightly colored tiles, with a translation of the Magnificat in more than 40 languages, line the courtyard. The view of the Judean hills and valleys is magnificent. Sadly, the Palestinian population of the town largely has been displaced.
Sitting in the shade of that courtyard brought the story of Mary and Elizabeth alive in a way I’d never known before. It’s a story that has provoked me and encouraged me ever since.
Mary is a variant of Miriam. Miriam was one of the three primary leaders of the exodus, along with Aaron and her brother Moses. She was a prophet. Both Mary and Miriam’s names carry the echoes of the word “bitter” (see Ruth 1:20) for the bitterness that was pressed down on the people in the time of Pharaoh and in the time of the Roman occupation of Israel and destruction of the Temple. In some translations Mary or Maryam’s name is “sea of bitterness.”
The story of Maryam, in Luke’s narrative, mirrors the crisis that caused Moses to flee Egypt. In Exodus 2:12, Moses murders an Egyptian soldier. It’s premeditated, and it’s an act of treason against Pharaoh. He “flees” (2:15) from his death sentence to the land of Midian.