There were exactly two snowballs in my south Louisiana childhood, and they didn’t fall from the sky in Baton Rouge. They rode down from Ohio on the side of our neighbor’s station wagon, and took their shape when she scooped them and gave them to wide-eyed children who had never seen snow.
It must have been right before bath time, because that’s where I remember looking with envy at the snowball in my sister’s hands—still white and big and magical. Mine was grey now, icy and smaller, because I had dipped it in the water. I was this close to talking hers into being mine; I really think I was convincing her she would like the grey one better, when my mother intervened.
Dang it. I couldn’t even see her magical treasure anymore, because I was stuck with this other one I’d ruined.
Today is the Feast of the Visitation, that encounter between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary that we read about in the first chapter of Luke. We are told in that story that Mary went to visit her relative:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
Elizabeth has an inner reaction of joy in response to Mary, a surging of Spirit-goodness that blesses both of them. It feels like a charming and loving story to me—this unscripted happiness, the knowing between the older kinswoman and her younger relative.
Surely Elizabeth had anticipation and joy of her own, at the long-awaited child in her womb. The angel who proclaimed this child’s coming had said he would be great in the eyes of God, and that he would turn hearts in love and wisdom toward the Lord. This child would be important not only to her, but to the faith of many.
Surely she had burdens to share like how her husband Zechariah had been struck silent when he could not believe the angel’s promise. She prepared for this child’s arrival without the comfort of her partner’s conversation, in the loneliness of that quiet.
And yet, there is room for the Spirit to move through all these things. At the mere sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth recognizes and blesses her for bearing witness to God’s faithfulness.
In religious art, there are many beautiful images of these women together, often clinging lovingly to one another, arms clasped. My favorites are the delightful icons that depict the mothers embracing while babies in utero regard one another with a bow or a leap, and a blessing in return.
When gratitude swells within us, it’s a wonderful thing. Isn’t that the gracious Spirit of God making itself known within us, in response to the world around us? But sometimes we are stuck, missing that Spirit-movement because all we can see is the thing we don’t have.
Anybody who spends time with children knows what dedicated accountants they can be, especially when it comes to measuring a sibling’s advantage.
As I ponder the Visitation story, I wonder how we can practice in our families being free to be happy for someone else.
Not long ago, one of my children got something the other did not. The one without definitely noticed. It wasn’t fair.
Should we get a second Something?
It was reasonable: this was a thing we could afford, we could find easily, we knew would be used. Hey, here’s one I can fix!
But when the child who did not get the Something shared her sadness and frustration with me, the Holy Spirit grabbed the snowplow keys out of my hand. You know that parenting instinct to plow obstacles out of the way for our children, so their path is smooth and safe?
I hugged her close to me when I said, “Sometimes it’s someone else’s turn to have something special, and that can be hard.”
The opportunity to navigate disappointment may be a more enduring gift than the object of our desire could be. We don’t always leap with joy at another’s good fortune, especially when we long for that same fortune for ourselves.
We didn’t get all the way to happy-for-you in our conversation about the Something. But maybe there was something small within, the tiniest bow, the littlest of leaps.
Father in heaven, by your grace the mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[Image Credit: The Visitation by Philippe de Champaigne, property of the Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Collect used with permission by Church Publishing]