I was always close to my cousins. We went to the beach together every summer. We visited our grandparents and played together in the house where our parents had grown up. We celebrated birthdays at each other’s homes. We went on long trips together and drove our parents crazy together. We annoyed each other and punched each other and pulled each other’s hair. We explored together and got in trouble together. From diapers to graduation gowns and everywhere in between, we grew up together. Looking back, I realize that I took those relationships for granted, and I am grateful for them now in a way that I could not have known at the time.
Every year, at the end of May, the church celebrates a moment when Jesus and John the Baptist met as cousins for the first time. Two expectant mothers, both carrying unexpected children, came together to offer each other comfort in a time of shared waiting. Long-barren and advanced in years, Elizabeth must have been surprised when Zechariah, her struck-mute husband, explained through gesture and a writing tablet that they were going to have a son. Although her friends would have celebrated the strange but joyful news, the women in her life had all become grandmothers and had long ago said goodbye to raising young children. For Elizabeth, therefore, these nine months were an experience that she had always dreamt of but had never expected to happen quite like this.
Equally excited and similarly lonesome, Mary, a teenage virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, received good news that also ostracized her from her family and friends. To be found with child yet unwed was a blessing wrapped in a scandal. Imagine trying to explain to those you love that God had sent this child into your womb. She received no baby showers or congratulatory hugs. Instead, Mary snuck off to her relative’s house, where she could share this gift with the only other woman on earth who could begin to understand what it meant for her to be carrying God’s child—even God himself—in her womb.
John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were two men chosen by God even before they were born to bring God’s good news of salvation to the world. From the very beginning, they knew each other as cousins. Luke recalls for us that Elizabeth, upon hearing her kinswoman’s greeting, felt the baby leap inside her. “And why has this happened to me,” she asked, “that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Even from that moment, the future identities of these cousins were clear. One was a forerunner, and the other was the expected one. One was the prophet that prepared the way, and the other came to complete what the first had predicted. One was the new Elijah, and the other was the Christ. And, until John was murdered by Herod, neither of them knew life without the other.
On May 31, we celebrate the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but this celebration is about more than two mothers-to-be finding much-needed comfort and encouragement in each other. It is, of course, about the cousins that grew within then. On this day, we celebrate the gift of the shared calling that those two cousins always knew. We dream with Luke about what it must have been like for each of them to grow up knowing that one belongs with the other. We imagine how those cousins played together, learned together, and caused mischief together because we, too, know what it is like to share a childhood with cousins. Today, I give thanks for the gospel and the beautiful and exceptional yet ordinary and familiar stories it tells. These are the stories of God’s family, and they are our stories, too.
This post originally appeared as the cover article in The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.