Fourth Week of Advent 2021

Mary set out and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. Now as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, ‘Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ (Lk 1: 39-45)

Imagine how these few words describing the Visitation have inspired so many artists, musicians and poets over the last two thousand years. As did the gospel description of the Annunciation (celebrated on March 25th) which opens the story that, beginning with the conception of Jesus, reaches its climax nine months later. The words give us bare details but enough to stir our deeper creative imagination into life and wonder. 

Not the fantasy imagination that serves our escapist impulses. Not the wayward distractions in the stream of images and rapidly changing scenes that are hard to control during meditation. But the sacred imagination whose palette is the world of symbols. Carefully, reverently attended to, they lead us into the essence of reality in all forms – the material as well as the most subtle.

Here is a glimpse into the 16th century artist Pontormo’s imagination after he read and had been absorbed into this scene:

By Pontormo – Courtesy of the parish of San Michele Arcangelo, Carmignano/Public Domain

We don’t read these stories in the way we read magazines or watch Netflix. We are drawn into them so that they reveal the truth already present and ready to be touched awake within ourselves. Through one of our five physical senses Pontormo interprets this truth in colour, shape and the immediate sense of being touched.

The meeting of the younger and older woman, both pregnant, their inner worlds touching through their sensitive embrace. The other-centredness of their gaze into each other’s eyes and soul. Their attendants or friends, also one younger the other older, standing as their reflections in the day-to-day world.

It is one of that kind of meeting we all have had and that do not fade. They remain in the permanent gallery of our unique life’s story. We remember them for the rest of our lives, filled with a promise and hope that cannot disappoint. We might not have been able to believe in or understand them at the time, yet they can give birth to a friendship or even a way of life that, because it is rooted in the ground of our being, continuously grows as part of our selves. The spiritual imagination can mediate them in words or images but can never fully express their truth or beauty. In meditation we are most at one with them.

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