Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elisabeth, Blandina, and the Ugandan Martyrs: out of the mouths of infants and children.
The very first witness to Jesus is a baby.
Mary got up in those days and went in haste into the hill country to a town of Judah, and she came to Zechariah’s house and greeted Elisabeth. And it came to pass that when Elisabeth heard Mary’s greeting the child leapt in her womb(Luke 1:39-41)
A baby – an unborn baby, a child in the womb – leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, at the sound of the voice of the mother of our Saviour. And Elisabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit.
“Blessed are you among women!” Elisabeth cries as the child leaps inside her, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
A child and his mother first sing the Saviour’s praise. Monday June 1, the day after Pentecost, we celebrated the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elisabeth.
Imagine that: we have a faith in which one woman who has just heard she is expecting a baby visits another and the child in Elisabeth’s womb does a somersault and this is a feast of the church. It’s a major feast: it is in bold print on the calendar.
See how he loves us! That the ones who often are smallest in the eyes of the world are so important in God’s eyes; that he calls an unborn child to be his first witness in the world and a mother-to-be sings the blessing that is coming upon the earth. Elisabeth herself marks it: “How is it that this grace comes to me,” she says, “that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Lk 1:43)
In these mothers and their children, as mothers and children, the great work of God’s salvation begins, and from their lips his praise goes out into the world. This is what the psalmist said:
Out of the mouths of infants and children(Psalm 8:2)
Your majesty is praised above the heavens
It is what Jesus says in the temple when the children shout, “Hosanna!” (Matt 21:16).
It is what Mary sings.
For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed,(Lk 1:48-9)
Because he who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is his name
Out of the mouths of unborn children God’s majesty is praised and mothers-to-be announce to the world its hope.
It is this we forget, when we put our foot on the neck of any human being. It is not just that the child and the mother are infinitely precious. It is that the work of God’s good purpose starts here. In the child and in his mother, this is where God’s salvation is conceived. This is where the good news first goes out into the earth.
“The child in my womb leaped for joy”, Elisabeth says to Mary, “when your voice came to my ears.”
These are the voices that sing our good news, in those days in the hill country of Judaea and in the early church … and in our own day too. This week, June 1, 2 and 3, is a week of the song of the little ones: last in the world’s eyes; great in the eyes of God.
Yesterday, June 2, we commemorated Blandina and the martyrs of Lyons.
Blandina was a slave and she became the hero of that courageous Christian witness.
A group of Christians in Gaul in 177 AD were rounded up and dragged through the streets by a mob and imprisoned. Taken before the governor, they were ordered to recant or die. Then, Eusebius reports, they fell into two groups. Some “were still flabby, in no fit condition to face the strain of a struggle to the death” (Eusebius, History of the Church, 5.1.16).
Others stood firm. Foremost among them, to the surprise of all, was Blandina – to the surprise of all because she was a slave and apparently fragile. Her mistress, also facing martyrdom, “was in agony lest she [Blandina] should be unable to make a bold confession of Christ because of bodily weakness” (Hist. Eccl. 5.1.17). But Blandina “was filled with such power” that even though she was tortured until “her whole body was mangled,” she proclaimed her faith: “I am a Christian. We do nothing to be ashamed of.”
So she was hung on a post and exposed to the wild beasts in the arena.
There she prayed out loud. She looked, Eusebius says, “as if she was hanging in the form of a cross” and the Christians watching her in their own agony saw in her “the One who was crucified for them.”
Blandina the slave becomes for all who see her the living image of Christ the crucified King.
The beasts, though, would not touch her. She was thrown in jail again, and her courage so strengthened the others that most of those who had denied Christ and been released came back and confessed their faith, though it meant their death.
Blandina was brave to the end.
On the last day of the games she was brought back to the arena. After the whips, after the beasts, after the griddle, she was dropped into a basket and thrown to a bull. (Hist. eccl. 1.5.58) Last of all, like a noble mother who had encouraged her children and sent them before her in triumph to the King,” Blandina herself was sacrificed (1.5.58).
The slave woman becomes the mother of the faithful.
In her life and in her dying she did not cease to speak the name of Christ; her name now sounds together with the name of Jesus down through the centuries. “The heathen themselves,” Eusebius tells us drily, “were impressed.”
Today, finally, on June 3, we remember the martyrs of Uganda.
They were largely young, boys and young men 15-30 years old who served as pages to the king. They were Christians and as Christians they refused in the name of their faith to give the king and his courtiers the sexual favours they demanded.
There were other issues too, issues of politics and power, in the Ugandan martyrdoms, and it was not only the pages who died. The incoming Anglican archbishop was assassinated with his whole team as he arrived. But the pages did die, all those who confessed that they prayed, 16 Catholics and 10 Anglicans, by order of the king in 1886.
Their deaths like their lives were a witness. They did not say at the request of the king, “this is a small thing,” or even “this is what everyone is doing” (though that was true). They said, “This is wrong in Jesus’ eyes.” And on the forced march to the place where they were to be burnt alive, they walked with a courage, it is said, that amazed those who saw them. As the pyre on which they lay was lit the youngest of them, Kizito (who was 14) said, “Goodbye, friends. We are on our way!”
Mothers, boys, slaves, and children in the womb. These are the witnesses, this week. These are they whose hearts have leapt at the sound of the gospel, who sing in their living and in their dying down through the years the name of Christ.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”