About the Men
This famous scene from the Gospel of Luke begins: “During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah….” (Luke 1:39) What is assumed is that her betrothed Joseph was not with her. But just because Luke thought it unimportant, or too obvious, to mention Joseph, it does not mean that we need fail to acknowledge his presence at Mary’s side on that trip.
Our artist, Frans Francken the Younger, did not overlook Joseph’s presence, recognizing that of course he walked with her to the hill country! See, he paints Joseph in, over there behind Elizabeth’s right shoulder. There are the two men, Joseph and Zechariah, talking about their women. But more likely, they are talking about their own very special and puzzling spiritual experiences, and how each of their lives has been radically altered because of gifts given their women to make alive.
Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth – Luke 1: 11 “[T]he angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. 12 Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him.”
Joseph, betrothed to Mary – Matthew 1: 20 “Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child had been conceived in her.”
Mary and Elizabeth are central in this scene as Luke insists, and so our artist properly placed them forward in the painting. But, as a result, we might miss the significance of their men, and how profound were the things suddenly in their own lives to figure out. Without the consent of both Zechariah and Joseph, and their graced ability to say to God “let it be done to me according to your will,” the graces given their women to accept would have been in danger, even grave danger.
Graces given by God to humans are always collaborative and cooperative graces, involving a far wider network of people than merely (in this case) she who now carried John the Baptist – the last Prophet of the Old Testament – and she who now carried the One, the Emmanuel … Who was Himself the New Testament.
About the Women
The artist has painted Mary with such lovely clothes (so much material!), whose very abundance around her has kept hidden the Surprise – “she was found with child by the holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). Suddenly because of dear Elizabeth, who knows how to see a person – her “quick-eyed love” – Mary is finally made able, with a gracefulness of gesture (her right arm), to open her outer garment to reveal publicly, for the first time, what was hidden:
14 And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth. 
How often it is the case that a person, receiving a profound grace, is only able to reveal it when someone sees it in her, and calls it out – “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42). Conversely, how often a beautiful and important grace is never revealed and given to the world, because the person given it lacked the confidence openly to lay claim to that gift and to trust it. She needed a friend to see it and, without envy, to say to her, “Most blessed are you!”
Do you see how Mary’s right hand had reached out? She takes hold of Elizabeth’s right hand. What will she do with it? Watch her pull that hand, that Old Testament hand, towards her rounded belly to feel Him – “He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire!” – the One for Whom Elizabeth’s son would give his life. Suddenly there is accomplished all that about which the Law and the Prophets and the Writings had hoped for and sought and eloquently spoke:
Malachi 3: 1 “Now I am sending my messenger – he will prepare the way before me; And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple; the messenger of the covenant that you desire – see, he is coming!
An Advent Habit to Cultivate in Week Three of Advent: A besetting spiritual pathology saturating contemporary American culture is envy. The word derives from the Latin verb invidēre meaning “to look maliciously upon another” … because that person is more gifted, or appears to have greater advantages, than I. An envying person finds it intolerable to accept the existence of a person whose gifts “makes us all look bad.” But think of the grace of Elizabeth, who loved that Mary was more blessed than she, and did all that she could to make sure Mary knew the worth and significance of that grace in her life. Notice this week a person against whom you feel some measure of envy … and then go directly opposite that temptation by praising him or her, sincerely, and showing him or her how blessed he or she is.
 Ursula Härting. “Francken.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 3, 2016, http://www.:.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T029667pg5. Francken the Younger is proof that often signature excellences run in families. Of him at this mature period, starting around 1620, Härting remarks this: “Francken’s figures animate the landscape on a natural scale: for once they are not tiny staffage adjuncts [i.e., mere accessories of the picture] but rank on equal terms with the landscape. The variety of the garments, materials and textures and the harmony of the colours, in relation both to each other and to the landscape, compensate for the artist’s stock repertory of faces…. Isocephaly (where all the figures are of roughly the same height) is typical of Frans II’s multi-figured scenes. Another hallmark are his rather well-modelled horses, with their animated eyes.”
 All biblical quotations in this essay are from the New American Bible, Revised Edition (2010). Also referred to as the NABRE.
 This lovely observation from the first stanza of “Love III”, a poem by George Herbert (1593-1633).
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 1:14.
 Luke 3:16.