The Visitation presents the unborn body of the Lord in a place where no body is expected, in the womb of a virgin which ‘should’ be empty; Easter morning presents no body where a body is expected, in a tomb which ‘should not’ have been empty. These extraordinary events are prefigured in the pregnancies of the barren Elizabeth, Sarah, and Anna, and in the raising of Lazarus (John 11), but the events which involve the body of Christ are necessarily exceptional and the miraculous appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of Christ’s body, witnessed by women, are among the most powerful signs of his divinity.
In the formal recognition of Christ as Lord even before his birth, the witnesses—the first to proclaim his significance—are women inspired by an unborn child. John, whose role as forerunner and messenger was sometimes considered angelic (Ouspensky and Lossky 1999: 106), ‘announces’ Christ’s unexpected presence in Mary’s womb; an angel likewise announces Christ’s incredible absence from the empty tomb to the women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection, and the first to report this news (e.g. Matthew 28:1–8; John 20:11–18). In the revolution of an unexpectedly full womb and a shockingly empty tomb, is the possibility of a new beginning, of the redemption achieved by Christ’s death and resurrection, and the genesis of the New Creation.
Where illuminated manuscripts poured rays of golden sunshine onto the women, and Renaissance altarpieces depicted a growing retinue of female companions attending the Virgin, opening the encounter to an expanding group of women, El Greco gives us a solitary meeting in semi-darkness. The emotional tenor is deeply serious; the significance of their encounter earth-shattering. As streaks of electric white break through to illuminate the darkness, the promise of Mary’s pregnancy begins to point towards the redemption to come.
Ouspensky, Leonid, and Lossky, Vladimir. 1999. The Meaning of Icons (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press)
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40and she entered the house of Zechariʹah and greeted Elizabeth. 41And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”