Once upon a time: Road to heaven should be traveled with love

Incorporating Scripture into a trip, regardless of the distance, will deepen your spiritual journey

About two millennia ago, a teenaged Jewish girl (shall we name her Miriam?) who lived in the northern third of the Holy Land (Galilee) got wind that her older cousin, Elizabeth, who lived in the hill country in the southern third of Palestine (Judea), was expecting a baby.

The distance between them was approximately the distance between Jellico and Knoxville. The younger lady also was with child. How to arrange a visit? The terrain was about the same as today, but there were no paved roads, only trails. Some were wider, some more narrow for people and caravans who traveled up and down these roads, mostly for commerce and sometimes for pilgrimage to celebrate the great feasts of the Hebrew faith.

Today, we compare the convenience of travelling Interstate 75 with old U.S. 25, which was a wider paved version of wagon trails that had developed from travelers’ trails and Native American footpaths. The road from Galilee to Judea was even rougher. So here we have a pregnant teenager (was she traveling alone?) walking those 75 or 80 miles to see her kinswoman.

In all of history there was no greater act of hospitality than the rapport which Miriam and Elizabeth exhibited. The knock on the door came and cousins greeted. The elder lady, the hostess, was amazed by the visit and exclaimed about the wonder that the “mother of my Lord should come to me, for at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy.”

St. Luke, who tells us this story, tells us twice within just a few lines about this Jumping John and we use these lines from Scripture to indicate the theological opinion that at that moment Cousin John was freed from original sin. He had had it from conception, but he was “baptized” before birth. This is one reason why the Church celebrates the solemnity of the birth of John the Baptist.

We celebrate in the liturgy the birth of only two others: our blessed Lord on Dec. 25 and Mary, the Mother of God, on Sept. 8. After a long visit, Miriam returned to her home in Galilee. She would make a similar trip soon when she and her husband went to Jerusalem to register for the census. While they were in Bethlehem, her son was born.

As we fast forward into our own 21st century, there are similarities and there are differences. The roadways have been improved. What used to take days now takes only hours or even minutes. We do not walk from town to town, nor even use bicycles.

No, we travel by automobile or by train, bus, or plane to reach our destinations. Our visitations may be for just a few hours or days (at Christmas, New Year, Easter, or Thanksgiving) or last longer like on summer vacation when we visit grandparents or other friends for longer periods of time. Some vans or SUVs are places of learning, entertainment, and joy (the family that prays together stays together); others find the vehicle the worst part of the experience: parents arguing, children squabbling, fussing about food, “are we there yet,” and other elements that add to the misery.

Christian families should see in the vacation trip an opportunity to enhance community, deepen prayer life, and promote the virtue of love. Anything less than this is a real waste of God’s gift of time and makes us miserable. To include the story of the Visitation among our travel stories, indeed re-reading the accounts found in the Infancy Narratives (St. Matthew 1 and 2 and St. Luke 1 and 2) would be an excellent practice for any family or other group as travel occurs.

Trips made more regularly, like going to work or to Mass can make us or break us spiritually. The commute to or from school can be a great opportunity for growth. Unfortunately, it can also be the venue for yelling, fighting, and general unhappiness.

Try this sometime: pretend that you see a teenage girl thumbing a ride as you overtake her along a road. You have room for her in your van or car. Imagine scenarios. This can occupy a family for hours. In any case, do hope that the Visitation once upon a time can be helpful to you and yours today.

Yes, picking up Mary along the road of life (and keeping her in our life) can be an activity that enables our earthly journeys to be enriched and our heavenly trip, too.

Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general and the historical archivist for the Diocese of Knoxville.