December 19, 2021
In our lectionary text for today, we pick up the story of Mary and Elizabeth at its dramatic climax: the six-months -along baby in Elizabeth’s womb “jumps for joy” when Mary arrives on Elizabeth’s doorstep, newly pregnant by the holy spirit’s divine intervention.
Both women are given prophetic speech by Luke. First Elizabeth, who says (in a loud voice), “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why am I so favored, that the mother of the Messiah should come to me?”
Elizabeth’s question is rhetorical — she already knows that Mary is carrying “the Messiah.” Earlier in chapter 1, Luke has told us that Elizabeth and her husband, Zachariah, were both from priestly families – thus linking them to their Jewish clan heritage. We also know that they were well beyond the age of bearing children and that Elizabeth felt the deep disgrace of being barren. Most likely, they both considered her barrenness a judgment against them.
As Luke tells the story, when Zachariah was serving at the altar in the holiest part of the Temple, an angel appeared and told him that he and Elizabeth would conceive a son who was to be named John. And when Zachariah questioned the angel, he was struck dumb. After that, Elizabeth conceives and goes into seclusion. Zachariah remains silent for the duration of her pregnancy.
So Elizabeth has been on silent retreat for six months when Mary arrives. Maybe that is why she has been favored by this visit from Mary. Aged and growing more awkward, Elizabeth needed help and Mary needed a safe place to stay. Their spiritual connection aided both.
Luke also tells us that Mary had questioned the angel. When told that she would bear a son who would be great, and called the Son of the Most High, her initial response was plain and practical: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Unlike Zachariah, Mary was not struck dumb. She IS allowed to question. [As a side note, watch the women in Luke. They frequently hold the story of Jesus’ true nature.]
In answer to Mary’s question, the angel told her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy as a SIGN that this was a divine action and not something humans were doing, so Mary went to see for herself — and get out of town where she might be stoned when her pregnancy was discovered.
So we have these two archetypal figures, a very old woman and a very young virgin, each quickened by the holy spirit, greeting each other as a confirmation of divine action in both of them. Luke makes sure that we know they have not earned this grace by following Temple rules. They have simply responded to God’s call.
Then Luke gives Mary a prophecy – the hymn that we know as ”the Magnificat.” It too draws from Jewish tradition, repeating many of the phrases that we find in First Samuel on the lips of Hannah, another barren woman who was taunted for her barrenness and was finally blessed with the birth of Samuel, the prophet who later announced that God had withdrawn the divine blessing from Saul in favor of David as the King of Israel.
So Luke is weaving the story of Jesus’ birth from threads of Jewish history as they are carried by these two women, old and young. It’s a signal that this is a countercultural story – a sign of divine intervention. The men, Zachariah and Joseph, have minor parts to play, but angels appear to all four of these main characters, reassuring them that nothing is impossible for God. We need to remember that!
Luke’s Advent story is quite different from the other synoptic gospels, Mark and Matthew. Indeed, Mark has no infancy narrative at all. As the earliest account of Jesus’ life and ministry, Mark begins with John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and baptizing Jesus at the beginning of his ministry.
Matthew, which is probably written a decade or so after Mark, begins with the genealogy of Jesus going back to Abraham, and Matthew’s ominous birth story is dominated by Herod’s plot to kill this “king of the Jews.” Matthew’s version is more political. Scholars suggest that the structure of Matthew mirrors the Torah, and that Herod’s plot echoes the Pharoah’s order to kill the male babies born to Hebrew slaves in Exodus. It includes the three kings, who bow down to the baby Jesus … and avoid Herod by going home “another way.” When Herod orders the slaughter of all Jewish children under the age of three, the Holy Family escapes to Egypt, reversing again the story of Moses.
But Luke, which scholars like Marcus Borg say was probably written after Matthew, maybe early in the second century, is quite different in tone and color. Luke is full of joy and light, thick with angels and miraculous encounters with the holy spirit. Shepherds, not kings, come to worship the child. At the time of his circumcision, Anna and Simeon bless the child at the Temple. They are common people, not kings or priests. Anna is simply a widow who can see the holiness of the child, and Simeon is given the words of Advent waiting – he is now ready to let go of his mortal life, moving the story along with the message that these ordinary people do have a direct contact with God and they have an important role in Luke’s story: they offer God’s blessing.
Luke gives me a portal into the gift of life itself. Because of the symbolism of Elizabeth, and later of Anna and Simeon, Luke is also suggesting that the holy spirit can quicken new birth in us long after our so-called fertile years are over. That means we do not have to be afraid of aging, of diminishment or even the end stages of life. Instead, our text for today suggests that new birth is possible at any age or stage of life – both for an individual and for a community.
That’s something I hope we can develop here at Seekers: the ability to companion one another in the birthing process, because inevitably new birth also requires letting go of things which have been important parts of our identity — a job, a partner, a role, a pet or a home – whatever we’ve relied on for security. That process can deepen any relationship between two people, as it did for Elizabeth and Mary.
It happened for me with my mother. We had never been very close, but recently I said to a friend, “In the last week of her life, I saw the essence of my mother – courageous and strong as she faced into her dying – with all of her fears peeled away. She spent her whole life being afraid of illness, but in the end, she left us peacefully, giving birth to her spirit.” Being with her on that final journey was a privilege and a gift. It deepened both of us and sharing it with others has been a help to them too.
For a community, new birth can be harder to identify. As I wrestled with what this text might mean for Seekers, I kept coming back to a chance remark whose author I conveniently don’t remember. That person said, “I don’t think our current form of shared leadership is sustainable.” As I recall, we were talking about the role of the Servant Leadership Team, and how involved they have been in caring for people who are not in mission groups. But it could also apply to the mission group structure that we’ve inherited from Church of the Saviour.
From the earliest days, our community has been sustained by widely shared leadership in many different configurations, from short-term working groups to long-term mission groups, but it takes trust and commitment not to leave when conflict arises. Shared leadership also means trusting the mission groups to continue the work of spiritual formation, exposing an initial commitment of call to the rigors of working together and holding a sense of being part of Christ’s body over time. Is that sustainable today when commitment sounds like a foreign word to many? When few expect to stay in one place for long?
Here’s another example of new birth stirring possible change. We have been carefully moving toward a hybrid experience of worship, and noticing that there is no big crowd of people wanting to gather here in the sanctuary while the covid figures rise and fall and rise again. How to invite others into sharing the load of hybrid worship is a question for us. The threat of covid makes visible a level of risk and uncertainty that we, in fact, live with all the time. But now it has become more visible. Now we know it. Is our fear of infection a friend or foe?
In the Learners & Teachers Mission Group, we have pondered some of these questions, trying to discern signs of new life within Seekers.
After much planning over the summer, when we draft a schedule of classes for the year, we’ve recently sensed a need to offer the Semi-Secrets of Seekers as a two-session class on zoom in January. We’ll be exploring the inward and outward journey of the community — and asking questions that Mary and Elizabeth might have discussed during their three-month retreat together:
- What is happening in our body right now?
- What is coming to birth in us? How can we prepare for that?
- What will we need to change in order to care for this new birth? Who can help? What could my role be?
We are hoping that some of the newer members of Seekers will sign up for the class, and that more experienced old-timers will also sign up, because we know that giving birth to something new in the community will take all of us in a new direction.
Mary and Elizabeth offer us yet another possibility worth exploring, and that is one of faithful friendship. Many years ago, Dorothy Devers compiled a series of readings based on the notion that we could learn how to be spiritual companions, able to offer real spiritual guidance and help to each other. Titled “Faithful Friendship,” that little booklet could become a resource for a monthly gathering of people who are interested in becoming spiritual companions — either within the mission group structures that we already have, or within the wider community – so we would not be so dependent on the Servant Leadership Team to call forth the strengths and gifts in our community.
And so, as we come to the end of Advent, waiting together, old and young, for whatever the holy spirit has quickened in our midst, I want to end this exploration of Mary and Elizabeth’s faithful friendship with these words from Madelaine L’Engle:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been be filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
May it be so,