In the calendar of the church we remember today an unlikely visitation of two women: Mary and Elizabeth. The mere fact that they are visiting one another is not unlikely. To the contrary. They are relatives, and they live within a long walk between each others’ homes. The “unlikely” element is the reason that occasions this particular visit, and that is, they are both pregnant. Within months they will bear sons who will ultimately usher in enormous changes, both theological and sociological changes. Elizabeth bearing a son John, whom we will call “John the Baptist”: he would prepare the way (the way, at least for some people) to recognize his cousin, Jesus, reportedly the long-awaited Messiah. And Jesus would be born of Mary. These two pregnancies more than stretch the imagination.
Mary is a practicing Jew, a religious tradition that places such great emphasis on the practice of “purity.” And Mary claims she has conceived this child whom she carries, not only outside the bonds of matrimony, but more significantly, outside the boundaries of sanity. I dare say that if a young woman, perhaps even an adolescent, came to any of us here today with a similar report – that she was pregnant, but that the pregnancy had sort-of happened through a dream; no, not pregnant through a boyfriend but through a visiting angel – we would not believe it. We would find this tale about supernatural insemination incredulous. This Mary was either crazy or profane. Maybe both. And the man whom she would eventually marry (who would have been the seeming-obvious “father” of this child) could have had Mary stoned for her scandalous behavior and apparent deception, or at least he should have deserted her. He did neither. He believed her and stayed with her… which would also hold Joseph suspect, certainly suspect of something not very ennobling.
This was the “family system” into which Jesus was born, he growing up to realize one day that he was supposed to be or become the long-awaited Messiah. I don’t know if you can relate to that kind of life saga in a personal way? Some of us here probably can: of realizing that as we look back on our life, there were great expectations upon us because of something we did not necessarily choose for ourselves. The expectations may have arisen from the family in which we were born – that we were supposed to measure up to our lineage; or maybe to rescue our family, to be the family savior; or maybe that we were supposed to pursue a certain career path or choose a certain education, or marry a certain person, or live in a certain place – and we realized that our own opinion on this matter, this great expectation, was not solicited. Then or now, the expectation may seem unjust or overwhelming or humiliating and we have said to ourselves, “How can this be?” Or saying something like, “What good can come out of this!?” Very saddening, or angering, or unfair, such an experience can be. I can only imagine that this was some of what Jesus had to grow through, given his family of origin. I imagine that his mother, Mary, and his “stepfather,” Joseph, had their own versions of “Why me?” But that is probably getting ahead of the story.
The particular event we remember today is Mary’s visitation of her relative, Elizabeth. There is that old adage, “misery loves company.” We wouldn’t know for sure whether Mary and Elizabeth were miserable, but they were both carrying heavier burdens than the sons in their wombs. Elizabeth is married, but she is beyond child-bearing age. Way beyond. Way, way beyond, and yet some months ahead of Mary in her pregnancy. And you know the story we’ve just heard in the gospel lesson appointed for today: that these two kinswomen meet to share each other’s miraculous (or incredulous) stories, and Elizabeth feels a little kick within her womb. So I hear, this is a fairly common experience of women carrying babies: little paddles of the feet in the womb of their mum. But this little kick is remembered with particular significance. At least Elizabeth ‘s interpretation was that her baby, John, simply “knew” who or what Mary carried in her womb. And so, to use a slang phrase, it’s as if this were a “kick start” to what John’s life was to be about. Both sons are born. Miracles. Both grow into their destinies, which include extraordinary events and tragic deaths. But even their deaths were seen in some significant ways as fulfilling why it is they had both been given life.
So what can we glean from this story about Mary and Elizabeth and their sons, this story which comes to us from the ancient memory of the church? I suspect we all hear this account from quite different perspectives. Concerning Mary, some of us may come from religious backgrounds where the remembrance of Mary was very much a part of our spiritual formation. Others of us may have come from a religious tradition which held the remembrance of Mary with some suspicion because she could get in the way of Jesus (what some people call “Mariolatry”). For others of us, Mary may simply be a porcelain fixture in a Christmas crèche with no other meaning, one way or the other. And then there is Elizabeth . Elizabeth is someone who wanted and waited for something all of her life – to carry and deliver a baby – and it is finally too late. The season of opportunity has passed… and then, out of the death of this lifelong dream comes an experience, more than she could have ever imagined. Unlike Mary, who is too young, Elizabeth is too old, seemingly, and yet her entire life has prepared her for this moment of availability. What can we draw from this story about these two women – not crazy women or profane women but holy women – as we seek to find our own way and our own role in life?
• For one, we see in the life and witness of both Mary and Elizabeth an attentiveness to God’s revelation coming from “outside the box.” For both of them, for their husbands, for their sons, everything was new, radical, unbelievable by many others, costly, and yet irresistible. They all did what they had to do with their lives, what they have been given life to be and to bear and to birth: all of them. I think there is a significant point in the testing of their callings. They did not bear private callings in life. Personal, yes, but not private. By that, I mean that what they had heard – what they had thought or imagined they heard God asking of them – was confirmed by another trusted, faithful person. Self deception is an ever-present danger. I would say that we all need companions, we need soulmates, to help us hear and clarify what our life is to be about: the big stuff and the small stuff, lest we miss the way or get in the way and not find the way in which life, our own life, is to be lived abundantly.
• You may draw some comfort from this remembrance of Elizabeth and Mary concerning fear in your own life. It might be fear of the unknown (the unknown present or the unknown future). It may be fear of the known, some seed you carry in your own heart (or in the pit of your stomach), some sense of what God is calling you to be, or bear, or birth. Meister Eckhart, the great German Dominican, writing in the early fourteenth century, asks, “What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.” Mary and Elizabeth’s first response to the visitation of the angels – telling both of them what they were to bear – was fear. There’s an old adage that goes, “Do not be afraid. The things you most fear probably won’t happen, anyway.” I find that old adage neither helpful nor true. I would amend that old adage to read, “Don’t be afraid. The things you most fear may well happen to you, but you need not be afraid because God is with you.” For both Mary and Elizabeth, their fear was converted into confidence: confidence from the Latin confidentia: with trust, with faith. Mary and Elizabeth may be companions to you in your own fear of what God is calling you to be, or bear, or birth, and how you shall know that God is with you.
• You may know the experience of resisting or resenting something that has been unfolding in your life, perhaps something that is costing you too much, seeming to threaten your very existence… and then to wake up some morning and realize that it’s going to be okay, and you find yourself being able to say “yes” to life again. I think this is some of Mary’s experience when she was called by God’s angel to be the Christbearer. Her first reaction was fear; her second reaction was puzzlement: “How can this be?” And then she awakens to what is being asked of her, realizing it is something she can do. She finds herself able to say to God, Okay: “Be it unto me according to your word.” You may know what it is to finally be able to say “okay” to God, to make peace with your destiny. Perhaps Mary may be to you an “ally” as you face your own impossibilities, to find the freedom to say “yes” to your life: what you would not have chosen but cannot avoid in life. Your saying to God, in your own words: “use me, take me, call me as you will.”
• You may find in Elizabeth encouragement in your old age. You may be in your senior years now, or you may know and love someone in their senior years, or you may be imagining (or worrying) about your life as an older person. Elizabeth was too old. In her own eyes (and certainly in others’) she was too old to do this new thing. And yet, it became obvious that the whole of her life had been a preparation for this moment of availability. Amidst the diminishments that aging brings can come an enormous and eternal freedom, a freedom of availability that we could not have known in our younger years. I think this is something of what Saint Paul discovered near the end of his own life when he writes, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Elizabeth may be, for some of us, a great source of encouragement. Encouragement, which is a relative of courage. Encouragement.
• In Mary, you may find some deep inspiration as a companion to someone else’s suffering. You may know this person well, love them deeply, carry them in your heart, laugh when they laugh and weep when they weep, and yet, in the moment of their deepest suffering find yourself mysteriously repelled, knowing the temptation to leave them, abandon them, create some distance from them… not because you don’t love them but because their suffering is so great, and you don’t know if you can abide it because you love them so much. Here we have Mary, this image of the pietá, holding Jesus in his suffering, finding the strength and courage to stay with this loved one who suffers. Mary may be a courageous companion to you and your loved one in the hour of suffering.
• Lastly, you may find in Mary and Elizabeth an intercessor for yourself. If the God whom Jesus called Father is too hidden from you just now, too ferocious, too exacting, too awesome, too silent, you might find some comfort in access to Mary or her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who seem to have God’s ear: holy women, mothers in God, to whom you can safely whisper your desires or despairs… trusting that that message, through Mary or Elizabeth, will get to where it belongs.
Life is full of visitations, some by our own planning and desire, some to our surprise and delight, some to our confusion or despair. I suspect that most all of us here long for God’s intervening visitation in our lives – for God to seek us and meet us and make of us what we’ve been given life to be and bear and birth. For many of us, I think it takes quite a long while to clarify why it is we’ve been given life. It may take a lifetime. How wonderful to have these two women of ancient times to cheer us on.
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