Micah 5: 2-4; Psalm 80: 1-7; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-49
Consider the stars of this Sunday’s Gospel drama. One is an adolescent girl, probably no more than thirteen or fourteen, a member of a religious culture that taught her to look for the coming of the Messiah, the one who would liberate her people. But she never assumed she would be the instrument for his entry into the world, or that through her young body God would be formed in human flesh. Nor did she ever imagine that she would be invited to cooperate with God in this magnificent event, or to act without knowing the consequences of her cooperation. To do so meant breaking all the rules of the Jewish religious code, of bringing scandal on her family, and putting her life on the line because she lived in a society that stoned to death unwed mothers. Consider her cousin Elizabeth, a childless woman long past her childbearing years, an object of pity and scorn in her community where sons were one’s “eternal life.” And yet in old age and against biological possibility, God answered her prayer for a son and she gave birth to the last of the biblical prophets. Not just a son, that would have been marvelous in itself, but someone set apart by God to play a leading role in the salvation drama, to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
There is no corroborating historical support for Luke’s narrative of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. While other Gospels mention John the Baptist, only Luke gives us the story of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. Sometime after Mary realizes she is pregnant she visits her cousin Elizabeth who lives in a village in the hill country of Judea. Both women await miraculous births. God sent Mary to Elizabeth, who recognized the divine presence in her young cousin the moment she arrived and affirmed the blessedness of her mysterious vocation. The child whom Elizabeth would soon bear, whom the angel Gabriel had foretold would be the prophet of the Lord, leaped in her womb when Mary arrived and Elizabeth in her instantaneous awareness of the Divine, shouted with joy, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” In her happiness, Mary responded to this reassurance with an ancient song of praise, the song the prophet Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had sung when God answered her prayer for a child, the same song of thanksgiving, Magnificat, we pray at every Evensong, when we thank God for all the good things God has done for us. When these two women meet, the awkwardness of their predicament is forgotten. It is replaced with joy.
The early Church Fathers loved this part of the infancy narrative and found it filled with prophetic promise. They especially loved the imagery of Mary’s hurried journey across the Judean hills and Ambrose associated her haste with the passage from Isaiah, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation. (Isaiah 52:7) They believed that the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise was a prophetic announcement of what the Church is intended to be
Every time I see a porcelain statue of Mary with downcast eyes and simpering smile or hear her described as meek and mild I take issue. This is not the mother of God we encounter in Scripture. Just listen to what she says in her song of joy when she meets Elizabeth. Mary speaks out. She celebrates the greatness of God (that is what the Elizabethan English expression magnify means) because God blesses the lowly and overthrows oppressive institutions. She affirms God’s concern for debased and powerless women like her, but by extension for all starving, oppressed and powerless people. God is the liberator of the poor, the defenseless, and those without voice. Just as modern Christians may not readily understand the meaning of magnify, Mary’s use of the term lowliness needs clarification as well. It should not be confused with humility. It comes from the Greek term lapeinosis which means misery, pain, persecution and oppression. This gives a much different cast to the phrase “the lowliness of your handmaid” than is generally assumed. The Magnificat, with its revolutionary message, is not the song of someone meek and mild.
What can we learn from the story of the Visitation? This is one of those Gospel episodes so packed with meaning we can never exhaust its nurture or wisdom. In the encounter of Mary and Elizabeth we have a supreme example of spiritual friendship. This story underscores the truth that we cannot live out our faith in isolation. Christianity demands community. It is through our relationship with others we hear God’s word and understand God’s call. I am sure that many of you have had the experience of God speaking to you through a chance conversation. You may have been with a friend or a stranger, it does not matter. And you may not have been having a spiritual conversation. Yet you instinctively recognized God affirming what has already been revealed in prayer or answering a question looming large in your life. Spiritual friendships are vital to our growth in holiness. Not only do we hear God through them, but such friendships help us overcome our fears and revel in the love God gives us. We, too, are called to prophecy, to be instruments of God’s voice. If we are alert, if we listen, we can see God’s work in others, often when they cannot, and can tell them so. We grow in grace through what we are called on to give as well as by what we receive. Value friendships, because they are a way to God.
The Visitation teaches us another truth, as well. Unlike the wisdom of secular culture, whose canon of perfection devalues and excludes those who do not measure up, God uses the overlooked and unesteemed to carry out the work of reconciliation, to bring to fulfillment God’s plan of salvation. In God’s Kingdom that is and is to come there is a place for everyone. No one will be left out who wants to be there.
I suspect that some of you listening to me feel marginalized, inadequate, not quite good enough or bright enough or attractive enough to measure up. You may feel scorned because of your humble origin, the poverty of your childhood, or because you are of a racial minority. Maybe your education has been limited or your work menial or you have no job at all. If you are a woman in our culture being unmarried, divorced, barren, having children out of wedlock, or carrying the emotional and spiritual scars of abortion may make you feel undervalued or even worthless. Perhaps you are gay or lesbian and face the pain of prejudice every day. Any of these can undermine one’s dignity and sense of self worth. Yet in this Gospel story we have proof that God cherishes those whom the world considers worthless. God selects the lowly for the work of reconciliation. God chose an old barren woman to be the mother of the prophet of the most high and an unwed adolescent to bear the Christ child.
A number of years ago a friend of mine, Mary Lee Wile, wrote a spiritual biography of Elizabeth entitled Ancient Rage. In it she imagines another visitation late in the lives of both women, long after they have buried their husbands, sons, and early dreams of what would be. As they reflect on that earlier visit forty years before, Elizabeth confesses her current rage and sense of abandonment by God, whom she felt used her and has now left her hopeless. Angelic visitors gave the other principals, Zechariah, Mary and Joseph assurance, but she was never blessed that way. Then Mary reminds her, “You were the very first one visited by God’s son, before he was even born. God sent me to you. Don’t you remember how sure you were then? The unborn Messiah, Elizabeth, and you knew immediately that God was there. . . .As for John’s and Jesus’ missions, that was their work. By bearing those sons, we weren’t asked to complete a task, only to start it. What we did by birthing them was like dropping a stone into water.”
We are called to the active work of reconciliation and creation. God speaks to us in many ways with invitations for new life and hope. God does not expect us to complete the task, only to start it. And the healing and love that come from our saying yes will touch many, like ripples from a stone dropped in water.
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