Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Holding and Beholding Divinity – Lydia Simmons

Preached at Emery House

Lydia Simmons, former SSJE Monastic Intern

Luke 1:39-57

When the angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her that she will bear the son of God, we hear in Luke’s gospel that she was “much perplexed by his words” and asks “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”. Immediately after the Annunciation, Mary travels to visit Elizabeth, who also responds to this visitation with a question: not “how”, but “why” – “why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”.  “Why me?”

Elizabeth is the wife of a priest, so she’s probably used to important visitors and even divine visitations in the household – just not to her. Six months ago, her husband Zechariah was chosen to offer incense in the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem. As he was standing there, separated only by a veil from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, he was visited by an angel, and he hasn’t been able to speak ever since.

Who knows what happened there, but it was clearly an experience – an experience of the kind that’s closed off to people like Elizabeth. Her society has told her, in subtle and unsubtle ways, that her body is not worthy to behold divinity. Women’s bodies aren’t even allowed past the outer courts of the temple, let alone in the sanctuary. Elizabeth’s very body, her breasts and hips and reproductive system, exclude her by definition from holding the authority of a priest or a prophet. She can’t even claim the limited authority that raising children might have given her. Mary and Elizabeth are both doing pretty poorly, by the standards of their society, at being good women. Mary is pregnant too early, out of wedlock; Elizabeth is pregnant too late, after years of disgrace for being childless.

Paul writes in the first letter to the Corinthians that God chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong; and God chooses what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are. In this particular context, perhaps God chooses the women in the world to shame the men.

When Mary appears on her doorstep, Elizabeth immediately recognizes that she is carrying divinity inside her. Mary has become the tabernacle of the Lord, the God-bearer. And suddenly Elizabeth is standing in the presence of the living God, separated from the body of Christ only by the veil of Mary’s flesh.

Her first response, filled with awe and the Holy Spirit, is to speak blessing with authority: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” She couldn’t have known as she spoke those words that they would become part of one of the most important prayers in the world: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Her words are so important and so true that they’ve been repeated billions of times.

And then a lifetime of doubt and disgrace catches up to her, and she asks that question: “Why has this happened to me?” Perhaps thinking: I’m not worthy of this; I’m not supposed to be here; my body isn’t the right shape for this kind of thing. But Elizabeth’s body is good enough and strong enough and holy enough. God chose her, and no one else, to be the very first person to recognize Mary as the mother of God and to acclaim Christ as Lord. He chose her feet to stand and her eyes to see and her voice to speak.

We all still live in a culture that passes judgment on our bodies: on their gender and race and age and size and shape. We judge one another and we judge ourselves. Perhaps, like Elizabeth, you also have felt that your body is not supposed to inhabit certain roles, or to minister in certain ways, or to speak with authority. Maybe you’ve even felt that something about your body makes you less worthy or less important. Even if you know that’s a lie, it’s a hard one to silence.

When God calls us, it’s certainly no sin to ask “why me?”. But our duty is to recognize the answer, which is always that in God’s judgment, you are the right person for the job. Your body is the right one to do the work you are called to. It is strong enough and holy enough. Elizabeth and Mary show us how to respond to God’s call: with humility, faith, courage, and praise. Let your soul magnify the Lord. Let your body magnify the Lord, because God’s power works in and through our bodies, and it will do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

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