Abbie and I gave this sermon together. A first for us! Each section begins with the name of the one who wrote and delivered that part of the message.
This week I saw a cartoon picture of a nativity scene, complete with stable, star, angel, some animals, and the new parents gathered around the manger. Over the stable it said, “It’s a girl!” This picture was part of an essay called “Contemplating Feminine Incarnation,” (Link HERE) pondering what it would have been like had Jesus been born as a girl. The author wonders how the girl messiah would have been received and how that would have affected humanity’s view of women for the following 2000 years. She considers what her infancy might have been like – would Joseph have abandoned Mary instead of stay with her if the child was a girl? How does it sound different if it is a woman sitting on the hills of Galilee and delivering the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount? What would it mean if we pictured a woman sacrificing her life for the sins of the world?
Jesus did happen to be a male child and that fact has no doubt impacted the shape of Christian tradition. Luke, however, is committed to telling the gospel story with special attention given toward the women of the story, without whom none of it would have come about. For this Advent season, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, play a prominent role. The feminine and motherly dimensions of Advent are something that Abbie and I have talked about from time to time throughout our years of marriage, and so we thought we would try and reflect together with you on the lectionary passages of this week that prepare us for the labor and delivery of Christmas morning.
Since I gave birth to Eve a week after Christmas four years ago, Christmas has taken on a special meaning for me. At that time I was asked by David Moser, pastor of Southside Fellowship in Elkhart, to write a Midrash about Elizabeth. A midrash is a way of interpreting Biblical stories that allows the author to fill in the gaps in the narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at. Through my own pregnant view of the world, I wrote about Elizabeth experiencing pregnancy and childbirth in her later years and what she might have thought and felt. I realized how significant it must have been for Zechariah to be mute during this time. I thought more about her relationship with Mary and how her relationship with God must have changed throughout her pregnancy. During that time of advent I was preparing our small apartment for Eve’s arrival and imagining Mary and Elizabeth preparing themselves for their babies. Christmas came alive for me that year. It became a celebration of the women in Jesus’ life, God loving them through the joy and pain of pregnancy and childbirth. Of course, after Eve, then Lily was born, I did not wax poetic about it all. This is what I wrote the Christmas after Lily was born. “Ahh, the Christmas story. Angels, warm straw, animals singing lullabies, visitors from near and far. Beautiful! But as a new mother, I have some insights and questions. As I think about Mary’s difficult circumstances and the frustrations of my own experiences of motherhood, I want to find a sisterhood with her. Ave Maria. Maybe she was blessed, I hope so, because she had to put up with a lot. Anyway, I’m glad to be celebrating this Christmas season with Mary, a new mother, and I feel her pain, joy, frustration, post-partum depression, sleep deprivation and loneliness. Mary, full of grace, be with us all.” I’m still seeking that sisterhood with Mary, the confusing, yet understandable mother of Jesus.
What we know of Mary comes from Luke’s “orderly account” of the events of Jesus’ life, “after investigating everything carefully from the very first.” I’m not sure what this means to him, but I know what it means to me. I’m torn between wanting to know exactly what happened, exactly what Mary and Elizabeth said to each other, what other questions Mary had for the angel, what conversations took place between Mary and Joseph after her conception and wanting to just capture the essence of what happened without the details all lined up. This story seems so important to me, not just background. The place where I meet Jesus is through his mother. I need to know how God encounters Mary so I can understand how God encounters me. I want to know the joy, pain and questions of Mary, because these are probably similar to my own. I would like to know Jesus in the same way Mary knew Jesus, so I can see the Christ child in my own children. Please, Luke get it right.
We don’t hear as much from Mary as I would like, but from what we do get, I find her to be a complex person. We know her as one who “pondered all these things in her heart.” I can picture her sitting, thoughtfully treasuring these marvelous and mysterious things that were happening for her people through her and her son Jesus – a contemplative quiet young woman. That’s one side. But right after receiving the visitation from the angel and accepting the invitation to bear the Messiah, her gut reaction is to run. Mary the marathoner. “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” My first instinct is to imagine Mary running with joy and excitement to Elizabeth. To tell her the wonderful news of being chosen to bear the Messiah. I can see her running with the same kind of joy that the Samaritan man might have felt after he and nine others were healed of their leprosy on their way to the temple. He runs back to Jesus praising God in a loud voice. Mary is tired and almost out breath from those pesky Judean hills, but spurred on by the adrenaline rush of this divine calling on her life. She has to share the good news with someone.
But on further reflection, I’m not sure that’s what is going on here. Yes, Mary has just been asked to carry in her womb a child who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And she graciously accepts this word. This sacred labor. But for an unmarried Palestinian teenage girl engaged to be married, an unexpected pregnancy in which her fiancé is not the father looked more like a death sentence than a cause for rejoicing. The words in the law code were clear enough: she had disgraced her father’s household and her fiancé and she could be stoned to death (Deut 22). Her life was suddenly at risk. Such so-called “honor killings” still occur in places in the Middle East, supposedly cleansing the family from the dishonor brought about through the woman in question. Mary didn’t have much of a choice of whether or not to come out to her family, because it was only a matter of time before her belly and this baby were going to come out all on their own. Mary’s run to Elizabeth was probably more likely a sprint for sanctuary. More like the terror and amazement that seized the women at the empty tomb of Jesus – sure that their lives had just been changed, but frantically fleeing the scene, in fear of what it may mean for them. Those women eventually confided in the disbelieving inner ring of male disciples. Mary will confide in her also-pregnant relative Elizabeth. In accepting the call of the angel, Mary becomes a refugee for God. She’s risking her own life, and certainly her reputation, for this.
The first word out of Elizabeth’s mouth must have come as a great comfort and perhaps a revelation to Mary. If Mary is fortunate enough to live, she has accepted the curse of a life of social ostracism, bearing the stigma of having a child out of wedlock. Elizabeth’s greeting to her speaks a different word: “Blessed.” “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary is one of many greetings I see in Luke’s account. First the angels bring the news, then Mary and Elizabeth have their beautiful, empowered greeting to each other. The first thing that sticks out to me are the angel greetings and the way they are received. What would an angel encounter look like? Surely a time to refer to as your encounter with the living God. A break in the normal life. A starting point for belief. How many times did Mary long for another angel encounter? A messenger from God to say, this is what is going to happen and it’s all going to work out (or not)?
The Hebrews scripture that was read feels like an undercurrent of what is happening in the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah. The Psalm says “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me;” Zechariah had been in the temple offering sacrifices, but what God really needed was a willing body. It is time for the women to step forward with the offering of their bodies and time for the priests to fade into the background.
The quiet presence of Zechariah must have provided a unique space for Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship. It seems these two have a special camaraderie. They are both pregnant for the first time, and because of divine intervention. But why is Luke including the first greeting of these two women in his orderly account? Whether he filled in the gaps of what he thought they might have said or if it was indeed carefully investigated, he views their time together as important. When they come together, the unborn babies and their mothers are filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth sees Mary for the first time as blessed among women, not cursed for having an illegitimate child. She says “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary is also filled with the Holy Spirit and replies with her magnificat. She is thankful to know the nature of God, one who lifts up the lowly and gives food to the hungry. One who fulfills promises. Something about Mary and Elizabeth being together brings the Holy Spirit and empowers them to see themselves for who they really are, blessed by God, blessed as women in a world where men were given the authority to communicate with God, blessed as women in a place under foreign rule. Mary is not speaking to an audience in a temple, as Jesus later does. She is talking to Elizabeth, another pregnant woman. Mary’s magnificat is similar to Hannah’s when she takes her miracle baby, Samuel, to the temple to dedicate him. Both talk about how God is going to feed the hungry and lift up the lowly. They both seem like victory speeches to me. Suddenly, it’s not just about Mary and Elizabeth,and Hannah – the whole world will be impacted by the miracle of life forming in their wombs and the love God has for them and their children.
I don’t know near as much about opera as many of you, but I do know that an aria can be a time when the narrative flow freezes and a single voice is given the opportunity to expound on the moment at hand. I like this thought – that at various instances in our lives there could be a chance to stop to explore the significance of the moment – its beauty, its power, its danger. Pause the flow of time, crack open the present instant, and give it all the space and poetry that it deserves.
I see this going on in Mary’s song, the Magnificat. Not only is this changing her own life, but Mary sees this as changing the whole trajectory of history. It’s a pregnant moment. It’s kind of a bold statement too, and shows yet another side of Mary. Fierce, almost warrior like. Everything is getting turned upside down with the lowly being lifted up and the proud being brought low – a prelude to the teaching of her son. I wonder if she sung this song to him when he was young and he started getting these dangerous ideas….
Joel and Abbie alternating
So, in our many images of God our Savior, we must add this one. An exhausted mother lovingly cradling her child. The mother is full of tenderness and love toward this child, but is as fierce and powerful as a warrior determined to protect and defend the child against all harm. Then add this one more twist. You’re the mother and God is the child. Infant God – helpless, dependent, each breath a tentative gasp at staying alive in this harsh environment. We are the ones cradling God. Believing in God’s ability to transform us and our world, because we know that our lives have already been transformed by gazing on one so vulnerable. We have become both tender and fierce. We have been saved from ourselves by saying Yes to this God. Refugees from our previous way of life, on the run with God in our gut, seeking sanctuary. Seeking sacred space with those around us. Together holding this life within us that is coming into the world. Blessing each other. Becoming mid-wives for peace. Dulas for justice. It’s pretty ridiculous and almost impossible to believe. I’m still working on that part. I’m still working on that part. But that’s how the story goes. At least, that’s how Luke tells it.