Texts: Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-56
If you travel to the Holy Land, you soon discover there is a church commemorating just about every significant event that happened in the Gospels. It’s kind of like that old i-Phone commercial. The place in Nazareth where the angel Gabriel visited Mary with an invitation to bear the Son of God? There’s a church for that. The hill in Galilee where Jesus spoke the beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount? There’s a church for that. The home where Peter lived in Capernaum, the place where Jesus named Peter as the rock on which he would build his church? There a church for that, and that. The location in Jerusalem of Jesus’ crucifixion? There’s definitely a church for that. The place on the Mount of Olives where Jesus ascended into heaven? There’s four churches for that: Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, German Lutheran, and the oldest structure, the Dome of the Ascension, which has a complicated history and now doubles as a mosque since Muslims also believe in Jesus’ ascension.
Many of these churches have been built and destroyed and rebuilt and remodeled many times over throughout the tumultuous history of the area. But the oldest continually standing church in the Holy Land is the Church of the Nativity – the church in Bethlehem that honors the place of Jesus’ birth. And there’s a story that goes along with why it’s the oldest church. As far as I can gather it’s probably even a true story, and is one of those stories you just really hope actually did happen.
Two early church builders were the emperors Constantine, in the fourth century, and Justinian, in the sixth century, but in the year 614 the Persians invaded from the east, and leveled structures throughout the Holy Land. They destroyed all the churches except the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. Why would that be? As the story goes, they let it stand because the commander of the Persian army, Shahrbaraz, saw a portrayal of the magi, the wise men, on a prominent wall of the church, and noticed that these visitors from the east were depicted in clothing that was distinctly Persian. He commanded that the church be spared.
So imagine that you are that general of the Persian army. You are out on conquest, far from home, fighting against these Byzantine Christians, burning and toppling buildings and doing the things that armies do when they conquer and claim territory, and you arrive in Bethlehem. You move toward the main holy building in the center of that town, about to do the same thing you’ve done to all the other structures, when suddenly you are confronted with this image. It’s an image put there by your enemies, and sacred to them. It is an image in which you see yourself, your people. You are, surprised? Stunned? Your people honoring and being honored by the people you’re supposed to be subjugating.
Right there, in the heat of battle, you have a change of heart, a change of thinking. In the words of John the Baptist, you repent. You turn and change direction. You have seen your own image within the Other.
I first came across this story about a year ago, so when our group was in Bethlehem and had a guided tour of the Church of the Nativity I was pleased to hear our Palestinian guide, Elias, tell this story as we stood inside the church. Eagerly, I asked if that ancient image of the Persian magi still exists in the church. Elias replied that it has been destroyed when the Christian Crusaders had reconquered the Holy Land and done their own remodeling of the church. I was disappointed, and pondered the irony of it being preserved by non-Christians and destroyed by Christians.
When Mary makes her mad dash to see her relative Elizabeth, who is herself pregnant with John the Baptist, she has news to share. We tend to think of this as good news. Wonderful news. Joyful news. Mary had just experienced a miraculous visit from the angel Gabriel, now memorialized by a church in Nazareth. Gabriel had announced to her that she, Mary, young Mary, had found favor with God, and, should she accept the challenge, she would conceive in her womb and bear a son. He would be named Jesus and he would have the throne of his ancestor David and would inaugurate a kingdom of which there will be no end.
What could be better news? Our present day impulse to Tweet and Facebook and broadly share such things was not only not available to Mary, but is likely the opposite of her emotional response. Being a virgin, unmarried, and being pregnant, was not good news for Mary. It was dangerous. No matter what you believe about the virgin birth, it does seem pretty clear that 1) Mary is pregnant and 2) her fiancé, Joseph, aint the father. According to certain interpretations of Mosaic law, he had the right to kill her (e.g. Leviticus 20:10). Some women in traditional cultures still face these so-called honor killings, usually at the hands of their own family members. Because if an unmarried woman is pregnant, it dishonors the whole family, or so the mentality goes. Rather than a blessing, an unexpected pregnancy like this was a curse. Mary’s life is suddenly at risk.
When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth “with haste,” as Luke says, try to imagine it not just as someone bursting with joy, someone who can’t wait to break the news to her bff. Instead, imagine someone overwhelmed with this burden. Someone fleeing for her own safety, seeking a refuge. Imagine Mary as a temporary refugee, going with haste to the person who represents her best chance for shelter, not knowing how she’ll be received.
Elizabeth is from Judea. Mary is from Galilee. Elizabeth is old, and married, the wife of a priest. Mary is young, unmarried, engaged to a working class man, a builder. They don’t have a lot in common. Except they both have a life growing within them. And when Mary enters the house and greets Elizabeth, a remarkable thing happens. I imagine it not completely different from that Persian general looking up for the first time at that image of the magi on the church of the Nativity. The life in Elizabeth recognizes the life in Mary, and, quite literally in this case, does a shift, a leap. Elizabeth is filled with Holy Spirit. Even though she has the power to out Mary, to name her as a curse, to essentially destroy her, the first words out of Elizabeth’s mouth are words of blessing. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth declares Mary and her child to be a blessing, and Mary’s world turns again. Now she can sing her powerful song we know as the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” In a detail easily overlooked, Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months, the first trimester – not only getting over morning sickness, but also getting up the courage to return home and face Joseph and her community.
It’s one week into our learning tour and we’re seated in a circle in the living room of the guest house where we’re staying in East Jerusalem. We’re joined by Morya and Yigal, members of the Parents Circle Family Forum. Morya and Yigal don’t have a lot in common. Morya grew up on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean. She met her future husband, Ziad, in Houston, Texas. He was a Palestinian and 23 years ago they decided to move to Palestinian East Jerusalem. This period was the height of the Oslo Accords and hopes were high for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. Morya converted to her husband’s religion of Islam and made the intentional decision to wear the hijab, the head covering that many Muslim women wear.
Yigal is a young adult, born the same year Morya and Ziad moved to the East Jerusalem, 1992. He grew up in Israeli West Jerusalem in a liberal family and considers himself a secular Jew. Yigal’s grandfather was a survivor of Auschwitz, and his uncle wrote a popular book called “The General’s Son.” His family is well known in Israel. He’s dressed about like I am at that time, with jeans and a casual shirt.
Morya and Yigal don’t have a lot in common, but they’re both a part of the Parents Circle Family Forum, an organization of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost family members to violence between their people.
On September 4, 1997, two Palestinian men entered downtown Jerusalem with bombs strapped to their belts. The explosion killed them along with seven Israelis, including Yigal’s sister, who was out with three friends buying textbooks for school. Yigal’s family joined the Circle in 1999, when he was just seven. Like other Israeli youth, Yigal served three years in the Israeli army after high school, and has since become a leading voice in the Circle.
On June 11, 2010, Morya’s husband went out to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. When he was driving home he encountered a protest in the street and a rock hit the window of his car. He pulled out of his traffic lane and hit an Israeli civilian with the mirror of his car, knocking him over but not injuring him. A soldier fired into his car killing him. A prominent Israeli journalist investigated the case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Yigal’s family and others from the Circle advocating for compensation for Morya and her three young girls, but there was no fault found.
Yigal tells us, “We have a moral obligation to criticize injustice.” Morya reflects on her hijab she still wears and says, “I could take this off today and walk around like an Israeli, or a tourist.” It would change entirely the way people look at her and treat her. But now it’s too much a part of her. She wears it with fierce pride. She wonders out loud what to teach her girls about who they are.
The Parent’s Circle Family Forum now has about 620 families as members. They travel together and tell their stories, especially to Israeli school children. Part of their message is that they refuse to claim, “My pain is bigger than your pain.” I thought that was especially powerful. They refuse to claim, “My pain is bigger than your pain.” After a week of hearing hard stories and seeing lives pushed to the brink of a livable existence, just seeing Yigal and Morya sitting together in the same room, a bereaved Israeli with a bereaved Palestinian, is a blessed sight.
The Persian general recognized himself on the wall of that foreign holy site, and declared that it must not be destroyed. The life within Elizabeth recognized the life within Mary, and Elizabeth called her Blessed, and gave her refuge. The loss within Yigal recognized the loss within Morya and they declared themselves a part of the same circle.
We are journeying through Advent and have almost arrived at Christmas. Mary is very pregnant. Joseph has rejected the violent path, forfeiting his own cultural honor, and has decided to accompany Mary and raise this child as his own.
Mary is about to give birth to the one Christians have claimed is the very embodiment of God on earth. Immanuel, God with us. The Christ. The incarnation of the Divine.
Some theologians have taught that Christians have overemphasized the death and resurrection of Jesus as the source of human salvation. Another picture of salvation, they have taught, is incarnation. Salvation happens when God takes on flesh, when the line between the human and the divine gets blurred. Like Jesus, who enables us to see the human in the Divine and the Divine in the human. And this Incarnation, this distillation and concentration of the energy of love is so powerful and dynamic that it spreads. And we, mere flesh, are also filled with Holy Spirit – like Mary, like the disciples, like Elizabeth. God seeks to become incarnated in us. We welcome. We shelter. The life in me recognizes the life in you. We see that we are a part of the same family, the same circle, and that to destroy another, would be to destroy a part of ourselves. Instead of cursing the other, we bless. Blessed are you, and blessed is the life within you.
Blessed are you, and blessed is the life within you.