The Fourth Sunday of Advent
My bad. My opener in this week’s Constant Contact talked about the Annunciation. Well, that’s the Gospel on the fourth Sunday of Advent…but in year B and we are in year C. It’s actually the story just before today’s reading. So, as the saying goes, “right church, wrong pew.” Guess I need to relearn my “ABC.”
Now then about this passage. We find poor frightened Mary. Overwhelmed by her unexpected circumstance in life, she asks her parents if she might get some breathing room by leaving town for a bit to go visit her favorite cousin, Elizabeth. I wonder if Elizabeth was not more like a best friend, an older sister, to Mary. This text has become the basis for religious art that depicts what the church has called “the Visitation.”
Now Elizabeth was of far advanced age, a big risk involved for her unexpected pregnancy. Mary “set out and went with haste” to visit her who has been in seclusion for sixth months. To get to Elizabeth’s dwelling in the hill country, Mary had to travel some forty or fifty miles south through the Great Plain of Esdralon over the mountains of Samaria. That was quite a journey. And dangerous, probably on a donkey. Imagine how long that must have taken.
When she arrives in the uplands of Judah and beholds the very pregnant and gray-haired Elizabeth, she is caught off guard by Elizabeth’s announcement: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” There are numerous paintings which portray this meeting of Mary and her cousin in a warm, tender embrace, all titled “the Visitation.”
But how did she know? Who told Elizabeth about Mary’s pregnancy? There was no mail or telephone in those days, no singing telegrams, clearly no Wi-Fi. And to Mary’s further surprise, Elizabeth asks no questions, makes no judgments, but takes her in her arms and assures her that all will be well and, in fact, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy when the two embraced. Even John, Elizabeth’s son still in utero, one day to be the prophet whose voice would be heard in the wilderness, had witnessed to the truth that Mary bore the embryo of the Savior of the world in her womb.
Unable to contain herself, Mary bursts into a song: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; * for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” We know it as the Magnificat and it is sung or recited at Evening Prayer and we recited it a few minutes ago.
Mary was probably no more than sixteen when she sang these words. Like many others of her age, she was betrothed to a man she hardly knew. What Mary and Elizabeth discovered is that God is true to God’s promises. Each of them was blessed with the gift of new, yet totally unforeseen, life moving around in them.
They are blessed because they all took God at God’s word, believed God’s promise and that is, after all the living definition of faith—a faith that keeps our hopes thriving, a faith in things we have not yet seen.
Mary and Elizabeth were marginalized members of their society and culture, yet in each other’s company and supported by one another’s courage, they declared prophetic words about what God was doing in their midst. Neither had a convenient pregnancy—Mary being an unwed teenager and Elizabeth well passed child-bearing age, but they allowed themselves to be inconvenienced for the great blessing attached to the child each bore. No doubt they would have been the brunt of insults and nasty rumors.
In our limited modern imaginations, this story of Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancy may seem odd. Yet who are we, in our limitations, to tell God what God should and should not do in order to get to us? The wonderfully Good News about this story is that it shows us what can happen when God touches our lives—even intrudes on them. Mary and Elizabeth’s stories, and the blessings that came through their babies, hold out the promise that God can do great things through us.
For God still comes to us, keeps pushing into our narrow, limited and confined experience, giving us in return a bigger, wider and broader view, inviting us to a larger, deeper relationship with our Creator God who made and loves us.
Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the most renowned preachers in the Episcopal Church, says “In the divine dance we are all dancing, God may lead but it is entirely up to us whether we will follow. Just because God sends an angel to invite one girl onto the dance floor is no guarantee she will say “yes.” Just because God sends us a prophet to tell us how life on earth can be more like life in heaven does not mean any of us will quit our day job to make it so. God acts. Then it is our turn. God responds to us. Then it is our turn again.”
The only thing of which we can be sure in the divine dance of our lives is this: we have a partner who is with us and for us and who wants us to have new life and with it an expanded, larger, deeper relationship with God through the person of Jesus.
Now we will welcome another new life as we witness the baptism of Cooper James Anderson and invite him to God’s dance floor.