When something major happens in your life, who do you call? When you receive the news of a tragedy, or of some great accolade, or perhaps something simply wonderful and unexpected, do you have a person that you want to call right away and talk about it? Sometimes you might not even want to talk – you might not even share the details of what’s going on with you, but simply spending time with this other person when major things are happening in your life, does you good. Do you have a person like this, a person you want to talk to or be with in times of sadness or great joy, in times of grief, in times of stress?
Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a person like that, and her name was Elizabeth. They were relatives, we are told, and Elizabeth was much older than Mary. We don’t know the whole story of their relationship – was Elizabeth a mentor, a friend, someone to ask for advice? We know there was a bond between them, a relationship of trust and support. Perhaps Mary had some cruel people in her life, but Elizabeth was always kind – we don’t know. Perhaps Mary had been abused or manipulated in the past, and didn’t feel like she could trust other family members, but Elizabeth was someone Mary knew only wanted good things for her – we don’t know.
We do know that Mary grew up in a very small town, Nazareth, and if you grow up in a small town, everyone knows you and knows your business. That can be a wonderful thing, but it can drive you crazy sometimes. Elizabeth lived in a different town, where people probably didn’t know Mary. Elizabeth may have been the perfect person to talk to, when Mary needed to get away.
And in the scripture we read this morning, Mary needed to get away. She had just been visited by someone who claimed to be an angel and who claimed to know some extraordinary things about her. She would have a baby, a baby who would be called the Son of God. Mary was a young woman, engaged but not married, and in those days a woman who became pregnant without being married faced a great deal of trouble in the social order. Mary was an impressive young person, though. She was open-minded and level-headed. She kept her wits about her.
When the angel greeted her, the angel said don’t be afraid – but the bible doesn’t actually say that Mary was afraid. That’s interesting. Other people would have been afraid. When Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband got visited by an angel, he was terrified, and many other bible stories tell us that when people get visits from God or angels, they are fearful, but the gospel of Luke says that Mary was perplexed, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. She asked the question, “How can this be, since I am virgin?” but shortly thereafter, she said, “Let it be”. Paul McCartney wrote a song by that name, and he said those were mother Mary’s ‘words of wisdom’. Let it be, it’s in the bible, you can look it up (Luke 1:38).
I, and I suspect, you, don’t get up every morning expecting that supernatural events are going to happen that day which will alter the course of our lives and human history. But things do happen all the time that are unexpected, things that throw our plans into disarray, things that are confusing, troubling. When these sorts of things happen to me, I don’t always keep my cool. Sometimes I really lose it. What about you?
In Mary, Luke gives us an image of a young person who receives some news that would be alarming to most people – Mary does not know what is really in store for her life, she doesn’t know what will become of her relationship with Joseph, or her place in the community, she doesn’t know how this will all work out. But she has a kind of presence, a peace of mind about her. None of us is ever promised a full explanation of what the future holds, or why things unfold the way that they do. Mary will take each day for what it is, with whatever it brings.
She did of course decide right away, ‘I’ve got to see Elizabeth.’ She went in a hurry to Elizabeth’s home, and as she entered the house, having barely uttered a word of hello, Elizabeth cried out in celebration for her arrival and for the news that she brought with her.
Now, that is kind of extraordinary for us to think about, that an older family member would be overjoyed at the news that this teenager was pregnant, but I don’t think Mary was surprised. I think she expected to be welcomed with open arms. The angel had told her that Elizabeth was also pregnant, and that was a miraculous pregnancy as well, but I suspect that even if Mary had not been told that Elizabeth was expecting, she still would have wanted to go and see her. Mary knew that Elizabeth’s home was a safe place for her. After the angel told her that she would bear a son, Mary didn’t go to see any other family member, she didn’t go to confide in any friends, or speak to an elder in the religious community. And she didn’t wait a month to make sure that this visit from the angel was real and not just a hallucination. She went to see Elizabeth, and she went to see her right away.
I think Mary knew that in Elizabeth’s home, she would be welcomed unconditionally. Elizabeth would not judge her; Elizabeth would not assume bad things about her; Elizabeth would not tell others the things that Mary shared in confidence. When monumental events happen in your life, this is the kind of person you turn to.
Have you ever been like Mary, in need of an Elizabeth? Have you ever been like Elizabeth, for someone who needed you?
I think it’s clear that Elizabeth was in a unique position to be understanding toward Mary. As first-time expectant mothers, they certainly shared a bond that women in that stage of life have shared for all of human history. Furthermore, they were each experiencing pregnancy under conditions that were strange and controversial: Elizabeth had been thought unable to conceive (the physiological reasons for that may have had more to do with her husband, but problems with conception were always blamed on the woman in those days), but regardless of that, by this time in her life she was thought to be far too old to have a baby. Mary, of course, was also pregnant, but she was a virgin, although most people would not believe it when they found out she was expecting.
Elizabeth was in a position to understand better than most people what Mary was going through, and so it seems likely that she would be welcoming. But again, I don’t think the bond of love that existed between Mary and Elizabeth was based on their shared circumstances. Unfortunately, life experience tells us that people are often unkind toward others with whom they have a lot in common. Have you ever noticed that? We sometimes lash out at people who have made the same mistakes we have, or who have struggled with the same things that we have, or who have been judged unfairly in the same way we have been judged unfairly. We are sometimes unkind to the people we should be kindest toward, because we have so much in common. Sometimes we do this because we want to separate ourselves from the parts of our experience that are painful and difficult – this is often unconscious – so we cut ourselves off from people who share that experience. Elizabeth would not fall into that sort of behavior.
Because when Elizabeth looked at Mary, she did see what they had in common; she did recognize that they were in many respects in the same boat. And that’s not all. Not only was Elizabeth sympathetic and compassionate, Elizabeth believed that God was doing something amazing and wonderful in Mary’s life. When Mary came with the news that she was pregnant – Elizabeth didn’t say ‘O No, what are we going to do”? She recognized that this situation, as strange and daunting as it was, it was a gift. She didn’t know the future either, she have any more answers than Mary did, but she knew that something good was happening.
Now, this part of the story is kind of funny to me. The Bible says that when Mary walked into the house and greeted her, the Elizabeth’s baby leaped for joy within her womb. And then Elizabeth was filled with joy as well. Now, I’ve spent time around women who are pregnant. And I’ve had it explained to me that when babies are waiting to be born, they often kick and jump and do backflips and moonwalk and the maccarena and do all sorts of improbable calisthenic exercises, and they do this at any time of the day or night. Most expectant mothers do not ascribe cosmic significance to every time the baby makes a sudden move.
But there was there was something about Elizabeth. There was an awareness, a sensitivity in her, call it a spiritual attunement. I think Elizabeth was the kind of person who expected God to do something wonderful at any given time. Many of us, and many of the characters in the Bible are resistant to the idea that God is working in the world – we really have to be convinced. But Elizabeth had a sort of disposition toward the holy. She did not find it difficult to take blessings seriously, it was not a problem for her that God works in mysterious ways – she looked at Mary not with skepticism, but with faith and love. Beloved, God is with you, God is at work in you, and it is so good that you are here.
The second half of our scripture reading is a hymn – Mary’s song of praise. People call it the magnificat. Mary sings my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices. She’s actually quoting scripture when she sings, – these are words of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, the great prophet of Israel. Mary sings praise to God as she realizes the grace that God has bestowed on her. She sings about how God shows favor to the poor, to the weak, to the hungry. The people who the world treats as insignificant, the people to whom the world shows no mercy, are given God’s greatest care. Meanwhile, all who have been enriched by injustice will have their wealth and power taken away. Mary herself was poor. An unwed pregnant girl, image of powerlessness in her day, a nobody. But it’s in the lives of those that most people think don’t matter, where God does much of God’s most amazing work. Mary realized this and she sang the song of praise and thanksgiving.
But she didn’t sing the song when the angel visited her. She sang the Magnificat, her song of praise and empowerment and hope, after Elizabeth welcomed and encouraged her. And this is the woman who raised Jesus.
You and I should never underestimate the power of this kind of welcome, this kind of radical hospitality, this embrace, this holy communion. We all have opportunities to write people off, to shut people out. To decide that somebody’s life adds up to bad news, end of story. But each of us can, if we choose, put on the eyes of Elizabeth. When you look at someone, are you ready to believe that God is growing a miracle within her or him?