In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Just one more day and we will celebrate the arrival of a baby boy. A baby boy who will grow up to be the savior of us all. There will be sermons after sermons about him and the many men by his side. Rarely, however, do we talk about the women. Women like Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Martha, Phoebe, Lydia, Eunice, Dorcas, and the many Mary’s; and many more, many of them unnamed. They all shaped the life of Jesus or shaped ours through their witness of him.
Today’s Gospel reading is about two of these women…
There is Elizabeth – an older woman and probably used to people looking at her, whispering about her behind her back because she and her husband Zechariah did not have children. Back then, being childless was considered a disgrace and a sign of God’s displeasure. For modern minds that sounds strange, but back then, without all that doctors know now and without all the tests and scans we have now, nothing could ever be seen apart from God. Whatever happened, God had a hand in it. What do we believe about God?
And there is Mary. Unwed, engaged to be married. An angel appeared and told her that she will have a child. Impossible! “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary’s question is one of curiosity and shock. Pregnant and unmarried? How will Joseph react? How will others respond? What will I do? Before the pondering comes the wondering. “This child will be holy,” the angel said, “he will be called Son of God.” And Mary trusts the angel and trusts God. She is blessed just as Elizabeth is blessed. “Let it be with me according to your word, she says. What would our answer be?
And Mary runs to Elizabeth. Maybe she wants to see with her own eyes what God has done. Maybe she wants to share what happened to her. Maybe she wants advice on how to feel both blessed and disgraced at the time. She is with child – how impossible and yet, nothing is impossible with God. Elizabeth carrying a child was impossible just a few months ago and now she is six months pregnant. But Elizabeth is married to Zachariah and she – Mary –is only engaged to be married. People will look and whisper behind her back. And she runs to Elizabeth maybe for comfort just as much as affirmation.
And these two women – the recipients of the impossible made possible -meet – and with them stand many others: Women that came before them, women that shaped history, women in whom God made the impossible possible. Women who, too, were looked at and whispered about behind their backs.
- Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who was in her nineties before she bore Isaac.
- Rebekah., the wife of Isaac, who finally conceived Jacob and Esau after twenty years of marriage.
- Rachel, Jacob's beloved wife, who had to watch her sister Leah have four children with Jacob before she finally had children.
- Hannah who prayed and wept in the Temple before she finally gave birth to the prophet Samuel.
- And Naomi and Ruth – one without a child because her husband and sons died, the other childless because her husband died before she conceived. Without resources they make their way to Israel where Ruth remarries and gives birth to Obed – an ancestor to King David and Jesus.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…"
The real Mary and Elizabeth, however, look different.
In the real world, Elizabeth welcomes Mary into her small 2-bedroom apartment, It needs fresh paint and the kitchen faucets is dripping but the plumber can’t come until next week. In the corner stands a pack-n-play someone gave her when they found out she was expecting. Their child had never liked it anyway. Good, because a crib won’t fit into the bedroom. Elizabeth -- an expectant mom and at her age!? Well, it’s time for a new life-plan because her minimum-wage job as a cashier is not going to pay for diapers and formula and her boss is grumbling over the maternity leave. They will need a bigger house, too. Zachariah has been a good provider, but he has not seen a raise in three years. She had wanted a child for so long and now… It seems there is never a perfect time, is there? She worries even while filled with joy.
And Mary is a teenager in blue jeans, flip flops, and faded tees from Goodwill. Her hair tied into a ponytail. They keep telling her that she has so much going for her. Maybe she did, but now, there is this baby. What will her boyfriend Joe think? They hadn’t planned that far ahead; although, they had talked about marriage. She has not even finished high school yet, but maybe a GED will do? She and Joe will need Medicaid, food stamps, and they better fill out that section 8 housing application because the waiting list is a year or more, so she heard. She wonders what will be even as she pictures herself taking her little bundle of joy to the park and playground.
Mary and Elizabeth – two women, two common women. Hardly what we would call “favored”, and yet, it is them – the Elizabeths and Marys – that God looks favorably upon, we are told. It is them that God blesses; that God comes to. It is in them, that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly”. It is in them that God’s promise to Abraham continues forever
Mary sings her song with those without status. With those who are told they have no future. With those that are told they are failures. With those who feel as if they are never good enough. She sings her song with all who are too old or too young or too poor or too sick or too anything. She sings with the old and frail voice of the Sarahs, with the sad voices of the Leahs and Rachel; she sings with the voice of the desperate Hannas and the voice of the immigrant Ruths and hopeless Naomis.
“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me…”
“He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.
God’s blessings aren’t always obvious (who would have thought a baby?) and they do not always make sense at the time (at my age? Why now?), but hindsight we can often see how God moved in our lives and how blessed we have been. And so, on this 4th Sunday in Advent, let us remember that tomorrow is Christmas Eve – and that Christ will be born and has already been born in our hearts. We are blessed. And we have every reason to sing along when Mary sings.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”