The Faithfulness of Mary and Elizabeth: Advent 4

The Faithfulness of Mary and Elizabeth: Advent 4

Advent 4: December 19, 2021
The Fourth Sunday in Advent

Year C: Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 15; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

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I love Advent 4. It’s all about the women.

Through the lives of two pregnant women, the texts of today’s readings offer powerful imagery about the grace and love of God.

We have reached the last Sunday of Advent. Christ is coming, Christmas is on Saturday, all our readings and our Collects have brought us to this Sunday. But the main story this day focuses on Mary and her visitation to Elizabeth, her elder kinswoman and the mother of John the Baptist. In the Gospel of Luke, this immediately follows the angel Gabriel’s visit when he tells Mary she will have a baby.

Talk about God’s amazing, transformative work going on in people’s lives, look at the lives of Mary and Elizabeth and how they are transformed and what it means for our world.

Elizabeth is old, too old to be pregnant, but by the grace of God, she is pregnant. Mary is young and a virgin. One is married, and the other is unmarried. One carries a prophet in her womb; the other’s child is the Son of God. One will give birth to the Voice who will cry out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The other will give birth to the Word made flesh.

But can you imagine how hard it was for both these women, but especially Mary?

“…Mary set out and went with haste….”[1]

I’m sure she did set out with haste, but I doubt it’s for the reason that one New Testament author states. In his book, The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond Brown says that “Mary’s haste is a reflection of her obedience to the plan revealed to her by the angel, a plan which included the pregnancy of Elizabeth.” [2] With all due respect to Raymond Brown, a brilliant and renowned scholar, I suspect that there’s much more at work than Mary’s obedience.

Mary is a young girl, perhaps 12 or 13 years of age, not older than 15 or 16, and pregnant. She is not yet married, so there was no legitimate reason for her to be with child. Well, at least no legitimate reason that anyone would believe.

As much a scandal as it would be in our day, I assure you it was a big scandal in her day. The thousands of paintings, drawings, statues, and lovely stained glass iconography that have come down to us through the centuries show a beatific Mary, often with a halo, holding an infant or toddler-aged Jesus. These images don’t convey the pure scandal that Mary faced. Stop and think about this for a moment. Here was a young, unmarried girl who had no status and no power in her world. Despite the angel’s promises, it was not at all clear what was going to happen to Mary and her baby.

Madonna and Child Iconography

Mary’s pregnancy would have been a disappointment to everyone in her hometown, most of all, her parents, her betrothed, Joseph, her rabbi. Some of you may be old enough to remember when young ladies were sent off to visit cousins and came home some nine months later. That’s exactly what Mary did.

She set off to visit the one person the angel had mentioned, her relative, Elizabeth. She had to have been filled with fear and worried. We don’t even know if in her haste she told her parents or Joseph that she was pregnant.

Perhaps Mary wanted to see for herself that the miracle of Elizabeth’s pregnancy had indeed occurred. Had Elizabeth experienced a miraculous conception in old age, just like their ancestor Sarah had experienced when she conceived Isaac, who became the father of Israel? That might make it easier for Mary to accept what was happening to her.

Perhaps, too, there was a reality that Elizabeth needed the help of a kinswoman to deal with her pregnancy.

Sometimes, we overlook clues given to us in the narrative, (and sometimes the Revised Common Lectionary overlooks it for us).

Elizabeth is six months along when Mary receives the news about the child she will bear and her cousin’s impending birth. Verse 56, which is not included in today’s reading, tells us Mary goes with haste and stays with Elizabeth for “about three months”[3], which would have been until Elizabeth gave birth.

It’s possible that Mary going to visit Elizabeth had several fortuitous underpinnings: Mary got out of Nazareth for a time, and she went to help an elderly cousin who was facing childbirth for the first time at an advanced age, something you would do in that time and culture. Something, honestly, that many would do today.

No matter the reason, Mary went off to her cousin’s home, where she was met with joy. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”[4] These are words that have transcended thousands of years. Anyone who grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and even many who didn’t, immediately recognizes these words from the “Hail Mary” prayer. It is one of the most beloved prayers in the Roman Catholic tradition, so beloved and well known, in fact, that folks suffering from advanced dementia can still often recite the words. I’ve been in hospital rooms with people who may remember nothing else but remember the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. They often find the words, and sometimes when the words don’t come, the words are acknowledged by the tears streaming down their faces.

And the joy that Elizabeth met Mary with had to be reassuring. After feeling shame – after feeling like a disappointment to all around her – Mary was declared to be a blessing, as was the child within her. Elizabeth had addressed this young woman of no status, hardly older than a girl, as “Blessed are you among women” and she is honored that “the mother of my Lord comes to me.” The mother of John the Baptist recognizes Jesus in Mary’s womb.

Mary, who has accepted the words of the angel, finds solace in Elizabeth in response and burst into song, the song we have just heard. It’s a song of praise that we know as the Magnificat, “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”[5]

Mary is rejoicing – not that God has raised her up, but that God has favored someone of such a low station – not someone powerful or rich.

Mary is singing about God’s mercy in every generation. Not just in past generations, or her generation, but ours s well. It is the will of God to fill the hungry with good things, and to send the rich away empty. That is, the mercy of God’s generosity, and not the encouragement of selfishness, pride, or exploitation of those who don’t have resources or connections. Mary is singing about God’s blessings for all of us. And the way in which Mary is most blessed is that she is completely generous and not worried about or focusing on herself.

I think it’s important to remember that the Magnificat does not immediately follow from Mary’s response to the angel. Rather, it comes after she is with Elizabeth, who by the power of the Spirit, sees the significance of what is happening to Mary and celebrates her faithfulness in it. John the Baptist is not the only prophet around. He comes from the good stock of his mother, who is indeed also a prophet. Elizabeth’s prophetic role calls forth Mary’s song of praise, which itself echoes prophecies of old.[6]

What strikes me about the story of Elizabeth and Mary is the need we have for not only more Marys in the world, but more Elizabeths. We need more people willing to receive and offer God’s blessing. Remember, Elizabeth was filled the Holy Spirit.[7] We need more people who look upon the world and see God’s redemption and love at work.

Elizabeth also takes on the role of a wise mentor who sees God at work in her young cousin’s life and names it.

Both Mary and Elizabeth are called to speak God’s truth, and when they do so, they encourage and inspire one another – and us too.

I ask each of us how we are called to help and support one another, identifying God’s work in the lives of one another, encouraging one another, and allowing the encouragement of others to inspire boldness in our own faith?

Who in your life can encourage or empower you in service to the Lord by naming your gifts and contributions to the Kingdom of God?

From whom in your life can you seek support, guidance, and encouragement as you explore your place in the Kingdom of God?

Let us be like Elizabeth and Mary and ponder these questions in our hearts.

[1] Cf. Luke 1:39, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)

[2] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library, 1999, p. 331

[3] Luke 1:56, NRSV

[4] Luke 1:42, NRSV

[5] Luke 1:46, NRSV

[6] Cf. 1 Samuel 2:1-10, “Song of Hannah”

[7] Cf. Luke 1:41, NRSV

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