Mary and Elizabeth: Expectation and Welcome by The Rev. Dr. Donald L. Hamer
Trinity Episcopal Church
4th Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2018
Micah 5: 2-5a Hebrews 10: 5-10 Luke 1: 39-55
Mary and Elizabeth: Expectation and Welcome
Advent invites us to wait in hopeful expectation for the coming of the Promised One. We are to watch for signs of the One who is to come. Watching means being attentive to our surroundings, to the people and the world around us, looking for signs of God’s immanence – God’s presence in our midst. When we see those signs, we are invited to make space for contemplation – to wonder about what all of this means to all of us – today, in the here and now. In today’s Gospel we are called to join Mary and Elizabeth – to wait, to watch, to wonder, and to welcome the new thing that God is doing in their lives and in ours.
This morning I want to reflect on two aspects of that beautiful story of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth we just heard, and they are summed up in two words: “Expectation” and “Welcome.”
A word sometimes used to describe someone who is pregnant is to say that they are “expecting.” The dictionary defines the word “expect” as “to anticipate or look forward to the coming or occurrence of something.” This morning’s Gospel from the first chapter of Luke features two unlikely women who are expecting: There is Elizabeth, a woman getting on in years who has spent her marriage being marginalized by the stigma of being married and childless. She is expecting the birth of a miracle child – who will be John, the Baptizer – in a little over three months. Then there is Mary, who has just received the miraculous message from the Angel Gabriel that she is “to bear a son who will be named Jesus, who will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33). I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that neither of these events was expected – even in their wildest dreams (or nightmares) – by either of these two women.
Yet once again, we see God acting in unconventional and unexpected ways. Once again, as God has throughout salvation history, God shows a propensity to work not through the rich and the powerful, but through the marginalized, the small, the seemingly unimportant – probably the last people that the world would expect. We see in this meeting of these two women a reflection of earlier scenes from the Hebrew Bible.
It is reflected in the opening words of our Old Testament lesson from Micah: You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel . . . Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth . . . And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. (Micah 2:2-4a). The Redeemer of Israel is to come from one of the little clans. And He will feed is flock like a shepherd.
Elizabeth’s words of greeting to Mary on her arrival, Blessed are you among women, recall ancient words spoken about Jael (Judges 5:24) and Judith (Judith 13:18), two women famous for the parts they played in liberating Israel.
And the words that Mary speaks in the beautiful song known as The Magnificat echo the words of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 when she gives thanks for the new life embodied in her long-awaited son, Samuel. Like Mary’s song, Hannah sings of divine majesty and power working through the most unlikely of actors. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength . . . [The Lord] raises up the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might does one prevail. (1 Samuel 2:4, 8-9). The Song of Hannah paints a picture of God as a master of reversals, of turning the expectations of the world upside down.
And this is all the background for this meeting of the Virgin Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth. Luke tells us that after hearing Gabriel’s news, Mary’s first instinct is to leave her home (and her fiancé) in Nazareth for an extended stay with her relative, Elizabeth. We aren’t really told what cases her to travel to visit Elizabeth: perhaps the sheer vulnerability of being a young, pregnant unmarried woman in first-century Palestine (or anytime and anywhere for that matter!). Perhaps she needed some time and space to process what was happening. Or perhaps she was just eager to spend some time with an older, trusted woman who was experiencing her own unexpected and miraculous pregnancy. Whatever her motives, Mary’s first move was to a sanctuary of love, of solidarity and support. The fact that this sanctuary was in a small town in the hill country of Judea, some distance away from the more politically and scripturally prestigious cities of Jerusalem, Rome, Bethlehem and Nazareth, only underscores the story’s central theme: That the God of Love lifts up the lowly, working out deeds of power through supposedly powerless people and in supposedly insignificant places.
To be sure, the words and the acceptance embodied in Mary’s song will eventually change the world. But on this last Sunday of Advent – the last Sunday before the feast of our Savior’s birth – we might do well to pause and focus on the small, personal aspects of this day. In their interaction, God gives to Mary and Elizabeth not just a chance to reflect on their unexpected places in history, but on two things that they each lacked individually: community and connection. In their mutual sharing, God helps them to understand themselves more fully in the context of something larger than their individual lives and destinies. What will become of them and of their miraculous sons is not yet known, and will unfold over time through both triumph and tragedy. For now, they wait in hopeful expectation on what God has promised, and they mutually commit to welcome whatever that entails, and to offer their lives – their bodies, minds and spirits – in journeying wherever that may lead.
Most of us who were raised in the church here in the United States have learned to celebrate Christmas in the secular context of the wider culture: Town Christmas trees and nativity scenes on the Town Green, Christmas carols sung in public school Christmas concerts, politicians sending Christmas cards to constituents. As our culture has become more openly diverse, many Christians – and particularly some Christian politicians – have lamented that Christ is being taken out of Christmas.
And yet, I don’t think that is the problem. I think that by allowing the story of Jesus to be diluted into popular culture, WE have contributed to taking Christ out of Christmas and allowed Christmas instead to be an annual festival of excessive spending, excessive indulgence, in which the predominant statement is, “I want . . .” We are assaulted daily by a culture that, in not so hidden messages, tells us what we should “expect” out of life – more, better, bigger things. I think the problem is that we have as a culture – and perhaps even as a church – lost that essential message of Advent and Christmas that is epitomized by this morning’s meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. What if, however, we shut out the messages of more and better and bigger and, instead, paid more attention to the messages that prompted us to expect not what we might receive, but what we might give? When, invited by God to become the most famous virgin teenage expectant mother in history, Mary did not ask, “What’s in it for me?” No, she said, “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). Mary and Elizabeth did not think about what they could expect to receive. They simply gave their lives, a living sacrifice, to the God who called them.
As the lives of Mary and Elizabeth, and the miracle sons whom they welcomed, would play out over years and even decades, so does the Jesus story continue to play out in our lives and in our life as a community of faith. Each one of us is a descendant in faith of Mary and Elizabeth, of Joseph and of Zechariah. How, by sharing and joining our stories with one another, can we connect our lives with the larger story of Jesus the Christ? As the world pushes us to an ever bigger, flashier and more expensive December 25th, can we connect with that sense of urgency, of waiting, watching, wondering and ultimately welcoming that which the Lord has in store for us? What do you “expect” this Advent season? What are you expecting for Christmas? And where might that lead you? Where might it lead us?
Please pray with me: Lord Jesus, as we await the annual festival of your birth, help us remain focused during these coming days to re-center, reflect and be ready for your expected arrival. Help us to be as devoted as Mary was, to say yes without hesitation, to welcome whatever it is you have in store for us. Help us to turn to those in need and sacrifice all we have to those who need it more, as Hannah did with her son Samuel; and lastly, help us to keep you in our minds, words and acts so that we may end this year and enter the next as the children of God you have asked us to be. Amen.