O Day Spring, splendor of eternal light, Sun of Righteousness; come and enlighten the darkness of our minds. O Key of David, come and open wide the secret places of our hearts that we may receive you who came among us at Bethlehem, and who comes among us daily in the unfolding of our lives, and will come again in glory in the age to come. Amen.--"Advent" Praying Our Days by Bishop Frank T. Griswold.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
The tune is written in a minor key, but this hymn and the Gospel lesson from today are full of hope and exuberant joy…full of promise that God has never forgotten the people and is coming to dwell in us…around us…and beside us always. Even more amazing: God is coming to do some radical reordering of things. Any notions of “well this is the way that it has always been” is about to go out the window. With apologies to those among us who like things neat and tidy…God is about to shake things up like a snow globe. And—because we are in the Year of Luke’s Gospel—the women are going to be leading the way.
We get that in today’s encounter between Mary and her Aunt Elizabeth.
This story is often called “The visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.” But that doesn’t quite cut it for me.
On my seminary’s campus, there is a statue by the artist Peggy Adams that is near the VTS chapel. Adams titled her work, “Mary as Prophet.” It shows two women…one very old and one much younger. The older one has her hand on the shoulder of the young woman and is leaning into her, while the younger one raises her eyes to the sky and seems to be exclaiming something deep within her. I think that’s a pretty accurate description of what is happening in this scene.
Our Gospel lesson picks up right after the moment we just sang about where Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her she is going to be the God-bearer. She’s blown away by this news…and really who wouldn’t be? Think about it: you’re about thirteen or fourteen years old. An angel shows up out of nowhere and tells you that you’re pregnant…in a society where that’s not supposed to happen until you’re married.
Oh, and this is not just any child: this is the Son of the Most High! You’re given instructions about his name and he’s going to sit on the throne of David...
I mean…this is wild!! And if it gives you goosebumps…well…yes.
And young Mary…brave Mary…wipes the sweat from her brow and gives her consent to this news. Now, she could have gone into hiding…and who could blame her under the circumstances.
But the angel told her that her cousin Elizabeth was also pregnant and….
What?!?!?! Elizabeth?? Old lady Elizabeth? Barren Elizabeth whose husband the priest has been struck dumb??
This story is getting crazier!
So, Mary heads out to the Judean hill country.
Was she going because she was afraid?
Was all this news too much and she must see for herself?
Or was she…as Peggy Adams’ statue suggests…a prophet? Not just the womanly womb carrying the Christ child…but is she also a prophetic witness heralding the incredible goodness and greatness of God?
I think that gets confirmed in the exchange with Elizabeth. Even before Mary could say much of anything beyond…”Cousin!”…Elizabeth felt her baby John leaping and kicking and stirring for joy…as the Holy Spirit filled her heart.
She bursts out…”Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!!”
There is amazement…astonishment…and tearful acknowledgment of how incredible it is that her young niece is coming to her…the older woman…and her own baby is dancing a jig…as they both realize that Mary is the mother of the Son of the Most High.
My New Testament professor describes Luke as the Shakespeare of the Bible because of his beautiful and poetic language.
But I sometimes like to refer to him as the Rogers and Hammerstein…or even the Verdi of the Bible because of moments such as this one…where these two pregnant women…overcome with the Holy Spirit…break into a recitative followed by the aria of the Magnifcat:
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
My soul **magnifies** the Lord!
Elizabeth’s response confirms the Angel Gabriel’s message…and Mary hearing that senses deeply that she…a teenage mother…is getting swept up into a larger than life mission. Her song goes on…
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.
As I said at the start of this sermon…God is shaking things up. This mission is not one where the C-E-Os or the well-heeled or the rich and famous get to take center stage. No, no! God is working God’s purpose out by bringing the Light…that’s capital “L” light…to the nations from the least likely and the most easily overlooked and ignored. Mary…acting as a prophet to the marginalized, the disinherited.. is announcing:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Israel…Emmanuel…God with us…the Almighty has remembered the covenant. We aren’t forgotten! We aren’t forsaken! Rejoice!
Rejoice…even in this time where we live as subjects to an empire.
Rejoice…even in this time when we get bullied by Roman soldiers and tax collectors.
Rejoice…Sing…Dance…you, young girl and old woman! God is with us!
Elizabeth…the elderly mother of John…joins with Mary…the youthful mother of Jesus. The Old Covenant sings in harmony with the New Covenant. One generation is passing the torch to the next…with the great expectation that something good…really good…is about to happen.
What an intergenerational and unconventional moment this is! Two pregnant women…filled with the Holy Spirit…and having a grand old time of it!
If I were to put this in our contemporary witness…this would be like having a Baby Boomer and the youngest member of Generation Z (which is the group even younger than Millennials) laughing and conspiring in the Spirit with one another. It’s kind of fun when the Holy Spirit sweeps aside preconceived notions and prejudices and let’s joy take over.
And perhaps that is the thing that needs to happen for us now. Luke has been guiding us through an Advent where…even amid this unsettled life of pandemics…health crises…and unexpected losses …we are reminded that God is with us…and is coming in joy and in the most unconventional ways that defy our expectations. We’re invited to see how God is showing up in our friends and family who lend a hand to help us when we’re in need.
We become the Christ someone seeks when we take the time to listen and enter the experience of another person’s pain or happiness.
We’ve been told to be alert…to get prepared…to bear fruits to show that we are ready to move in a new direction in our lives.
Now we are invited into the song and dance of Mary and Elizabeth…free from fear and delighting in the subversive nature of a God who appears first to the least likely characters in our Scripture. How much more so will God appear to the likes of us?
O come, O come Emmanuel!