Readings from the Scriptures (CEB) Luke 1: 39-45; 57-65
39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honour, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.” 57 When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. 58 Her neighbours and relatives celebrated with her because they had heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy. 59 On the eighth day, it came time to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah because that was his father’s name. 60 But his mother replied, “No, his name will be John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.” 62 Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him. 63 After asking for a tablet, he surprised everyone by writing, “His name is John.” 64 At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God. 65 All their neighbours were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened.
Joy? To the World
On the first Sunday in Advent – I was a little late and rushing into Sunday School. I’ve been teaching the lesson for Sunday School this fall, and we’ve been having a lot of fun. Expecting the children to be bouncing off the walls with their collective anticipation for Christmas, I was surprised to find them all sitting with their hands behind their backs. But they weren’t still. They were like a shaken-up pop bottle, just barely containing their excitement, as every time they shifted position, they jingled. Mearle had wonderfully prepped them with instruments and jinglebells so that when we got to our first song, I’m surprised you didn’t hear their Christmas joy all the way up here!
It reminded me as adults, we rarely anticipate joy. When the phone rings out of the blue at a strange hour, joy isn’t the first thing that jumps into your mind, joy isn’t waiting to jump out…sometimes it’s much worse.
Zechariah in the temple no longer anticipated joy. He had waited to hear from God for so long that his joy turned into despair, his hope in tatters. So when an angel comes to tell him that Elizabeth will become pregnant, his mind goes to all that could go wrong, all that had gone wrong in their journey. In response, in love, the angel allows Zechariah to observe his life at a distance – no longer able to talk – only see, and listen.
Have you ever stepped back and done that? To take the long view – the bigger picture perspective of your life? When grief becomes a constant companion, joy remains hidden and unnoticed.
I’ve been trying to do that this year in particular. It’s very easy for our current reality of covid to convince us that not only this has always been our reality but this will always be our reality, but it’s just not true. Joy is just waiting to jump out, we just can’t imagine it right now. This is when Elizabeth enters the story.
Elizabeth, the partner to Zechariah did in fact get pregnant like the angel said, and it’s no mistake this all happened the minute Zechariah could no longer speak. Maybe he talked himself out of trying to get pregnant more often than not. There’s a sermon or two in there that life changes miraculously when men are no longer able to speak (says the man going to continue his sermon). So as we hear today’s scripture, we can imagine Zechariah just in the background, as we the angel comes to Mary with the same news, however, instead of hope and joy, Mary’s experience is a little more terrifying.
As a young woman, anywhere between 12 and 15, the thought of pregnancy even in Biblical times was frightening. The Bible might tell us that her response was, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said,” but the reality of her situation soon sunk in. How was she going to tell her parents?
Imagine yourself as a thirteen year old – I mean, I have one of those in my house. Their first inclination is not to be forthcoming with information. Us: How was school? Him: Good. Us: Anything good happen today? Him: No. Scintillating dinner conversation. And without getting into too many details, we had an incident a few months back when our child was hiding something from us, and we knew, even before he came to us, that something was up. Still, he chose to hide the truth. He lied to us, and we stood there, giving him opportunities to change his story. This all while us believing we have a pretty good – pretty open relationship with our kid. That was a small thing.
Instead, imagine that you’re a thirteen year old year that’s been told you’re pregnant. It wasn’t that long ago that young women that found themselves in that way, were sent away to live with cousins. Far off cousins that long before Facebook, knew how to keep a secret. It’s no wonder that we learn nothing of Mary’s family. Neither their response to her pregnancy, nor their support of Mary during those morning sick times factored into the story. When talk of angels came up, they silenced her. When she spoke of the Lord, they reminded her of the deal between them and Joseph. There was no, let it be…with them. They were angry. They threw her out. I can’t imagine Joseph’s response to be much better. We find that story in Matthew’s Gospel,
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.
He too, like Mary’s parents, wanted no part of the story. I think that’s why in our scripture we quickly move from the angel’s visit to Mary running to her cousin. Shame and fear and guilt chased her there. It followed into Zechariah’s home, throwing open the door, and even lurked behind her greeting to Elizabeth. It lingered in the air as the head of this woman hung low. Her dusty cheeks revealed long lines of dried tear stains. She too, like her parents, like Joseph, (even like Zechariah) is speechless. We want Mary to be this icon of faith, this paragon of trust, but realistically, the image of this terrified young girl, speaks more to me in this time than ever before. I do believe, but I’m scared. I do have faith, but my hope wanes. I am excited for Christmas, but my joy is like a candle, flickering in the night (sometimes feeling like it just might go out).
Elizabeth is the true hero of faith here. Elizabeth “loves on” Mary like a mother hen. She throws open her heart, filled by the Holy Spirit, as she throws open her arms around her cousin. Elizabeth declares God’s blessing as a response to the judgment Mary received.
We all need someone to lead us back from despair. That person that brought you back to joy. The person that listened to you, loved on you, enabled you to step back and take the long view – to see the bigger picture perspective of your life? When grief takes one arm to become a constant companion, we give thanks for those that take hold of the other, to walk alongside us, hold us up and walk us and our grief, towards joy again. Elizabeth does that for Mary. In the six verses we read today of Mary’s arrival, Mary is strangely silent. She has plenty to say to the angel, and next week we’ll hear her declare her faith again, but in her reality of rejection and fear she is silent. She only learns to sing again because of Elizabeth’s joy. She is reminded of her place in the family of all things, in the integral story of faith.
And so in this Christmas time, give thanks for those that walk alongside you. Give thanks for those who listened and comforted, give thanks for they were secretly changing you. Teaching you. Of how to bring joy to others’ lives. For we are called to share this journey from despair to joy together. It may not happen as quickly as six short verses, but it will happen. This is the power and promise of Christmas, the blessing of hope that comes with the advent of God. As poet Mary Oliver reminds us:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting– over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.