During this season of Advent, Sanctuary Dinner Church conversations are focusing on learning from Mary of Nazareth leading to the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.
Text: Luke 1:39-45
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah 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 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
On Spirit & Experience
This may be the only passage in Scripture that passes the Bechdel Test. I may need a fact check on that, but it’s a remarkable text for it’s time and place. Luke follows Mary at the beginning of this Gospel narrative as she goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. We didn’t read Elizabeth’s story—skipping it last week to jump into our Advent focus on Mary— but the short of it is that Elizabeth and Zechariah, her husband, were old and were unable to conceive a child. Luke makes a point to say both were righteous, which is important because theologically at this time a woman being unable to conceive pointed to a moral and religious problem—she had done something that caused God to withhold children from her. Zechariah was a priest, and while in the sanctuary of the Temple, a place only priests could enter by lot, an angel appeared to him and told him that Elizabeth would have a son who should be named John. That this son would be filled with God’s Spirit before he was even born and would turn many people of Israel back to the Lord. Zechariah was obviously scared by this appearance, and he responded, “How will I know this is so?” He was asking for a sign. The angel then made him mute until the promise became reality because his response stemmed from distrust. Elizabeth did conceive and went into solitude for the first five months, responding with gratitude and joy.
In Elizabeth’s sixth month, Mary has her experience with angel’s message, as we read about last week. Mary then makes the trek too see Elizabeth— at least 90 miles, probably more. Perhaps she goes to see Elizabeth to find out if it’s true that Elizabeth is pregnant. The angel, Gabriel, who visited Mary told her that Elizabeth’s pregnancy was a sign that God’s word would be fulfilled. Or perhaps she goes because she is an unwed woman expecting to have a child, promised by God, and it sounds far-fetched. She is likely to be shamed, to be rejected by her family and her community, but if Elizabeth is pregnant, maybe just maybe she will understand. Maybe she will even believe Mary.
Elizabeth had endured that type of shame. She endured the judgment of a community that moralized her body. When she finds out she’s pregnant, she responds in part by saying, “The Lord took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” She knows shame. When Mary arrives on her doorstep, Elizabeth’s child, as promised is filled with God’s Spirit and leaps, but even more remarkably, Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit, and in hearing her cousin’s news, she responds not with shame, but with a blessing and a prophecy of hope. I think there are two things happening here, one divine and one human and they are impossible to separate—fitting for a season leading up to the incarnation of God in flesh and blood:
The first, is that this encounter is an embodiment, a tangible foretaste of how God’s Spirit re-orders the world. The Spirit is at work in the meeting of two women, who have or will be shamed and ostracized. They are the first to know, trust, and proclaim God’s work of salvation. The Spirit is at work in lifting up the prophetic voices of the most marginalized people— a work that continues and expands in the life and teachings of Jesus. The Spirit is at work in silencing Elizabeth’s husband, a priest, and inspiring prophetic voice in Elizabeth instead. Perhaps a larger work of the Spirit is at play: Priests were a go-between for God and the people of God. As the incarnation of God approaches, the priest is silenced. The go-between, which had become cynical, operating out of a lack of imagination and trust, was silenced so that the women prophets, those who already knew God in an incarnational way would have the floor to speak. And Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, in a time of uncertainty speaks words of encouragement, hope, and joy. God gives voice to the bold hope of the prophet, rather than to the cynical religiosity of the priest.
Second, Elizabeth’s response to Mary comes out of the very human place:Elizabeth’s own experience of shame, because of cultural stigma and particular Scriptural interpretations against women without children, enables her to recognize God’s presence, love, and work in Mary. Mary is not rejected for being pregnant, but is received with open arms and blessed. Like the word “favored” last week— the word blessed here is very different than what we in the modern West called, “blessed.” Mary is taking a huge risk to be a part of God’s work of salvation. She is blessed because she is an active participant in the Holy Spirit’s work. She is blessed because she reacts and acts out of trust in the midst of uncertainty. Elizabeth sees and deeply, intuitively understands Mary’s courage and blesses Mary out of her own experience.
As we continue to learn this Advent from Mary and her story leading up to the birth of Jesus, I wonder:
Whose prophetic voice we need to seek?
Whose blessing and words of hope we need to hear?
Who has walked the path before us and can receive us where we are?
Who is the Spirit calling us to collaborate with, to find support in and give support to, and to participate alongside in God’s just re-ordering of the world?