During Advent, we have been waiting for this moment…
We have been waiting for the moment when we are not talking about the end times OR some wild man yelling at us, calling us “brood of vipers” and asking “who warned you to flee from the wrath of God to come”.
This morning, we hear about the Jesus we long to receive…
the baby, who will be born in the manger.
We also hear of another important figure in our faith, John the Baptist, whose acknowledgement of Christ while in the womb made a way for the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth, the mother of John, was overcome with the Holy Spirit proclaiming she knows Mary is with child and that her child will be our Savior. Elizabeth’s proclamation led to the Holy Spirit overcoming Mary and giving her voice for the Magnificat.
Elizabeth and Mary are from a long line of woman who have experiences with the Holy Spirit, which enabled God to break into their lives and our world, particularly through the birth of their children.
This year, we have borne witness throughout our world about the need to hear the stories of women more fully. Therefore, although the focus is often on Jesus and John the Baptist, I will be lifting up the stories of Elizabeth and Mary that most people do not know. Their stories are recorded within the Bible, extra-Biblical writings, and church tradition.
I will begin with Elizabeth’s story.
Elizabeth was a woman old in age, who prayed consistently for years to have a child, such as the women in her family before her. During this time in human history, the worth of a women was especially based on having children, more specifically boy children.
Elizabeth did not feel that she was much of a ‘woman’ without a child. However, she learned that she is pregnant when her husband, a priest in the temple, comes home unable to speak. The Holy Spirit had visited him and said:
your wife’s prayers have been answered, she is with child…
oh, but you will be mute until after the child is born.
I assume that this cut down on the arguments at home.
Elizabeth learns that her son, like all miraculous Biblical children, would play an essential role in God’s history and relationship with God’s people. John, her son, would be the one to tell the people (crowds) to get ready because the long-awaited Messiah was coming, coming forth to bring God’s love, redemption, and grace (to the repentant – his words, not mine).
Mary, however, is on the other side of her life. She is between about 12-14 years of age. She is engaged to be married to Joseph… BUT, this would not have been an easy time for Mary.
Gabriel is the best messenger of God, if God as a message that MUST be delivered to God’s people… Gabriel is your angel.
Gabriel is sent to Mary and informs her that God has chosen her to bear the Messiah.
Her first question is “wait a moment, I am still a virgin. How is this going to happen?”.
Gabriel replies “ah, do not worry about it. The Holy Spirit will come upon you. Details, Details.”
Mary ultimately agrees, unable to give voice to her famous song (The Magnificat) yet, saying only “I am the servant of my Lord”.
Martin Luther wrote that he envisions Gabriel went to women of more “importance” in the society, but they turned down the job. Mary, however, was open and willing to accept the task.
Mary goes to her fiancée (Joseph) and tells him:
“Oh, by the way, I am going to have a baby. Hmm, God is the father. Don’t worry about it.”
Do you think Joseph believed her? No! Joseph did not believe her.
Joseph was an honorable man. He did not want to cause a scene or shame her, so he decided to dismiss her quietly. Gabriel returns to our story to visit Joseph.
Gabriel tells Joseph that it will be ok, that Mary is not lying to him, and that it is necessary for God’s plan. Thus, Joseph is convinced and becomes agreeable.
Afterwards, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth. This is far from Mary’s home and causes me to wonder if it is not similar to past decades when unmarried women became pregnant and was sent away until after the birth to spare the family embarrassment…
Either way, Elizabeth welcomes Mary full heartedly.
Mary returns prior to Jesus’ birth, perhaps visibly pregnant, and the people do not believe her. Mary and Joseph will endure a ceremony in the temple to verify whether she was with child without pre-martial relations.
As you may discern, we miss much from the stories of Elizabeth and Mary as we skip from Gabriel visiting Mary, to Mary visiting Elizabeth, to the baby Jesus born in the manger.
We miss the drama. We miss the humanness of their stories.
I saw a meme (picture with text) on Facebook that read:
“Generations shall call me blessed for what other pregnant woman would ride a donkey for days without complaining”.
I thought it was funny… but also honest.
We uphold Mary as the mother of Christ… but her story begins with her conception.
Mary was the daughter of Anne, who similar to the women in their family tree, was elderly without a child. Anne, again similar to the women in their family, went to the temple and prayed consistently to bear a child, who she would return to God’s service.
One day, Anne is told to go, to meet her husband at the gate of the city, to greet him with a kiss NOTHING MORE and she would conceive a child. This was the original Immaculate Conception.
The Immaculate Conception originally referred to Mary, not Jesus, because the question arose:
‘how can a (sinful) human bear a sinless child, if the mother was born with original sin?’
(It was at a time when original sin was deeply intertwined with sex, although most theologians do not understand/teach it as such anymore.)
Before Mary’s conception, God had planned for her to bear Christ, to birth the Messiah.
Then, at the age of 12, Mary is returned to the service of the Lord in the temple (Anne fulfilling her promise). It was the religious women in the temple, who found Mary an honorable man to marry, in order for her to fulfill her duty as a wife and mother before returning to service in the temple.
God worked the plan knowing that Mary, Elizabeth, and generations of their family’s women were essential. God knew that God would break forth into our world and that the divine light of love, grace, and mercy would scatter the darkness of sin. God used ordinary women, thus I desired to lift up their stories and histories.
May we leap for joy at Jesus, our Messiah coming as John did in Elizabeth’s womb.
May we listen to the Holy Spirit sharing God’s plan like Elizabeth and Mary.
May we join in Mary’s Magnificat, proclaiming God’s greatness, the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, and the grand reversal.
May we lift up these stories in God’s plan for salvation, as we look ahead to tomorrow night and beyond. Amen.