It is tempting to pass over this story of Mary and Elizabeth. It’s just the prelude. The main thing, the exciting part is yet to come. Let’s just jump over the boring stuff and go directly to the scene in Bethlehem with angels and shepherds and stars and animals and the baby. Oh, we did that last week with the pageant. We will be out of order.
No matter. We are on God’s time, which means that last week we could act out the story of the birth; this week we can tell the story of finding out about the pregnancy and in two days we can celebrate the birth all over again. The timeline doesn’t fit but God’s time is not chronological and liturgical time is not necessarily linear; it’s all good.
So we come round to this story of Mary and Elizabeth. We even come round to hear the prophet Micah’s promise of hope. We start to put the pieces together and it makes a certain kind of sense, even all these hundreds of generations later. Which doesn’t mean that Micah was making a prediction about a particular woman giving birth or a particular baby being born. Micah is offering a vivid vision of hope to his people in a time of great despair. The gospel writers hear hope in Micah’s vision and offer new hope to their own people in another time of despair. And here we are, still reading these texts, telling these stories and looking for the ways they help us encounter Hope and Love and God today.
Mary and Elizabeth: two women who by all measures should not be pregnant. But they live in God’s time. Elizabeth is practically menopausal, at least that is what we imagine it means to be “getting on in years.” She has given up ever having a baby. The text says “Elizabeth is barren” but we know it takes two. Maybe Elizabeth has been pregnant once, or several times, and has experienced miscarriage.
When she does get pregnant, Elizabeth goes into seclusion for the first five months of her pregnancy. She says, “Our God has done this for me. God has shown favor to us and taken away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” And yet she goes into seclusion, in the newness and uncertainty of pregnancy. And after all Zechariah still can’t speak, the penalty he continues to pay for questioning the angel who brought the strange news of pregnancy. It might just be easier to be alone, to ponder the wonder of it all, to make sure the pregnancy sticks.
In the six month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, young Mary, who is barely menstruating, also receives this angel visitor, Gabriel. He tells Mary that though she is young and unmarried she is going to have a baby. Elizabeth has waited her whole life for a message like this, but Mary is perplexed (to put it mildly.) She has questions for the angel. How can something this big, this holy, happen to me? I am so young. How can the Almighty choose me, I am just an ordinary (very) young woman? Gabriel has more patience with Mary than with Zechariah. Mary’s questions are met not with a penalty of silence but with the kindness of companionship. Mary will not be alone, her cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant. There is comfort in company.
It doesn’t take long for Mary to pack up and arrange the travel to go visit Elizabeth. Mary is desperate to somehow verify this strange experience with the angel. The cover story for the trip is probably something about needing to help Elizabeth; after all, pregnant women need extra help. And Elizabeth, with this “geriatric pregnancy,” will need lots of extra help. Mary will be there with her, for her, in the work and in the waiting.
Where is Mary’s own mother in all of this? Is Mary not able to share this news with her family? Surely a young woman would want her mother at a time like this. Are they estranged? Tradition names Mary’s mother as Anne, a saint. Yet the canonical gospels are silent on this mother daughter relationship.
The text says Mary “hurries to the Hill Country,” which is no small trek from Nazareth. Tradition has it that Elizabeth and Zechariah live outside Bethlehem in Ein Kerem. This journey is similar to the one Mary makes nine months later with Joseph. We don’t know who Mary travels with this time- as she hurries – though we know that, like today, when people make long journeys on foot, it is safer to travel together, in a caravan, than to travel alone.
Mary must be exhausted after her hurried four days of travel. That doesn’t stop these two women, both pregnant at the wrong time in their lives, from a joyful reunion. Just like the angel told Zechariah, the Holy Spirit is at work: Elizabeth feels the baby kick and Mary sings a revolutionary praise song, a song that harkens back to other powerful women in her family tradition. In Mary we hear Hannah, and Miriam. Since this is God’s time we also hear Julia Esquival and Maya Angelou and Jan Richardson. Mary doesn’t sing by herself, she sings with Elizabeth, she sings with all of us.
Luke features Elizabeth and Mary, the mothers, prominently in his telling of the story. Matthew’s gospel features Joseph, the father, in the birth story. John and Mark don’t even have birth stories. Good ol’ Luke uses Mary and Elizabeth to help set his story, just like the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, who set the scene in Exodus. The midwives in Exodus and the mothers-to-be in Luke are models of resistance. (Remember Shiprah and Puah. Pharaoh instructs them to kill the boy babies. Instead they smile knowingly and say “no” in their hearts and with their actions.)
The Pharaoh, the Roman Empire, all empires, want to preserve their own power – at all costs. The empire thrives on people feeling alone and fearful and scared of death. Mary and Elizabeth are just the opposite, they resist the norms the empire offers. Mary and Elizabeth go to each other, to be together. They are joyful in the midst of fear and uncertainty. They sing and even the baby will not stay still. Elizabeth and Mary look to the future and the possibilities of new life. They do not look to Caesar or even the rabbis for cues. The angel tells Zechariah, your child “will … turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the rebellious to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for Our God.” Mary and Elizabeth live this out; they look to their children. Something as simple as looking to their children, looking to each other, makes them resisters of the empire.
What might it mean, in this time, for us to claim Elizabeth and Mary as our guides? What might it look like for us to do as these cousins and resist the lure of seclusion, resist the temptation to be afraid; to instead, look for new life where death seems to prevail? How can we prepare ourselves for God’s time in our own time?
God’s time shifts and changes. What might be appropriate and useful in one time in our lives might not work in another time for us – or for God. My own touchstone experience of learning to prepare myself for God happened as I sat in silence in a cold, stone cathedral during college. As I look back on it now, that experience (except for the stone cathedral) soon became normative. Silence and deep breathing helped me to meet God and set the stage for me to experience new ways to prepare for and meet God. What path do you trace through your life of the ways you have prepared, are preparing, to encounter God?
Silence is not the only way I meet God now. I have come to see our congregational involvement with DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network as powerful preparation for meeting God – as well as resistance to the empire. Our participation is this way of meeting God is not a simple, linear process. It is all a lesson in God’s time as the needs and our involvement keep shifting.
Some of us go to the ICE office to show solidarity with neighbors under threat of deportation. Some of us write, call and go to Capitol Hill to talk with our congressional representatives. We are building relationships with our neighbors at San Mateo Episcopal Church. Last year, we gathered financial support for some San Mateo members when they needed help paying application fees for DACA. This year we are finding ways to worship together and share meals, reminding all of us that when we are together, we are not alone.
This week, our involvement shifted again. Our connections with the Sanctuary Network helped us come in contact with Blanca and her family, recently arrived from El Salvador. As Nancy Sharpe met with Blanca it became clear that the family needs warm clothes. The call went out and you responded. With your generosity, we have more than enough for Blanca’s family and it will be delivered by Tim Buckwalter this afternoon. What is left over will be given to the Migrant Transit Support team, yet another new effort of the Sanctuary Congregation Network. Thank you for your responses to these needs, to the ever-changing work of being a Sanctuary Congregation, for living in God’s Time here, together.
As we prepare ourselves to meet God once again this Christmas season, let’s remember Mary and Elizabeth – ordinary women whose courage and companionship resists the power of empire and prepares the way for God. May we too live into God’s time as we prepare the way for God, for Love, to enter the world.