A PLACE TO BE WHOLE
Luke 1: 39-55
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.”
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The great joy of the Christmas promise is that we have a place to be whole, and wholly accepted, apart from any social circumstance or any social expectation. Such a thought is well outside of human expectation but it is the hope, peace and joy that is the love of Christmas.
Luke intertwined the lives of Elizabeth and Mary and uses them to point to the new kingdom that Jesus was to bring. Elizabeth was a righteous woman. She was a daughter of Aaron and she was married to a priest, Zechariah. Yet she lived in disgrace because she had never borne a child. No matter how faithfully she followed her Lord, her barrenness served as a chronic indictment. (“Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years”) . She lived in a shadow of disappointment and shame.
When an angel appeared to Zechariah promising him a son, he immediately questioned “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” He could not conceive (pun intended) how such a thing could happen. He is struck dumb until the birth of his son demonstrates that God operates outside of our understanding. Perhaps I am stretching the parallels between Mary and Elizabeth’s stories, but Mary responds with ‘How can this be so?’, ponders the promises of God and then assents “Here I am…let it be according to your word” She created room in her heart for what she could not understand. Zechariah, in contrast, was forced to say nothing— which ultimately allowed him to listen and to follow God’s will.
Sometimes we have to quit talking and quit trying to understand. We must live with God’s promise before we can accept what God brings to us. In a delicious parallel, when John is born and Zechariah is suddenly able to speak, the combination of ‘unnatural’ events leads the people to new wonder (“All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” ) They had been startled out of their expectations. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, the people of Israel and finally, we have to have ears to hear. And we can’t hear if we are spending most of our time talking,
Elizabeth’s pregnancy paved the way for Mary’s. In Luke’s account, one improbable birth opens our minds to an even more improbable birth. It is one thing for an older woman to get pregnant but it is quite another to say a virgin is pregnant. For me, this is a wonderful way to prepare us for the promise to Mary that “ nothing will be impossible with God”. It stretches and breaks our understanding. It opens the way to God’s kingdom on earth.
I have known many woman who have struggled desperately with their biological clock. It is nearly impossible not to ask, ‘what is wrong with me?’ when you want something so ordinary but are denied. And all too often that sadness is compounded by the expectations and disappointment of the people around them. Even couples (or individual women) who have decided not to have children often have difficulty responding to familial and societal expectation. It is often difficult to simply say, ‘That is not something I want’ without feeling defensive and/or judged. This is a sadness and grief that crosses centuries. For Elizabeth, it was a disgrace. ( ‘“his is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”) She knew all too well what it felt like to be judged by secular standards.
I believe the personal experience of disgrace and societal judgment made Elizabeth a particularly important person in Mary’s life. Elizabeth had been shamed for years for not having a child. Mary most certainly would have felt judged for having a child out of wedlock. In my imagination, the birth of a child was precious to Elizabeth, she reacted with unrestrained welcome and joy to Mary’s pregnancy. There was no finger pointing. There was joy. Elizabeth could accept Mary for who whe was. Her joy was independent of any societal judgement. What a comfort Elizabeth must have been for the young teenager who had sought her counsel.
In FIRL, we talked about the incredible relief and joy that comes from being accepted when we had every reason to expect judgement. We talked about times we discovered parts of ourselves we did not want to admit—times we willingly rushed by someone who needed help, times we did not own up to damage we had caused, times when we were so exasperated with our children, we did not want to be parents, times when we have withdrawn rather than stood up to injustice….The list goes on and on. We are not who we wished we were. We have all done things we ought not to have done. We have all not done things we ought to have done. Discovering we can be known and loved is the greatest joy we can know. If you have had that experience, you know the joy of Christmas.
In the annunciation, Mary is explicitly told about Elizabeth. Mary would need the counsel of another woman. Mary would need someone who knew the fear, excitement and anxieties and uncertainties of her pregnancy. And she also would need someone who knew what it meant to be cast down, judged and lowly in the eyes of the world. Elizabeth knew all of that and Elizabeth was God’s gift to Mary. No wonder Mary cries out:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. “
God’s joy is independent of any physical or societal circumstance. God’s joy is independent of any secular outcome. Jesus is God’s gift to us. We are precious because we belong to God. God does care one bit for the ways humans judge humans. When we have been met by Emanuel, we will receive a peace that is beyond understanding. We will know a joy that transcends anything we could have imagined. We will have hope and hold a hope for others. We know that we are deeply loved and that love will prevail.
Be silent in the darkness. Learn to listen. God is with us. We belong to him. Rejoice. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.