“In those days…”
A Sermon From The Rev Linda Mackie Griggs for the Fourth Sunday in Advent 20 December 2015 Luke was a master storyteller. The simplest phrase can draw the reader into a state of pondering.
“In those days…”
In those days of Roman occupation. In those days of oppression and heavy taxation under a puppet King Herod. In those days of waiting for a messiah to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah.
In those days a young woman had just received astounding news from an angel that she would be the mother of the Son of the Most High God. And so, having courageously affirmed Gabriel’s call, she did what I hope any young unexpectedly pregnant woman would do: She sought out someone she could trust. She hastily made her way into the hill country of Judea, carrying a burden of fear, joy, anxiety, gratitude, vulnerability, morning sickness and who knows what other feelings to see her older and formerly barren relative Elizabeth, now stunningly six months pregnant herself.
‘Those days’ were ripe for a change in the entire trajectory of Creation.
And quietly amidst it all there took place a simple meeting that we churchy folk generally call The Visitation.
If you Google “The Visitation–Images” you will be presented with a bounty of pictures. Artists from early Medieval to contemporary periods have rendered their own interpretations of the moment that Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home. The images almost universally share the same shape and intimacy: One older and one younger woman; their heads close together in quiet communion—almost as though a photographer has caught them in that suspended moment before words are necessary. Their hands reach toward one another—sometimes they hold hands, or one hand gently touches a shoulder while another tentatively reaches toward the other’s burgeoning belly. Their eyes nearly always search each other out. They are completely unaware of our presence–we should not take for granted the privilege of being present at such a moment. And we hold our breath.
Our moment , here, is at the end of Advent. The Christmas of culture is becoming louder and more strident outside these doors—Buy! Ship! Cook! Wrap! Decorate! (No, scratch that—if you haven’t decorated yet, forget it.) I read in an essay that some churches even pack it in as of today, call this Christmas Sunday, and go ahead and roll out the carols.
But No! There is still waiting to be done—breath to be held—as the Spirit permeates this sacred encounter between these two women. What can they teach us in these last days of waiting for Jesus?
As Mary embraces Elizabeth the baby in the elder woman’s womb “leaps”—imagine a resounding kick in the ribs– from the inside. Luke asks us to imagine that John has begun proclaiming the Messiah even before the cousins are born. Guided by the Spirit Elizabeth recognizes the significance of this visit, and her response is enthusiastic —offering Mary the affirmation she must have been seeking from this journey—her still-awestruck questions following her the whole way, “How can this be? Can this joyous thing be happening to ME?” Mary’s lingering self-doubt is swept away as Elizabeth greets her as “The mother of my Lord.”
With that kick, Elizabeth in this moment recognizes how her small story fits into the Great Story of God’s redemptive love and responds with joy. Mary, in turn recognizes the reality of the gift that is coming into the world through her and responds with a combination of humility and exaltation: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices…”
This is the Magnificat. Luke has based his version of this proclamatory song on Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving for the birth of her greatly longed-for son, Samuel, one of the great prophets and kingmakers of the Hebrew Scriptures. Hannah declared the raw power of God, who “will give strength to his king.” Mary’s song, while similar, proclaims not just the power, but the mercy of God.
“My spirit rejoices”!
While the traditional picture of Mary over the millennia has been stalled as that of the lowly meek obedient servant, the prophetic strength and courage that Luke ascribes to this woman is striking. She proclaims the presence of God’s dream—the arrival of the Kingdom. Note the tense of the verbs in this passage: He Has Shown strength; He Has Brought Down the powerful; He Has lifted up the lowly; He Has filled the hungry. Not, He Will, but He Has. God has already done it—the Kingdom is here. So we can see that in response to Elizabeth’s affirmation, Mary becomes a connection between the prophets of the past and the promise of God’s dream for the future. The “fullness of time” is here; Emmanuel, God with us.
Recognition and response. In this simple intimate narrative of these two women we have an incarnation of Advent waiting and anticipation—a recognition–a dawning of awareness that something Big is imminent—we can almost touch it—we can feel the static energy of its presence among us, and we are holding our breath in anticipation. How do we respond?
These women are on the margins out in the hill country of Judea, yet the Spirit is profoundly present and revelatory for them. These are women to whom the seemingly impossible has happened, and they recognize it in their encounter with one another, in mutual affirmation, and encouragement. And their response is to take their place as witnesses—indeed catalysts—in, in the words of Presiding Bishop Curry, turning the world upside-down.
The church is increasingly on the margins–and this isn’t the first—or the last—time you will hear me say this—on the margins, countercultural. The church can no longer take for granted a central place in the life of the wider community, or even, honestly, in the lives of its members, who are torn between many competing priorities. Yet, notice that the margins are where the Spirit tends to show up; in places that are out of the way, unexpected, and often vulnerable; even fearful. When the angel came to Zechariah to announce Elizabeth’s pregnancy, he said, “Do not be afraid.” The angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” And to shepherds abiding in the fields, on the margins, we will hear the angel again say, “Fear not.” The Spirit shows up. And the world changes.
About two months ago a couple of women decided to respond to a hunger that they had been feeling and perceiving in the parish. They held the first meeting of the Women’s Spirituality Group—over twenty women came and shared their stories. A week later more women came to the beautifully decorated Great Hall to walk a candlelit labyrinth. And about three weeks ago another couple of dozen or so met to talk about the life and work of German contemplative and mystic Hildegard of Bingen. As we began, first one woman spoke about a passage from Hildegard’s work and how it had touched her life. Then another, recognizing that a chord had been struck by the first woman’s words, spoke in response. And then another responded to her, and on and on, weaving a web of recognition and response as members of the group told their stories. The Spirit showed up. We’ve felt the kick of recognition. Something has started.
The response to the Renewal Works survey indicates that we’ve felt the kick. The revitalized Adult Sunday Forum is thriving. The men’s group, Gander, continues to grow. We are hungry. In the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary we might be able to see ourselves; anxious, questioning, pondering what comes next for us. And if we make haste like Mary to seek out relationships that affirm our yearnings and confirm our particular call to be part of God’s dream for the world, the Spirit will show up.
There is one image of the Visitation that is different from all the rest of the many I looked at. In this one Mary stands at the bottom of the steps to a great stone portico. She looks up to the porch where Elizabeth stands. But instead of showing simple awe or quiet love in her expression and posture, Elizabeth is standing up straight with her hands exultantly in the air, radiant joy in her greeting, as though she’s shouting, “Yay!” It made me laugh with pleasure when I first saw it. Because while there is profound truth to be found in the intimacy of all of those other pictures, we are not to forget the prodigious excitement and joy that this story, this Great Story communicates. Here, on the margins, in our searching and in our wondering, is where the Spirit can be found. In these last days of Advent, as we hold our breath, wait for the kick: God’s Dream awaits us; let our spirits rejoice!
They both needed—and received—confirmation and affirmation of their call. Vulnerablity—the spirit shows up here.
More about Elizabeth?