In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
We have come to the end of Advent. Advent has been rough this year. We have endured talk of the end times and John the Baptist’s fiery preaching from the river banks.
Finally today, on this last Sunday of Advent things start to sound a little more Christmasy. Elizabeth, a woman thought to be too old to conceive and barren, is pregnant with John. Mary, a virgin still only engaged to be married, is pregnant with the Messiah.
Today’s story sounds beautiful and picturesque. It is easy for us to imagine two delightfully pregnant women greeting one another lovingly; a scene that makes us smile.
But we forget to consider the struggles these two women are facing. Elizabeth is older than a pregnant woman should be. She and Zechariah will be raising a child in their old age, more like grandparents who have unexpectedly found themselves raising children again. While Mary is a young unmarried teen girl, and her fiancé is not the father of her child. Joseph could call off the marriage off at best… maybe forcing Mary to a life of begging on streets, with a child to care for. At worst, both she and her unborn child could be stoned for adultery. For both women in their day, child birth was dangerous and all too often women would not survive the birth experience without some luck. There is probably more relief than joy while the women greet one another, as Mary has gone with haste to see her cousin, to avoid the judgement of her hometown family and friends.
The story of Mary and Elizabeth is not one of those Christmas movies. Rather it is story full of fear and danger, one that stands in contrast to the Christmas image we generally try to present. Mary and Elizabeth challenge the notion that we usually hold about Christmas: shopping, baking, decorating and hosting. Mary and Elizabeth introduce things we don’t want to talk about this time of year. Fear, danger, shame and uncertainty.
Marlena’s mind was wandering, thinking about Christmas things. Father Angelo’s voice snapped her back to attention, “These two reveal to us the ways in which the spirit is pregnant with possibilities among us.” Marlena was sitting in the pews at St. David’s, listening to the sermon on the last Sunday before Christmas.
With her was her husband Jim and to two kids, Lizzie and David. The world had been slowly finding a new equilibrium. Even with masks in church, showing their vaccine passports, sitting one household to a pew… simply being at church with other people was such an improvement over the year before.
As she began scanning the congregation scattered throughout the amphitheatre style seating, she caught the eyes of a good friend Miriam. Miriam and her family had become quite close to Marlena’s family this past year. Miriam was holding a bouncing one year old girl in her lap while keeping a precocious 4 year old busy in the pew below her.
Marlena smiled, though she knew that smiling happened mostly with the eyes while wearing a mask. Miriam seemed to be smiling back, but she couldn’t help but look tired. Marlena was too. They all were.
The real story of Mary discovering that she is pregnant unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we hope to create. The perfect and ideal vision of the perfect family preparing for a new baby. This was supposed to be the Christmas that we have been desperately hoping for after our zoom Christmas last year. Yet, once again our plans are disrupted and real life will not come close to matching our expectations, our hopes and dreams. We easily imagine calm and peaceful expectant mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, as if they this is the way the planned to have children all along.
Just as we imagine our own family gatherings, Christmas parties, and holidays traditions that we used know. But that is our version of Christmas. NOT necessarily God’s.
God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about couples too old to raise a child, about judgment and the threat of death. It is about tiresome pandemics, exhausted poeple, a longing for our trials tribulations to be over. And it is about how God’s people respond to fear and danger.
After church Marlena and Miriam met in the in parking lot. The kids were playing on the windrows that surrounded the cars. Jim and Miriams’ husband Jesse were chatting about work. Marlena looked to her friend.
“Have you heard from your family yet?:” Marlena asked.
“They aren’t going to make it.”
“What about Jesse’s family?
“They can’t either.” Said Miriam.
The two friends looked at each other.
“Well, then it is settled.” Marlena declared. “You all will come us to the lakehouse.”
“I feel like we are imposing on your family Christmas, we have done that enough already.” Responded Miriam.
“Nonsense. You are family. Christmas without you would hardly be Christmas.”
Sometimes the real world can get in the way of Christmas. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to an old woman and unwed teen mom living in poverty.
God does not wait for the everything to be perfect or to fall into place in order to begin the work of the incarnation. God does not come only when it is safe and there is nothing to fear. God’s activity of taking on our flesh and becoming like us starts now. God comes to us, whether we want God to or not.
Mary’s and Elizabeth’s real life shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, visions of perfect Christmases. Mary and Elizabeth show us a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.
Miriam looked at her friend Marlena.
“Why do you keep taking care of us?” Miriam asked. “Aren’t you tired of us yet? Aren’t we more work than we are worth?”
Marlena laughed. “Ridiculous. We aren’t the ones stuck with you, you are the ones stuck with us. Ever since that roadside motel, when I got to hold newborn Christopher in my arms, when I see the way my kids and Jim come alive with you all. Your family is special to us. I see hope and joy and promise when we are together.”
Miriam sighed. “The spirit pregnant with possibilities, just like Father Angelo said, I guess.”
The two friends smiled and laughed, and this time they could see each others’ faces.
For when Mary gets past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when she get spast the fear of death for adultery, she with her husband to be Joseph, with her elderly cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah, they all become guardians of God’s promise, bearers of the Good News made flesh.
And it is the same for us, when our fears and worries get out in the way, when we can’t see what God is up to. God comes anyways. And God bears grace and mercy for the world in us. God makes us the messengers of the Good News of God’s love and compassion for all. God sends Messiah to frightened world.
And because of what God is doing, with Mary, we can sing:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”