Dare to Respond
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
4th Sunday of Advent - The Rev. Emily Griffin
St. Alban’s, DC – 12/20/15
Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:46-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45
We all know where we’re going, don’t we? The road we travel this week as Christians is no mystery. There’s no last minute plot twist. We’ve been making this trip in our imaginations at least for the last 2000 years. It’s no spoiler alert to say that by week’s end, we’ll be with Mary and Joseph and the baby in the little town of Bethlehem. And in case we’ve forgotten where we’re headed, we have the prophet Micah from our first reading to remind us. He doesn’t know exactly who he’s waiting for or how long it will take, but he knows that Bethlehem is the place.
And in that respect, he has a leg up on Mary – at least where we find her today. In today’s Gospel snapshot, she’s just made a journey – but it’s not to Bethlehem. In Luke’s telling of the story anyway, she’s just found out via heavenly messenger that she’s going to be the mother of the Most High, and rather than break the news to Joseph right away (a difficult conversation, to say the least), she beats it out of town for a few months and heads south to her older cousin Elizabeth instead. We think of Mary’s trip to Bethlehem as the great journey of Christmas, but really for her it starts with this step – the first time she shares with someone else the call she’s heard from God, someone who might not believe her.
Then again, if anyone has a shot at understanding what Mary’s facing, it’s Elizabeth. In some respects, Elizabeth fits the profile of your typical biblical heroine better than Mary does. Elizabeth, like Sarah and Hannah before her, is an older, so-called “barren” woman who’s been waiting for a child her entire adult life. And like her ancestors before her, she’s endured the pity and scorn of those who expected her to have a baby already. She’s put up with her share of speculation, of nosiness, of a shame she didn’t earn but had to live with nonetheless. It’s no wonder that she’s kept to herself these last several months of pregnancy – waiting to meet the one God has, for whatever reason, chosen her to raise. We think raising Jesus must have been a challenge for Mary; I’m guessing it wasn’t a picnic for Elizabeth either. For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been hearing about John the Baptist, the wild man in the desert preparing the way of the Lord, wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey. Now imagine being his mother.
Imagine trying to keep shoes on his feet or helping him to eat a balanced diet. Imagine teaching the one who went around calling religious leaders “broods of vipers” how to respect his elders and be polite. As I’m sure Elizabeth would tell you, even when we think we know what we’re waiting for, it’s almost never what we expect.
It turns out Mary’s instincts were spot on. Elizabeth provided the softest possible place to land. She could have said anything when she heard Mary’s greeting. She could have barraged her with advice; she could have tried to give her a morals lesson on the foolishness of youth and the dangers of not waiting; she could have filled up all the time talking about herself. But she didn’t.
In perhaps the most uncredited quote in history, she offers Mary a blessing instead: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” For thousands of years, men and women alike have been quoting Elizabeth as they’ve said their Hail Marys, as they’ve sung their Ave Marias. (We should know who we’re quoting; that’s all I’m saying.) But it’s not just for her role as soon-to-be mother that Mary is blessed; Elizabeth our theologian rightly points out that it is not Mary’s child-bearing capacity that makes her special; it’s her faith. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And no, Elizabeth is not speaking about herself here in the third person. You see, Elizabeth never got the angel visit, the holy heads up; her husband Zechariah the priest did. He got the annunciation straight from Gabriel’s mouth about the birth of their long-awaited child. Elizabeth was never told anything; she had to pay attention to what was happening to her and draw her own conclusions about God’s movement in her life. And so she did.
What does this ancient story have to do with us? Mary draws out some of the political implications in the Magnificat (our Canticle for today), but I’ll leave exploration of that for another time. Let’s focus on Elizabeth for a moment. This is the only time we hear from her in three years of Sunday readings. She’s worth a second look. Like her, most of us aren’t graced with visits from heavenly beings foretelling our futures. Our signs from God are more like the ones Elizabeth read; we feel them with our bodies. We sense them in our spirits. We meet them in the faces and voices of those who come to visit us.
And when we dare to respond, we take on roles we never expected to fill. Her husband is the priest, and yet it is Elizabeth who’s the prophet here – the one filled with the Holy Spirit. It is Elizabeth who blesses Mary and gives her the room and space to pray. It is Elizabeth, the lay person, the clergy spouse, who offers the human voice of comfort and reassurance when Mary needs it most.
I found myself thinking this week about the Elizabeths in my life. With the funeral of Mary Wade this past week, I’m guessing some of you have been too. I’ve been thinking of the people (both men and women) a few steps ahead of me in the life of faith who gave me shelter and a soft place to land when I needed it. The mentors who saw my vocation as a priest before I did and greeted it with joy while I was still scared, or the friends who were gracious with me when I was anxious (and overly talkative, no doubt) about my relationships, or the colleagues who helped me to be OK with the fact that we never really know what’s coming next. I also found myself wondering who my Marys might be – who might be looking to me for understanding and calm. Perhaps that might be your point of reflection too. Who are your Elizabeths? Who are your Marys? Whether they’re physically with us this Christmas or not, perhaps it’s time to thank God for them and who they’ve stretched you to become.
Or maybe your focus is a bit closer at hand. I’m guessing that many of us will be entertaining visitors over the next several days – family or friends who’ve become family to us.
Or if you’re not receiving visitors at home, we most certainly will be hosting folks here on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I wonder what it would look like if we received them the way Elizabeth receives Mary – if we offered to everyone who visits us a blessing and a soft place to land. Please hear me - I’m not saying that we can’t draw boundaries when we need to; there are times when we can’t give strangers or even loved ones everything they want from us. But perhaps we don’t need to lead with unsolicited advice or a morals lesson; perhaps we can lead with an open mind and an open heart instead and let God do the heavy lifting.
Sometimes this is easier with strangers than it is with our own families; when it comes to our parents or children especially, we think we know what we’re in for. We know how they’ve judged us in the past, how they’ve narrowed their visions of us to their own selective memories; what we don’t always realize is that we’ve probably done the same to them. If they haven’t let us grow, perhaps we haven’t let them grow or change either. I wonder what would happen if we followed Elizabeth’s and Mary’s examples this Christmas – if we reached out across the distances of age and experience and dared to talk about the calls we’ve heard from God, if we learned to greet the unexpected not just with fear – but with wonder and joy because we know the God who calls us, if we trusted that what is in store for all of us is worth waiting for.
Then again, when it comes to waiting, Elizabeth and Mary don’t have a corner on that. Frankly, they have nothing on Micah from our first reading – the one who pointed us to Bethlehem so many centuries before. He writes of an ideal ruler to come from that little town – one who will be of peace. Mind you, as he’s writing, it has been at least 300 years since King David was born in Bethlehem, and nothing remarkable had happened there since. It will be another 700 years before Jesus puts it back on the map. Whether we think this is a messianic text or not, Micah received this word of hope in the 8th century BCE, having no idea when it would be fulfilled – only that the One who made the promise was trustworthy…so he passed it on to us.
My point? When you think about it, Bethlehem wasn’t even on Mary’s itinerary at this point in her journey. As far as she knows, she’ll eventually leave Elizabeth and go home to face Joseph, her family, her community back in Nazareth – and God only knows what their reaction will be. She can’t see much past that. By Christmas night, of course, she’ll be in Bethlehem – but she won’t stay there long either. Before long, she and her little family will be refugees on their way to Egypt escaping Herod’s death threats. It will be years before she’s finally home again.
But maybe it’s OK that she doesn’t know all of that just now. Maybe, as her son will say decades later, “today’s troubles are enough for today.” And today, what she has in front of her is an impossible call from God that she somehow believes and words of comfort from an older, wiser friend. She doesn’t know where the journey will take her any more than we know where our lives will take us, but she does trust that the One who promised to be with her will be with her every step of the way – no matter how long it takes to get there. Maybe for today that’s enough for us too. Amen.