Sunday, December 20, 2015

4th Advent, Mary Visits Elizabeth

I begin by pulling apart our Gospel for the day. Today, we enter the story in the Gospel of Luke after the angel Gabriel has visited Mary and told her that she will be the mother of God.
Mary’s response is go and visit her cousin. We don’t know why (in practical terms) she went to visit her cousin. Maybe it was because she knew that her cousin was “well to do” and could take care of her. (Because Elizabeth is the wife of a priest and likely has more means than Mary). Or maybe she went out of respect for her elder cousin who was already six months pregnant. But whatever the practical reason, the reason from our perspective is the Elizabeth verifies the message from the Angel Gabriel.
Elizabeth verifies the message for Mary and for us. She’s a good verifier (we can trust her) first because she is an extraordinarily pious woman who is married to a priest. So on both sides, she’s got credentials when it comes to a matter of faith.

And second, Mary (and we) can trust her, because she’s got some practical experience—after all, she’s six months pregnant already, and her conception is already a miracle.
The verification comes in a powerful, physical way—the child in her womb leaps. There is a sign first. Before Elizabeth even sees Mary—she hears her greeting and the child in her womb moves in an extraordinary way.

Then that physical verification is confirmed as she is filled with the Holy Spirit. So Elizabeth first feels the child move—which might have been a very worrying or confusing sign, but then she feels God’s presence in her and it is clear to her—so she shouts loudly.  Elizabeth makes a proclamation—first she proclaims that Mary is blessed. --"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And then second, she recognizes Mary as the “mother of my Lord.” She is the first to name the child of Mary the Messiah—the Lord.

But the final part of Elizabeth’s realization is spoken about herself—she confirms her own faith when she says-- heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.
Elizabeth is confirming her own faith. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

It seems to me that in this story there is a model of faithfulness for us. This exchange between Mary and Elizabeth is part of Jesus’ birth story. But maybe we can see this exchange as part of our birth story—as we prepare for Jesus to come again into our world, as we prepare for new life, for the Kingdom of God, what can we learn from this exchange.

First, I take the lesson that when you’re not sure whether you’ve got a clear sign from God (as Mary wasn’t sure), you should find the most faithful people you know and check with them. When you have questions about what God wants from you, whether you are being called in a certain way—this is a good time to check in with your faith community. Maybe it’s not clear what God is calling you to do. It seems as improbable as Mary’s visitation from the angel Gabriel. I think about Joe Jennings from St. Stephens and his vision—Reindeer for the Homeless. (Raingear for the homeless). (If you missed this story from a few weeks ago, I’ll tell you at coffee hour.)

But this is how God’s call comes to us. We have a dream, a thought, a friend tells us, a stranger makes a remark. And generally it’s not clear that this God’s call. But if we are open and listening, we may wonder if this is what God wants us to do—even if it seems completely improbable. Maybe that is the moment when we need to find our most faithful friends, go to visit, call them up and ask, “What do you think about this idea?”
Then from Elizabeth we see several lessons—first be aware of the physical signs. It’s a hard thing sometimes to “listen” to our bodies. But I’m sure you’ve had that experience—you find yourself uncomfortable, physically uncomfortable, in a situation. Your body is telling you something about what is going on. Maybe you notice that when you work on some projects, your usual aches and pains go away and you just feel energized? Maybe you find yourself crying when you say a certain prayer, or sing a certain hymn. Maybe you feel a wave of love, or a warmth when you do certain things. Pain in the back, headaches, knots in the stomach. These things can all have medical explanations. But they might also give us information about what is true for us. Her child leaped in her womb when she heard Mary’s voice and she knew that she was witnessing the mother of the Messiah.

Maybe there are moments when we might feel something in our bodies and know what is really true, even if it seems impossible.

Then Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Have you had that experience? Maybe you never described it that way. But there are moments when we are filled with a sense of God—a knowledge that is complete, a sense that we are right with God or that we know exactly what we are supposed to do. There are moments when we don’t know what is up—we waffle back and forth—we wonder what God wants of us. And then there are moments of clarity, when God has filled us up. When you have one of those “filled with t he Holy Spirit” moments. We must respond like Elizabeth and speak with a clear loud voice. She makes a proclamation. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

She recognizes that Mary has been blessed by God. And isn’t this important to both Mary and to us? To say, “you are blessed” is to affirm Mary, to give thanks for the gift of her service to God and to give thanks for her pregnancy. We can imagine what this must have been like—an unmarried young woman, pregnant? She could have been subject of scorn or judgement. But instead, Elizabeth, the most faithful one affirms her and says, this is a blessing. You are blessed and the child, the fruit of your womb is blessed. What a difference this affirmation makes. It reminds me how important it is when someone might be viewed as “unfortunate”—how it changes everything to recognize their blessedness.

And when Elizabeth calls her the mother of her Lord. She is recognizing the Christ child, naming him the Messiah. I wonder if there are opportunities for us to recognize Christ in the child on the bus, the fussing baby in the supermarket. We are called by our Baptisms to serve Christ in every person. But naming “blessedness” and recognizing Christ out loud—this is the very beginning of our work. We serve Christ in one another not because we are “good people”, but because we know that this is God’s expression of love in the world. God is known in each person and our responses must be the responses that we offer to God. We are in human relationships, but they are relationships that come from this mysterious presence of God in the world.

And then the final lesson from Elizabeth is how this work—recognizing and blessing is just what we are called to do because it builds up our own faith. We are blessed when we believe.

Let us continue our Advent journey,  building up our faith, proclaiming our neighbors blessedness, hearing God's call to us as we are led towards the improbable but necessary ministries that will make known Christ's presence in our world.

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