TAKEN BY SURPRISE
Elizabeth creates a safe space for Mary and her unexpected news
This time of year, seven years ago, I was about a month into pregnancy. The season was one of expectation, disbelief, and excitement, but we were not telling anyone about the pregnancy for fear that something could go wrong. Hiding one’s pregnancy in those first months is a common cultural practice for many women and families who are sensitive about the uncertainty of pregnancy. But holding a secret like pregnancy can invoke a mixture of emotions. You may feel anxious that someone will discover your secret. You may feel afraid that something will go wrong and worry about how you would share the news. You may feel guilty about telling white lies to hide your ultimate secret. Holding a secret about ourselves can create an inner tension and an outer isolation that is unsettling and unnerving.
We do not know whether Mary had planned to tell Elizabeth about her pregnancy. In Luke’s gospel, Mary never gets the chance to tell Elizabeth the news herself. Luke only tells us that after Mary is told that she is pregnant with Jesus, the angel tells her that Elizabeth, who is past the childbearing age, is six months pregnant. Mary immediately goes to Elizabeth. Most scholars believe that Mary goes to Elizabeth to offer care for Elizabeth’s pregnancy.[i] But we cannot know whether Mary planned to tell Elizabeth about her own pregnancy. Mary had every reason not to tell her. To an outsider, Mary’s pregnancy is not good news. She is unwed, young, poor, and pregnant. This combination would make her an outcast, and typically no man would take her as a wife.[ii] In Mary’s day, her pregnancy and her resulting un-marriageable status is almost a death sentence. Women in this time depended on a husband for financial support and social acceptance. Although Mary’s pregnancy is good news from God, in the social context, that joy is negated and forced into silence. Given her situation, we can imagine that Mary might have wanted to keep her pregnancy a secret. Although she is rushing to Elizabeth to care for her, Mary may have been dreading the pending time of holding a secret and the inner tension and outer isolation that her secret will cause.
In modern times, we too struggle with sharing information within a community. One of our most common greetings is, “How are you?” And the usual response is, “Good.” But our common greeting is rarely a genuine question about how someone is actually doing. In fact, many of us have a short list of people with whom we avoid asking that question altogether because we know we will be there an hour later hearing about aches, pains, and their crazy neighbor. We prefer our short greeting and response because not only do we not want to really hear about someone else’s problems, we do not want to tell others how we are truly doing either. “Good” becomes our code word for, “I am mostly fine, but I don’t want to tell you how I really am.” Sometimes “good” is a necessary response for keeping others from prying into our lives.
But sometimes “good” is a way of preventing authentic relationship. While I was in seminary we were required to serve part-time in local parishes. At the church where I was serving, Easter Vigil was a big deal. We had many more acolytes, ushers, and Eucharistic Ministers than normal. As we prepared to line up the large group for the procession, I noticed one of the acolytes was not as chipper as she usually is. I asked her if she was okay, and she blurted out that she had had a fight with her parents on the way to church and was still in a bad mood. I was surprised by her candor, especially in front of all the other acolytes. But as soon as she shared her frustration, several of the acolytes gave her a pat on the shoulder, or commiserated with her experience. Somehow, saying out loud why she was in a bad mood allowed her to release some of her tension and start fresh that night.
Preventing authentic relationship is not just something we do with each other. We also struggle with sharing information with God. During worship, we model corporate confession to God. But how many of us really take our personal struggles to God? Perhaps we have been so ashamed of something that we could not even talk to God about it. Or perhaps we have been angry about how something is going in our life – the job that we did not get, the unhappiness we are having in a relationship, or the illness that is not healing. Sometimes our anger about a situation clouds our emotions so much that we cannot imagine lifting the situation to God in prayer. At times of heightened emotions, we feel the least capable of inviting God into our shame, anger, or grief.
The encounter between Elizabeth and Mary today offers a complete counter to our natural tendencies toward being guarded and resistant to authenticity and intimacy. Before Mary can offer a veiled “I’m good,” Elizabeth immediately greets Mary with joy and blessing. If Mary is at all concerned about Elizabeth’s judgment, shunning, or slandering within the community, Mary misjudges. Instead of the expected judgment, Elizabeth offers Mary warm acceptance and praise. Elizabeth not only blesses Mary for being the carrier of the Savior, she also blesses Mary for being faithful to God.[iii] Elizabeth does not tentatively ask Mary if she is going to be okay or encourage her to be quiet about her shameful pregnancy. Instead, Elizabeth sees the glory of Mary’s pregnancy, ignores cultural norms, and celebrates loudly the magnificence of what God will do through Mary. Elizabeth proclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth’s response is the exact opposite of what Mary may have expected.
The countercultural response of Elizabeth to Mary is the same countercultural way that God operates among us. God chooses Mary, a young, poor, unwed woman to be the bearer of God. God chooses Elizabeth, a woman far beyond the age of conception, to be God’s prophet.[iv] God lifts up the poor and oppressed and calls them blessed. God takes on human form in Jesus, lowering God’s self to come and be among us. God’s way is almost always countercultural. God has a way of turning things upside down and shaking up our thinking. Through the brief encounter between Elizabeth and Mary – two marginal women – God reveals the earthy, authentic, countercultural way that God calls us to be in relationship with one another and with God. Looking through this very human interaction between two women, we are able to anticipate the very human child of Jesus who will transform all our relationships in a countercultural way.
As we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth and we await the coming of Christ again, we are reminded through Elizabeth and Mary of the invitation that we have into authentic, Christian relationship with one another and with God. Mary and Elizabeth’s encounter reminds us that our church community is a gift. Our community is a place where we can be vulnerable with one another, share our hopes and dreams with one another, and share our shame, guilt, and fear with one another. Our community is a place where when someone asks you how you are, we really want to know how you are. Our community is a place where we can expect beautifully, and often brutally, shared honesty. Our community helps us model the kind of relationship that Elizabeth and Mary have.
Elizabeth and Mary also invite us into authentic relationship with God. Most Sundays we open our worship with a prayer called the Collect for Purity. We pray: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid …” Weekly we admit that despite the fact that we do not want to take our shame, our anger, our fear, or our secrets to God, God knows them anyway. God is the Elizabeth for us Marys. God greets us with joy and blessing before we can even share our secret. God already knows and God loves us. God wipes away tension and isolation and throws upon us the cloak of love. As we enter into a time with family, friends, and church to celebrate Christ’s birth, I invite you to let go of anxiety and isolation. I invite you to consider the warmth of Elizabeth toward Mary and God toward us, and to give that anxiety and isolation to God. Give those feelings to God because perhaps this year, you will find an Elizabeth in your life who can warmly embrace you into the love and acceptance of Christ. Amen.
[i] Robert Redman, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 94.
[ii] Judith Jones, “Commentary on Luke 1:39-45, (46-55),” December 20, 2015 as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723 on December 12, 2015.
[iii] Stephen A. Cooper, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 95.
[iv] Charles C. Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 95.