"But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days." I love this -- "one of the little clans of Judah."
Later on [Luke 3:23-38], Luke will list Jesus' pedigree for us, and it's pretty impressive -- son of David, son of Adam, son of God. But there is a consistent tradition (in both the Old and New Testaments) of God choosing the underdog, the unlikely, the marginalized. And that is the aspect of Jesus' pedigree which I find most resonant. Besides, we are all Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve -- many-gendered children in ways elided by C. S. Lewis, created in the very image and likeness of God.
Mary's hymn of praise says God "has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." These are physical things -- the place in which you dwell, whether your stomachs are full or empty. I'm reading Borg and Crossan's The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem, and the authors talk about how Herod ruled from Jerusalem, and about the opulence of his palace.
Herod ruled from Jerusalem, and the city became magnificent during his reign. Above all, he rebuilt the temple. Beginning in the 20s of the first century BCE, Herod "remodeled" the modest postexilic temple, but in effect built a new temple surrounded by spacious courts and elegant colonnades, with sumptuous use of marble and gold. To do so, he had first to construct an enormous platform, about 1,550 feet by 1,000 feet---almost 40 acres. (p. 13)And so now when I hear about the powerful on their thrones, I have this image of the huge platform of the Temple. A throne isn't just a fancy chair -- it's a symbol of an entire system.
And this system will be overturned. In fact, has been overturned. "God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."
And this redemption and overturn happens through bodies.
Regardless of how exactly "the Holy Spirit came upon her, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her," Mary was with child in a very physical way.
The Nicene Creed affirms that Jesus was "Very God of Very God," but Yeshua was also very flesh of very flesh.
Upon being presented with Eve, Adam exclaims, "Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!" (Genesis 2:23). The child who gestates in your womb is similarly bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh, regardless of its lineage.
We are an incarnate people.
God doesn't say, "Oh, I will rescue your spirits for all eternity while your bodies rot here;" God comes and dwells among us, to redeem us here on Earth.
At Cambridge Welcoming, we concluded this reading not with verse 55 but with verse 56 -- "And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home." I'm really intrigued by this idea that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before going home.
We talked about how the Magnificat comes after Mary has gone to see Elizabeth and after Elizabeth has rejoiced and affirmed her. We talked about the possibility that Mary hadn't really accepted it until she talked to Elizabeth, and I suggested that maybe she went to this hill country town to abort the baby (maybe she had just been placating the angel ... how does one know if an angel is truly from God anyway?) and changed her mind after seeing Elizabeth.
At the end of our conversation, Tiffany asked us what we would take with us from this for the coming week, and I said for me I would take with me that reminder that within the beloved community we can find love and joy even in the midst of events that are so scary and confusing.
I invite you to hear again the story told in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron -- the first High Priest of the Israelites. So these are two people who are deeply steeped in the priestly tradition -- the tradition of those who are specially called to mediate between the people and the Holy of Holies. These two people are getting on in years, and they have no children.
One day, Zechariah is in the sanctuary of the Temple and an angel of the Lord, Gabriel, appears. Zechariah is terrified, but Gabriel says, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah." So Zechariah stops and takes a deep breath maybe. Possibly tries to look less absolutely terrified. Gabriel goes on to say, in what I like to imagine are tones of comfort, "Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a child, and you will name this child John." And here I like to imagine Gabriel getting excited -- so filled with expectant celebration at the great things God is doing. "Many will rejoice at this birth of this child. Even before birth, John will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and will make the people ready for the Lord." Zechariah thinks this is highly unlikely since he and his wife are both quite old. Gabriel does not take back the gift in the face of this skepticism but says, "Because you did not believe my words, you will become mute until what I have told you comes to pass." And so indeed Zechariah is rendered unable to speak. But after he goes home, his wife does conceive. "And for five months she remained in seclusion" -- which I think is interesting.
And when Elizabeth is six months along in her pregnancy, Gabriel again appears, this time in a town called Nazareth, to a young woman named Mary -- betrothed, which is as good as married, to a man named Joseph. Gabriel says, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." Mary isn't sure what to make of this greeting. Perhaps she's outside somewhere. Young women for millennia have been putting up with uninvited approaches from strangers. So maybe she just stands there silently, perhaps a little awkwardly, hoping this stranger will leave her alone.
Gabriel continues: "Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a child, and you will name this child Jesus. This child will be called the Child of the Most High and will reign forever over a kingdom that has no end."
Like Zechariah, Mary questions the physical impossibility of this prophecy. Gabriel does not respond in the same way ze did to Zechariah, though. Instead of punishing Mary for her skepticism, Gabriel patiently explains: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy and will be called Child of God." Gabriel continues, still tenderly, as if to convince Mary of the reality and possibility of this proclamation, "And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a child; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God."
Mary says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Satisfied, Gabriel departs.
And this is where we rejoin today's lectionary.
"In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country."
I can imagine Mary having wanted to placate this stranger but feeling unsure. Maybe this stranger really is a messenger from God. And if so, she is bound to accept this seemingly impossible future for herself. And if the stranger wasn't from God, what was she doing pledging herself to a commitment to these strange words? Has she sinned against God in making this vow to someone who does not come from God?
And so she goes to see her relative Elizabeth. If the impossible news this stranger told her of her aged relative is true, then perhaps the prophecy of her own future is true as well -- and who better to help her prepare for such a future than another woman facing an unlikely child bearing.
And she goes with haste. Maybe the Holy Spirit has already come upon her and she can feel that there is something different, something new, in her body -- can feel that something has changed. Maybe she is frightened.
Mary shows up at the house and greets Elizabeth, and upon hearing this, Elizabeth's unborn baby leaps in the womb.
It is in this encounter that Elizabeth (and, as prophesied, her unborn baby) is filled with the Holy Spirit. Hear that again. It is in this encounter with Mary that Elizabeth, and her unborn baby, are filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes upon Elizabeth and John, not in isolation but in community.
Elizabeth proclaims blessings upon Mary and upon her child yet to be born. She questions yet exults that the mother of her Lord has come to her. And she seems to indicate that she knows Mary is the mother of her Lord because upon hearing Mary's greeting, her unborn child leapt for joy -- even before being born, John is teaching others to recognize the coming of the One. And lastly, she blesses Mary for having believed that what the Lord spoke to her would be fulfilled. If Mary had any doubts as to the stranger's message, perhaps she feels a bit abashed in this moment.
And perhaps Mary feels relieved. Here is this wise old woman, a relative she has known all her life, affirming for her the news the angel gave her -- affirming not just in the sense of reiterating that it is true, but responding to it with joy. Here is her aged relative Elizabeth, incongruously swelled with the curves of a six-month-along gestating baby, a baby who is quickening in her womb, who responds to the very sound of Mary's voice.
Mary responds by blessing God her Savior. This is the first time in this story that God is referred to as Savior rather than as Lord -- at least in the NRSV. God wishes to be Lord of our lives, but not in the domineering way that so many seek to have lordship over our lives. God does not seek to control us, to extort our resources. Rather, God wishes to save us from that which destroys us. In Jesus' day, to proclaim that Christ is Lord was to proclaim that Caesar is not. To proclaim God as Lord is to reject the lordship of all else in our lives -- to reject the claims the world makes on us. To say that we are not enslaved to the hamster wheel pursuit of jobs with higher and higher salaries, of positions with impressive titles, of the next product that will make us thin and beautiful and acceptable. To proclaim that the unnamed God of Judaism and Islam and Christianity is Lord of our lives is to accept the radical notion that we are beloved just as we are, that we are created in the very image and likeness of God, and that we are called to the radical work of proclaiming to each and every person we meet that they too are beloved, and to welcome them into the Beloved Community where Christ has opened up a table of abundant life for all.
Mary blesses God because God has looked with favor on her, a lowly servant of God. She was lowly, but from now on all generations will call her blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for her. Not through her, but for her. This child is a gift -- not just to the world in some abstract way, but to her in a very particular and concrete way.
Mary goes on to proclaim that God's mercy is for those who fear God -- those who recognize that it is God rather than the powers of this world toward whom we should orient our lives. God has scattered the proud and brought down the powerful -- lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things, sending the rich away empty. Those who seem to triumph in the systems of this world will not always be triumphant.
God remembers a promise made so many generations ago to Abraham and all Abraham's descendants -- descendants who are as numberless as the stars (Genesis 15:5). God proclaimed to Abraham that, "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:3), and it is this promise that God and Mary are recalling.
This is the Sunday of Love.
"For God so loved the world that God gave God's only Child that whosoever believeth in Hir should not perish but have eternal life." So says my best friend. (And also the Gospel of John.)
The Psalmist cries out:
O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?I'm so struck by that line, "You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure."
You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
God provides us food and drink -- food and drink which is sometimes painful. Sometimes our mouths are full of our weeping.
And sometimes it is the radiant face of God shining before us that jolts us out of that weeping, that startles us into slack-jawed amazement that the tears may fall out of our mouths and God may feed us something new. The Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing that we share together every week at Christ's Table -- the Eucharist (from the Greek, meaning "thanksgiving").
Paul tell us, "Consequently, when Christ came into the world, she said, 'Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure' " (Hebrews 10:5-6).
This is a major theme throughout this Epistle -- that our focus should not be on sacrifices in the Temple but rather on Christ's bodily sacrifice which is so world-shaking and salvific. Mary, too, offers up her own body as a sacrifice to God -- not in a martyrdom way, but saying, "Here, God, let it be with me according to your will." Mary gives up lordship over her own life, gives that lordship over to God, saying, "God, I trust you. I trust your will for my life. I commit myself to follow your Way, to let myself be led to surprising and sometimes frightening places."
It is not the fact of Jesus' death but rather Jesus' faithfulness even unto death that we are called to imitate.
Again and again in the passage from Hebrews, Jesus says to God, "I have come to do Your will" -- not, "I have come to die," but "I have come to do Your will." And so we are all called to follow in the Way of Jesus, always seeking the will of God.
So go now, in the assurance of the everlasting and ever-faithful love of God, emboldened to proclaim that all are beloved of God, and to work to open up Christ's abundant table for all.