Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent 4 (Year C) - Dec. 23, 2018

Advent 4
Year C
December 23, 2018
Luke 1:39-55

In my mind, as I picture the scene from this morning’s gospel, I have tended to think of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth as a family visit - a baby shower of sorts. In my family, when there is a pregnancy, the women tend to travel to visit with the expectant mother. My brother and I are the youngest of this generations of cousins, so most of my cousins have gotten married, have had children, etc. I was a pre-teen when my most of my cousins began having children, so I started going with my mom to the baby showers. My mom and I would get up early to travel the 3 hours to the area in which my mom grew up, and we’d return home late at night after the festivities. It was a female-only space where friends and family gathered to celebrate the new life that is about to be born. There were games and gifts. And little booties filled with blue or pink M&Ms (always a thrill for the few of us who don’t eat chocolate). And little blue or pink trinkets for us to take with us. There was talk about birth and nursing and babies, as my gram says, with their days and nights mixed up, and the joys and exhaustion of parenthood. And that’s kinda how I envisioned this scene - minus the m&ms, of course.

But, then I wonder, if over the years, as I’ve encountered this story again and again, I’ve tamed this scene a bit too much. I’ve made this story fit into my worldview and into what I have come to expect from our preparations for the birth of children.

Thinking more about it, It is a surprise that we get this piece of the story, at all. As Luke tells us earlier, Elizabeth is in seclusion. She faces solitude because women’s bodies, especially when talking about reproduction and childbirth, were still incredibly taboo. It was “women’s talk” and it was conversation that was to remain private (and yet here we have the stories on paper). Turning to Mary, her pregnancy would have brought shame upon her and her family. Further, she shouldn’t even be travelling to the hills of Judea alone. This is no small trek from Nazareth. It was a trek that required travelling from the region of Galilee, through Samaria, and into the southern region of Judea, likely a journey of several days. And women who travelled alone were, not only at risk of physical harm, but also the accusations of deviant behavior and the social implications that followed it (those assumptions and accusations certainly not helped by being an unwed mother-to-be). While visiting family was a legitimate reason for travel, Mary should not have made that journey, especially alone.

Yes, of course, Mary and Elizabeth are celebrating the new lives that are to come - with the births of John and Jesus. The text tells us that much. Yet it still isn’t exactly the baby shower that I had pictured in my head. Instead of family from far and wide gathering together to celebrate as a community, we get the meeting of two marginalized pregnant women - Elizabeth pushed to the edge of society for a chunk of her adult life because she was barren, too old to conceive - someone who, until now, was unable to fulfil her duty as a woman to bring about children and heirs - and Mary pushed to the edge of society because she was an unwed (and likely poor) mother. Their positions in life put them in an unsettled place.

In that society, these women are two of the least expected to be bearers of the Good News. We get the Good News this morning not from the rich, not from the powerful, not from men, but instead from women from the edges of society - living in seclusion apart from community and apart from family. The seclusion and the marginalization that these women face will not have the last word. Society’s norms and expectations are no barrier for God at work in the lives of these women. In their unlikely meeting, in this unsettled place that they inhabit in their society, they begin to find the new life and the new community that the Savior will bring about - not just for them but for the whole world. In other words, this meeting between two pregnant women is a small scale glimpse into the new life that God promises to bring about in Christ. The hope and the anticipation is palpable as John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. It is these two women who first proclaim and witness to the joy of the good news of the coming of Jesus. Even more, they are active and willing participants in God’s vision for the world - not just in their acceptance of their pregnancies but also in the new life found in community with each other.

Today, we get to hear Mary’s song of praise (also called the Magnificat) twice. Once, as our psalm, and again, at the end of our Gospel reading. It is a beautiful hymn in which Mary proclaims the good that God is doing for her, and moves outward, proclaiming that this is indeed good news for everyone, for the whole world.

Her song is a proclamation, not just about what God has done for her, but what God is doing in
the Christ Child for the entire world. One of my favorite hymns is the absolutely beautiful Canticle of the Turning, based on the Magnificat. In the refrain, the hymn puts it this way:

  “My heart shall sing of the day you bring.          
   Let the fires of your justice burn.
  Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
  and the world is about to turn!”

This morning, Mary is pointing us precisely to that world that is about to turn. The dawn that draws near in Christ in which people are made right with God and with neighbor. And that turning world has effects - on individuals - like Mary and Elizabeth themselves - and also on the whole world.

God is turning the world upside down - the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted high; the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. This reversal is highlighted by how God is bringing Godself down by becoming human, and even more, by becoming a baby - vulnerable and totally dependent on those around him. In Jesus, we have a God that is on the side of the lowly and the vulnerable, having been there Godself. God is turning the world on its head, bringing about a world where oppression ceases, where poverty is eradicated, where community is restored, where all that separates us from our neighbor is broken by the strength of God’s arm. It is about the liberating salvation that is coming into this world in the Christ Child. And in Mary’s song, we can definitively say, to answer the question of the popular song, yes, Mary did know. Her hymn unites what she is experiencing with the God’s vision for the world. A vision that she waits to be fully realized in her son. A vision that she herself participated in, as the mother of our Lord.

The distance between us and these two women seems vast. And it makes it easy to romanticize the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth (as I admittedly have done - thinking of this as a baby shower). It makes it easy to just hear Mary’s hymn as a beautiful hymn, but one that doesn’t have much to say to us today. Perhaps we even see Mary’s words as foolish. The powerful still have power. The distance between rich and poor only seems to get wider. Racism and sexism run rampant. Our siblings of different gender identities, sexual orientations, skin colors, religions, are still pushed to the edges of society. The world still seems so unsettled.

As I think about Mary’s song, along with Mary and Elizabeth, we too anticipate God’s vision of the world finally being fully realized here in this world. We too are affected by the ways in which society and society’s expectations pull us apart from our neighbor. The seclusion and the marginalization that us or our neighbors face will not have the last word. Society’s norms and expectations are no barrier for God at work in our world. We are waiting for our unsettled worlds to be turned upside down. Along with Mary and Elizabeth, we too can look at our lives and the world around us and see God at work in Christ - sometimes in the most unlikely places. We can see God at work when relationships are restored as forgiveness and grace are given, when community is found as we embrace all our neighbors, when folks living in poverty find relief, etc. These seemingly smaller things are glimpses into the turned-upside-down world that, in Jesus, God is bringing about. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we too are drawn into God’s vision for the world, to the point that our anticipation for the world that we long for turns to participation in that vision - so that we become active in the acts of forgiveness, of restoration, of lifting up those living under the weight of poverty and oppression. And we call upon Christ to keep coming into this world again and again, to fully bring about God’s vision into this world.

As we make this transition together from Advent hope and expectation to Christmas morn, I leave you with a (slightly edited and expanded) Franciscan Christmas blessing:

May God bless us with joy at the coming of Christ, that our vision for this world may become the vision that God has for this world:

May God bless us with discomfort at half-truths, easy answers, and superficial relationships, so that we will live deeply and from the heart - with the love we find in Jesus.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so that we will work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed with those in pain, so that we will reach out our hands to them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world that is about to turn, so that our anticipation turns to participation in the turning world, doing those things that others say cannot be done.

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