Advent 4: 20 December Luke 1:39-45
It is all happening very quickly. Already it is Christmas Eve tomorrow and then Christmas Day. Christmas will rush past us quickly this year. We need to help people stop for the story.
In this brief passage the stories of Elizabeth and Mary, indirectly of John and Jesus, intersect. The two women take centre stage. Inspired by the Spirit, Elizabeth declares the fruit of Mary’s womb blessed. The babe will become the Lord in a world of lords and masters. We are almost there: wait for tomorrow for the new look Caesar, the new look peace.
While this short episode looks forward to the life whose significance is celebrated so typically in tales of his nativity, a common way of celebrating the famous in the ancient world, it brings our attention to the women. Elizabeth first declares Mary blessed, before going on to speak of her child. Mary is blessed because she will bear the child and because she has been a willing participant in the divine initiative.
The Magnificat, Mary’s song, 1:46-55, gives voice to her blessedness and at the same time reconnects the personal events to the wider vision which will challenge the lordships of this world. Note the connections as we move through the song: personal joy (47), personal call and blessedness (48), personal divine encounter with the holy one (49), divine compassion for all who fear God (50), divine transformation on a wider front, deposing the powers and lifting the fallen (51-55). The context of the story is the vision of change and transformation.
This divine-human story celebrates women and mothers bringing their creativity to the movement for change. There is no marginalising of women’s stories here, although this is the exception rather than the rule in the early writings. The pressures would have been enormous to romanticise women’s roles into submissive stereotypes or limit their identity to pregnancy, childbirth, and child raising. Maybe this is already operating here, but across two thousand years of tradition let us take what survived the male editors and celebrate what these stories can represent.
Spirituality is not men’s business alone. Holiness is the companion of life, of intimacy, of pregnancy, of childbirth, of family. Holiness is at home with the unromantic and painful aspects of all of these. Holiness invites both men and women into sensing divine presence in the first stirrings, the foetal gymnastics, the soiled nappies/diapers, the tired nights, the teething cries, the not knowing what to do. Human business is holy business - and frequently messy business.
Elizabeth and Mary are not to be locked away in obscurity. Their sisters do not need male approval to matter. Their place is not back stage. In the real dramas of change throughout the world and its history they have leading roles, though often by choice or by constraint not those which govern the male syntax. Beyond obscurity, beyond abuse - and Elizabeth and Mary would have had their fill of it in their time - Elizabeth and Mary are people, whose identity is to be defined ultimately not by their gender or ethnicity, but by their personhood which embraces and does not deny the specificities of their personhood.
It has not been easy to let them be persons. The best celebrations of Mary celebrate her as a person, who participates in the magic of the divine plan. The virginal conception is not meant to be a disqualification of her womanhood. It is a miracle to explain a miracle: the divine presence in Jesus. Like all explanations it works for some, not for others. It assumes the divine seed is created and Mary is the garden and is uncluttered by our complex understandings of how human reproduction really works. But there is no indication that Mary should be seen as a result as less than human or more than human, less than woman or more than woman. She is ‘blessed among women’ - she remains woman.
There are usually people sitting in our services, both women and men, who have great difficulty thinking that holiness also wants to embrace their humanity, their sexuality, their intimacy, their struggles. If we diminish Mary (downwards or upwards), we diminish them. At its best the Mary stories have been the place where such people have found a friendly face, a relief from what became the austere Jesus and the remote Almighty. There will be worrying and busy Marys, sometimes unfairly carrying the burden of festive preparations, who can find Christmas very alienating, anything but holy or full of grace. They need to hear the story that they matter.
Christmas is fascinating as a place of marginalisation. Jesus is marginalised by Santa Claus - that we all know. Profit and exploitation marginalises good news for the poor - and make the Magnificat sound a little quaint. People like Mary are marginalised and along with that goes human sexuality, the wet intimacy which generates life and love, the ups and downs of pregnancy and parenthood. Religion gives us in return systems of power where men rule and women are men’s mums who are ‘behind every great man’.
Elizabeth declares Mary blessed (1:42). All generations will call her blessed (1:48). More is at stake than Mary and if we get it wrong with Mary, we will mostly get it wrong with all women (and men). If we put her on a pedestal, we are most likely to lift her into irrelevance or have her serve our own distractions. She has a way of defying her images and reaching out to real people. Today’s reading is an invitation to let it happen. Let her be a bearer of the Christ in her full Mary-ness.
Epistle: Advent 4: 20 December Hebrews 10:5-10