Elizabeth and her priest husband, Zechariah, were righteous before God, but barren and older. Luke 1 tells us that Zechariah is chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary, and Gabriel the angel shows up. The angel says, “Do not be afraid. Your wife will bear a special child.” Zechariah doubts, and asks the angel, “How will I know this is so?” So Gabriel mutes Zechariah, Elizabeth gets pregnant, and soon after that, Mary comes to visit.
It’s an old familiar story—it’s the story of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother (unnamed), and the Shunnanite women of Elisha’s time. These were women unable to conceive, but with God’s intervention, they do. Elizabeth joins ranks in a special group of Jewish women.
But the becoming pregnant part of her story is not the part that fascinates me. Instead, it’s the story of the friendship of Elizabeth and Mary. This Sunday’s text is Luke 1:26-49. The Working Preacher Commentary is here.
There are three questions I want to pursue:
- Why did Mary run to Elizabeth?
- Why did Elizabeth welcome Mary?
- How did their bond help Mary?
I think Mary came to Elizabeth hoping to find a port in a storm. Mary’s pregnancy would be visible just around 3 months, and she’s unmarried (although betrothed, which may have been a good sign for the marriage if only she and Joseph had consummated the betrothal), estranged from both Joseph and her family, and poor.
I wonder if she wasn’t going to Elizabeth to hide.
But why would Elizabeth welcome Mary? The text tells us that Elizabeth was “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). She had full right to shun Mary, the unmarried pregnant girl. But she doesn’t. She’s good. And perhaps wise. Wise to the idea that what ordinarily seemed like such a big deal, really isn’t that big a deal at all. Wise to the idea that controversy passes, people get over things, and life goes on. And then finally, I wonder if Elizabeth is just plain generous. She gives out of her heart, expecting nothing in return, and is able to be present to Mary out of that generosity.
There’s a certain amount of rebellion in that kind of woman. It’s a rebellion that goes against the grain, doesn’t worry too much about selfish outcomes, and just basically doesn’t give a damn about social conventions. It’s a rebellion that is kind and just.
This is the kind of rebellion we need right now, the rebellion of older women. It’s not a rebellion of pantsuit ladies so much as a rebellion of comfortable shoe women. It’s a rebellion that says, “I’m going to do the right thing, no matter the consequences to my safety, my income, my position.” It’s a rebellion that greets its neighbor with a hug, not a gun. It’s a rebellion that fills up the downtrodden with a nice bowl of soup or a casserole, and helps younger people birth new hope into the world. It’s a rebellion that doesn’t need credit, and is able to hold on to just a little bit of hope that things will get better.
What did it do for Mary? It was at once the gift of excitement (among family members who were not at all excited by her pregnancy), the gift of sustenance, and the gift of calm. Remember that Mary had gone “in haste” to Elizabeth. But she slows down and stays for three months. It was also the gift of hope. After Elizabeth’s greeting, Mary finds her voice to praise God in the midst of her hardship.
In these troubling times, I’m going to try to be like Elizabeth. Wise, warm, and welcoming. Hopeful, helpful, and humble. And supporting the birth of a new thing in our world, God breaking in to create a kin-dom of justice, of peace, and of love.
What about you? Where will your work and sermon lead you this week? Here are some ideas:
- Think about Elizabeth as sanctuary. Where is your sanctuary now? How can she embody sanctuary to you and your congregation?
- In this Advent is the season of expectation, how do we seek the light that is going to break into the world on Christmas morning, in the shape of a little tiny, brown baby, born into poverty, to a people without political power, to a mother who is unmarried, a father who is absent throughout his life, during a time when the king is a despot with a deep, abiding paranoia?
- Mary is giving birth to salvation for the poor while our nations seem to be giving birth to anger, hatred, distrust, and injustice. Mary needed a midwife. How can we be the midwife for change in our world?
- If Jesus really is the reason for the season, how can we, in this final week before Christmas, invite him into our celebrations?
I want to close with one other question to our RevGals. Where will you find your respite this week? Who is your Elizabeth, a woman to walk with you as you become the midwife of Jesus’ birth into the world? And how will you receive the hospitality of your Elizabeth in the coming weeks?
Rev. Lia Scholl is not-that-kind-of-Baptist preacher and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (U.S.) and is the author of I Heart Sex Workers (Chalice Press, 2013).
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