Our scriptures have a very distinct set of bias…they were written in a particular time for a particular people. They include the understandings and cultural norms of the day and were written accordingly. Consequently, the scriptures are predominantly written by men, often for men’s interpretation.
Also, for the most part, the scriptures are about men and focus on men. Women, when they appear, are often victims, women of, shall we say, questionable reputation or notable as the mothers of important men, in which case we usually hear their name as a footnote...if at all. Today however is different…it is one of those rare occasions…justified by Christ’s implied presence, that we get insight into the women of our scriptures and faith.
We read that some time after the meeting with Gabriel, Mary, belly swelling with her first child, went to visit her cousin. We read that she hastened to see Elizabeth who was also unexpectedly pregnant. A touching meeting of two women, who are experiencing the gift of pregnancy when it was least expected and under incredible circumstances.
Like Mary, Elizabeth too has experienced the visits and visions of angels, and she has felt the miracle of life stirring in her aged body. Surely Mary and Elizabeth shared the bonds of miracles and blood…which means Elizabeth is the only one who Mary knows can relate to what has happened to her. Elizabeth may also be the only one Mary can turn to.
Joseph we are told, has accepted Mary’s pregnancy only through the intervention of a dream, and we have understood him to be a righteous man. But for Mary… only days before Joseph was ready to cast her and her child away. Joseph is understood as an honourable, faithful and righteous man…but perhaps not the person Mary feels like confiding in and perhaps he could use some time to think things out as well.
I would have assumed at a time like this Mary would confide in her mother, but instead she visits Elizabeth, her cousin…why? We don’t know much of Mary’s parents…there are stories and sacred legends of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna. Early sources and alternative gospels, such as the gospel of James tell of Mary’s immaculate conception and her immunity from original sin…enabling her to be the perfect host to bear the incarnate Lord. But we don’t hear anything of Mary’s parents in our scriptures…
Perhaps Mary’s parents died while she was young …I wonder if they were there to arrange the marriage to Joseph. I wonder who was there to prepare this young girl for marriage and who it was that cared for her.
I wonder what Mary was like?…young certainly…in her early teens…an introvert I’ve always thought. The kind of person who kept things inside …we often read of Mary “pondering” and “holding things in her heart” …she was like a girl with a diary…keeping all her secrets close.
And I wonder how her community responded to her…unwed, pregnant and telling stories of angels and divine conception. This was not socially acceptable…imagine how you would react if it you’re your daughter or granddaughter. Mary would have been shunned and to marry her…Joseph would be regarded as a fool. How would Mary feel? She certainly had a lot to think about; engaged to an older man, likely without her having much to say about it…leaving her home…and unexpectedly pregnant… greeted by angels and accepted by her fiancé when she expected to be cast out in shame.
So the young mother of Christ hurried to the one person who might understand…the elderly mother to be Elizabeth. Who, like Mary, had also experience life growing beyond expectation, and who was facing a community and husband who were likely challenging, and who had been, like Mary, visited by angels and was struggling to understand her place in the world.
So, Mary went to visit Elizabeth… Such a touching, feminine scene. Just imagine it…The women embracing, bellies touching…perhaps Mary even felt John’s kicking and wondered when her own child would start kicking.
Both these women were literally full of the Spirit…it flowed from their speech and it filled their bellies. It is no wonder they began to exclaim and prophesy. Elizabeth, and in his own way…even John in the womb cried out “blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!!!”
I imagine them grinning… fit to burst, tears in their eyes…and Mary…Mary who has been keeping all these wonders bottled up inside of her…bursts out with a hymn that has become as well known as the Lord’s prayer or the ten commandments. The Magnificat. It begins… “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”…Mary is overflowing with God’s awesome presence within her. Mary the Theotokos …the bearer of God.
It is indeed a miracle that God would choose to be incarnate in the humble scenes we read of today…that God would choose to be born of a young girl, with little family, of humble origins and as we shall see on Christmas eve in very humble circumstances. Emmanuel, God with us.
Christ’s message of the least shall be greatest and the greatest shall be least…was being acted out even before he was born. None who knew her could have possibly imagined that little Mary, of who gossip and rumour was surely spread, would one day be heralded as the Queen of Heaven. As Mary’s Magnificat says “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”.
What an amazing and awe inspiring story we claim…what a faith we have to believe these things to be true. For just as Mary held the incarnate God inside her…so too do we, albeit in a less physical way, carry Christ in us.
We carry Christ with us in our every day encounters…in each humble action we do and in each situation we face. But I wonder how often we stop in our daily routines and marvel at this miraculous incarnation…how often do we ponder in our hearts the wonder of carrying Christ with us.
Emmanuel, God with us, we are made in the image of God. we see the face of Christ in those we meet. we serve Christ in those we help and people see Christ reflected in us.
Mary pondered God within her and exclaimed in a song that has been repeated through history the wonder that she felt. But can we do the same? Look at those around you…look inside yourselves…we are told that Christ is in them…is in us. Look at your neighbour…can you see Christ in them? Can you see Christ in yourself? Perhaps this is challenging…after all…we know our neighbours…and we certainly know ourselves….and we can be anything but Christ like…we don’t look like Christ.
But what of the images we have painted of Christ? picture him as we most often see him painted white…handsome…bearded…blue eyed and wearing a white nightgown and sandals. This is how many of us imagine Jesus, but it is an image that doesn’t fit the bill…it’s historically inaccurate to the point of near impossibility and yet many Christians are more than willing to accept it. Turn around now…really turn in your pews…stop looking at me (or whatever is currently holding your attention) and turn in your seat.
If our image of Christ is already so inaccurate…would it be any less accurate to picture Christ as the one sitting next to you…that person is full of the image of Christ. Christ is written in each wrinkle, stray hair, painted nail and quirky smile.
In our faith there are many mysteries…the virgin birth being one of them, and we tend to want to spend time trying solving them. But perhaps that isn’t the point…perhaps it doesn’t matter HOW these things happened, but it is enough to know that they did. Perhaps we don’t need to know how Christ is in us, but rather it is more important to determine how to respond.
Today in the humble, feminine stories of kinship, pregnancy and the gift of rejoicing we get to hear how two women responded to mysteries that have puzzled us ever since. Elizabeth greeted the bearer of Christ and even the child within her lept for joy, Mary pondered these things in her heart and rejoiced in God her Savior. Both women allowed their joy to overflow in worship and with all that was in them praised God and the blessings come from him… In our own lives, humble and unassuming, as we pursue our daily tasks and greet family and friends alike we too will each be given a chance to respond to Emmanuel. God with us, God in them.
They say Christmas is the season to do good works, but it doesn’t need to be so restricted…Mary and Elizabeth responded in everyday life…and so should we. As we continue through our Christmas season, let us remember that the blessings and gifts of Christmas do not stop on Boxing day…but should be carried with us through out the year and in all facets of our lives. Amen.