The other night I was watching a sitcom in which two of the characters are sisters. The older sister, the responsible, mature, stable one, is hosting a party to announce her pregnancy. She’s gone to great lengths to put on a marvelous party and thought out the perfect timing for the announcement. The younger sister, the impulsive immature one, shows up late, gets a little drunk, and ends an argument with her boyfriend by deciding that they should get engaged. At precisely the moment that the older sister is about to make announce her pregnancy, the younger one steals the spotlight and announces her new engagement instead. There follows a shouting match between the two, each accusing the other of trying to make everything all about them. “You make every party all about you!” “You are always stealing my moment!” It’s clear these siblings have more than a few issues to sort out, and quite clear that neither of them has much interest in anything not directly related to themselves. It is all about them.
In our story from Luke this morning, Elizabeth is on older woman who has just received the greatest news of her entire life. After watching her child bearing years go by without a single pregnancy, Elizabeth suddenly finds herself with child in her old age. It is a miracle, and it is her miracle, exactly the miracle for which she had hoped and prayed. The coming of this miracle was proclaimed beforehand to her husband Zecharaiah, the priest, by the angel Gabriel. Yet when he heard of it, Zechariah did not believe it could happen since he and Elizabeth were already so advanced in years. As a result of his disbelief, Gabriel silences Zechariah saying he will remain mute until the birth of the child. The man is silenced. The priest is silenced. This story isn’t about him, and he won’t have anything to say about it until after the climax. In Luke’s story, the men are relegated to non-speaking supporting roles. One more time, in Luke’s story of the birth of the Messiah, the Incarnation of God, and the redemption of the world, the women play the lead roles and the men are silent. In our present time, one in which we are confronting so many of the misdeeds of our men, Luke’s Christmas story is one from which men can learn a great deal. It may be that a quiet and supporting role to women is the only one God grants to men in the drama of salvation. Anyway, Elizabeth gets to enjoy her long hoped for and miraculous pregnancy, with what some women only dream of, a man who doesn’t speak but only listens.
While Elizabeth is living her own personal miracle, her young relative Mary, has also had a angel appear to her. Mary is but a teenager and she is engaged to be married to a young man named Joseph. Before their wedding, an angel appears to her and announces that she will conceive and give birth to a son who is to be the Son of the Most High and will sit on the throne of David forever. The long awaited and frequently prophesied Messiah, the Ancient One who is to redeem all of Israel, is to be Mary’s child. While thats a big pill to swallow, so is hearing that you will be pregnant for the first time, and Mary understandly focuses on that more immediate issue. “How can this be?,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?” The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will help her to conceive and thus her child will be called the Son of God. And then, as if he knows that all of this is a lot to take in, the angel casually mentions that her relative Elizabeth has also conceived in her old age ostensibly to show that nothing is impossible with God, but possibly also to let Mary know that she wasn’t in this whole miraculous pregnancy thing alone. Mary, likely confused and scared, decides to go and visit Elizabeth, to see if she is pregnant as well, to see if she knows what to make of all of this.
So just when Elizabeth is finally having her moment in the sun, when everyone is ooohhing and ahhhing over her miraculous pregnancy, her comes Mary with her own pregnancy to announce. A younger woman has arrived at her home with a story just miraculous enough to top her own, Mary is going to upstage Elizabeth during her one and only pregnancy. We might expect that Elizabeth would react poorly to Mary’s appearance, that she would view Mary as a competitor for attention, might expect the two of them to shout it out like the two sisters from the sitcom. But Luke is overturning expectations in this story. He has silenced the men, Zechariah by an angels fiat, and Joseph just without any lines. Just as God helps the men to realize this story is not about them, so too does God help Elizabeth to recognize and accept that Mary is the star of this drama.
And how does Elizabeth become aware of Mary’s pregnancy and its supreme importance? Does an angel descend to tell her? Does a man interpret it for her? No, her own body tells her. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the fetus in her womb, leaps for joy. It is only after this cue from her body that the Holy Spirit descends upon her to confirm what her body already intuitively knows, Mary is carrying the child of promise. I draw out this point, because for much of the Western Christian tradition the body has been opposed to the Spirit, the spirit being what is good and righteous, and the flesh, the body, being sinful. In many Christian contexts people, but women especially, are taught to distrust their bodies. To identify their bodies as the site of sin, as something to be overcome. Yet here, in this most important of Christian stories, it is a woman’s body which recognizes the Messiah, which intuits the presence of God. And then it is the Spirit that confirms the bodies intuition. So far as the opposition of the flesh and the spirit refers to the opposition between centering your own needs and desires above those of God and God’s creation it is a helpful conception. But so far as it leads to the denigration of our divinely created bodies it is a sinful lie. Women’s bodies are miraculous. They are the good creation of our Great God. It is from the bodies of women that all human life comes, it is from the body of a woman that our Redeemer comes, and it was the body of a woman who first recognized Him as such.
So Elizabeth confirms for Mary what the Angel had told her. Not merely that she is having a child, but that this child will be the LORD. And then Mary, overjoyed by the welcome of her sister and her affirmation, says what has become one of the most recognized portions in all of the Bible, the Magnificat. In this poem Mary begins by giving thanks to God for the great thing that God has done for her. But she quickly moves from speaking of herself to speaking more generally. God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, God has brought down the powerful from their thrones. God has lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped Israel and remembered God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. The focus quickly becomes what God is doing in the world, for Israel and for all people. Through the support of her friend Elizabeth, Mary has moved from focusing on what this pregnancy means for her, to what it means for the world. She too has come to see that the story is not about her, it is about what God is doing through her. And she doesn’t just think these things might occur, she believes so strongly in what God is doing that she speaks of them in the present tense. God HAS scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly. God HAS filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. She believes so completely that God is about to accomplish these things that she speaks of them as though they have already occurred. For if God has spoken these things than they are just as good as done. Mary, the young woman chosen by God to bear God into the world, is the very model of faith for us all. She is able to believe that God so valued her in her lowliness that God would do such an incredible thing for her. God also values us, not because of our greatness, but precisely because of our weaknesses, our lowliness. But Mary was also wise enough to see that the story wasn’t just about her, it was about what God was doing for all the earth. And with the help of Elizabeth she was able to believe in these miracles as well. As much as God loves and values us, we too are only a part of what God is doing in the world. Its not just about us. May we ever hold up Mary as an example for ourselves. May we recognize when our role is one of quiet support. May we seek out the advice of wise women. May we trust women and may we trust and value the divinely created miracle of their bodies. And may we come together to see that all of the blessings God has given us are meant to be used in bringing about the redemption of all people. Amen.