4th Sunday of Advent — 24 December 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:30 & 10:00 am
RCL: Micah 2–5a Canticle 15 Hebrews 10:5-10 Luke 1:39-45
(c) 2006 William S. J. Moorhead
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
Despite the radio stations and the shopping malls and the office parties for the last few weeks, here on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we are finally actually getting around to close-to-Christmas. This year, really close-to-Christmas: hardly are we done this morning than we start getting ready to start the Christmas celebration itself this afternoon. And we need to get with it: a little later (in a little bit) we will proceed to the Hanging of the Greens. (I’m not sure we really ought to use that phrase — when a parish has a family named “Green,” and a great many do, they get a little fidgety when we announce the Hanging of the.…)
Anyway: on the Fourth Sunday of Advent our theme is the Annunciation of the coming birth of the Messiah Jesus: In the first year, St. Matthew’s story of the angel’s announcement to Joseph; in the second year, the story from Luke about the angel’s prior announcement to Mary; and in this third year, the story, also from Luke, about Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. (“Cousin” perhaps loosely; they may not have been first cousins, but some degree of relative. Bear in mind that Elizabeth was probably old enough to be Mary’s grandmother, and since Mary may have been like fifteen, Elizabeth may have been as ancient as, oh, perhaps even fifty.)
So anyway, what’s this trip up from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea all about? Why does Mary want to go up there? (Well, of course, we who are in on the bigger story, and read the previous page, know that Elizabeth is carrying the soon-to-be-born John who will grow up to be called The Baptist.)
Think about the just-previous story, after Elizabeth conceives her son — the story we heard last year, the familiar story of the Annunciation to Mary. The angel Gabriel comes and tells Mary that she is going to bear a son who will be the Son of the Most High and will be given the throne of his ancestor David, and furthermore her old Aunt Elizabeth is six months pregnant, ha ha, that’s the same trick God played on Sarah and Abraham two thousand years ago. And Mary says, in Latin translation, “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum,” or in the original Aramaic, “O‑kay…” And the Gospel goes on to say, “Then the angel departed from her.” Leaving Mary saying, “Uh, excuse me.…”
Now what? What does poor little Mary do now? “What’s this about Aunt Elizabeth? And what am I going to tell Mom?”
Well, we are obviously wandering off into the range of the amiably fantastic here, but, oh well! Mary goes back into the house and says, “What do I say now? That I’ve seen the angel Gabriel? And that he told me that I’m going to…that I’m having…I don’t think so!” So she says, “Mom? Can I go visit Aunt Elizabeth?” And St. Anne, being a good mother who fears the Lord, says, “Yes, dear.” Mary says to herself, “Well, I don’t know what’s going on around here, but it sounds like Aunt Elizabeth may be in on it, and besides, she’s a priest’s wife and she’ll know what this is all about! (No point in asking Uncle Zechariah, he never says anything.)”
So Mary goes up to the Judean hills to visit Elizabeth. And when Mary walked in Elizabeth said, “My goodness, this kid just gave me a kick! Blessed are you — and blessed is your child, the Lord whom you carry!” Mary said, “You do know what’s going on here, don’t you?” And Elizabeth said, “Yes, dear, I do.” And Mary began to sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant!”
I think there are a couple of things to be drawn from this story, things which I’m not sure we usually notice given the relative familiarity of the narrative. First of all, this was not a solitary experience for Mary. We don’t know what she told her parents — presumably at some point she did tell them! But we don’t know what she told them. In fact, in the Gospels there is nothing whatever about Mary’s parents. All we traditionally say about them, including even their names (Joachim and Anne), comes from a legend, an apocryphal gospel, dating from the second century. And we need to understand, despite our neatly melded account of the events surrounding our Lord’s Nativity, that the authors of the birth narratives in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke do not know each other. (They share the common core traditional material, of course, but Matthew has never read Luke nor has Luke read Matthew.) Thus we do need to be careful about trying to sequence Joseph into the Lukan story. Nevertheless on its face it seems to be the case that Mary never told Joseph, at least not directly; in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph only finds out what’s going on from an angel in a dream. But Mary did not keep it all secret. all by herself: she went to a person whom she knew she could trust and from whom she could seek counsel, her older relative Elizabeth, who herself was also evidently a player in God’s plan of intervention in the world for its redemption. God does not work through lone rangers, God works through the community of God’s people. (Even when God starts with just two or three.)
And secondly, once Mary has confirmed with Elizabeth that she is not having pious delusions but that God really is at work in the world in her, she immediately recognized God for what God was doing: namely, God is overturning the very order of the world, as indeed the prophets of Israel had said for centuries (including such faithful women as Hannah, the mother of Samuel and the model for Mary’s song). God is overthrowing the powerful and raising the lowly; God is feeding the hungry and sending away the rich.
Christmas has become, as well all know and as we all say probably ad nauseum, a commercial glorification of greed. More dangerous is the deformation of Christmas into a simply a pious religious festival. What we must see, and live out, is that the Incarnation of the Word of God, of which Christmas is a central moment of celebration, is no less than the revolution, the utter overturning, of the human world. And at the center of it are a young Jewish girl and her old aunt.