[Note. Yesterday, the second Sunday of Advent, I preached at John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Henrietta NY. They assigned me Luke 1:39-56.]
The media love it when two celebrities meet. Get out the cameras. Line up the reporters. Call the tabloids. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet to talk about who knows what. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks meet for the premier of a new movie. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning meet at midfield at the end of a playoff game. And now…Mary and Elizabeth meet by divine appointment, but without fanfare and fuss. The miraculously expectant women meet. Though the popular press and media don’t care, the spotlight of heaven is shining on them.
Here we have a conversation between two expectant women, neither of whom was expecting to be expecting just now. Elizabeth already has her AARP membership card; Mary isn’t old enough to drive, perhaps 14. One is married to an old priest; one is engaged to a young carpenter. Have you ever sat in the waiting room of an obstetrician’s office? There is a kind of conversation that happens there when expectant mothers are together. They have a vocabulary of their own. First there’s quiet as they find their seats. Elizabeth picks up an old copy of “Modern Maturity,” and Mary a copy of “Modern Maternity.” “You look great—how many weeks are you?” “Will my back ever stop hurting?” “I know where every public restroom in Jerusalem is.” “What do you think about home-schooling?” “Had your ultrasound yet? I don’t know how they can tell anything from those. I think they’re meant to be put on your refrigerator door.” “Do stretch marks ever go away?” “Do you have a copy of ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting?’” “You’re first baby and you look so young.” “Your first baby and you look so . . . mature.” “Mary, you may call me old, for I am.”
Now it’s just Mary and Elizabeth, sitting in Elizabeth’s house sipping tea. Mary arrives unannounced and speaks the time-honored greeting: “Elizabeth, the Lord be with you.” “Mary, my baby jumped when he heard your voice. Not just a kick—he jumped. It wasn’t like his normal activity—and he’s an active one. He leaped within me. Mary, you radiate God’s beauty, and the little baby you’re carrying, you just don’t know how special he is and will be.” Mary is silent, a little embarrassed at the power of her greeting. “Mary, you’re such a brave young woman. You’ve come all this way by yourself to visit me. Mary, I’m an old woman. God has promised me this baby and God will bring him into the world to point people to your baby. But if I, at my age, if . . . if I don’t make it through, would you and your Joseph help my Zechariah? He is an old man who has never cared for a baby.”
And Mary, just one more question. “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” We’ve asked this question at times: “Why has this happened to me?” We ask it mainly at two times. When something bad happens to us, we often ask, “Why has this happened to me?” The other time we might ask “Why has this happened to me?” is when something good happens to us. The same question, by vocal inflection, can suggest that one’s world has just collapsed or one’s world has just come together. It is good to ask questions. Zechariah asked the angel, “How will I know?” Mary asked the angel, “How can this be. . .?”
And now it’s Elizabeth’s turn. “Mary, you have believed that the Lord would do what he spoke. You are so blessed…. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” I’ll not tell us never to ask God, “Why me?” when something difficult comes to us. We may need to ask that hard question. Better to ask God than to be silent and become bitter. But let’s not forget to ask, “Why me?” when the good comes our way. God showers blessings upon us beyond numbering, beyond anything we could ever earn or merit.
How does one respond to such elegant and gracious words from one’s elder? Mary praises God. If the vocabulary of pregnancy is new to Mary, the vocabulary of praise is not. She chooses the response of praise in three movements, which I see as three concentric circles. Mary models for us what it is to give God alone all the glory. The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel said it this way: “We begin with a sense of wonder and arrive at radical amazement. The first response is reverence and awe, openness to the mystery that surrounds, and we are led to be overwhelmed by the glory.”
In the center circle of Mary’s response is God. Mary knows the nature of God. She has studied her Scriptures and let them become part of her being. She praises God.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”
This burst of praise was not all that original. She borrows freely from the song of praise that came from the lips of Hannah, who also had an unexpected pregnancy that produces a child of promise. To magnify the Lord is to enlarge his image in our lives, making him more visible to all. To glorify God is to enhance his name and bring credit to his reputation. To praise God is to focus attention on his perfect and glorious being. Mary praises God by putting him in the very center of her affections. How do we do this? By learning more and more of the nature of God and pondering God’s beauty and truth.
In the second circle Mary places herself and her situation under God.
“For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Praising God puts our lives in right perspective. Praising God does not make all the hurts and pains go away. Praising God isn’t a good luck charm or a magic wand. Living in the praise of God frees us from worry and anxiety and gives us the perspective and power to persevere in the midst of anything. In praising God Mary places herself and her situation in God’s hands. How do we do this? In the same way Mary did.
In the third circle Mary sings of God’s work in the world.
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
She speaks as if God’s work in the world is done, when it’s just begun. Faith has a way of doing that. Faith sees beyond the moment, beyond the present reality, into God’s preferred future. True love of God must express itself in love of neighbor. True worship of God leads to participation in lifting the lowly and feeding the hungry. All personal faith demands social concern and ministry. The inner life of devotion and the outer life of service are one integrated life. Mary sees it and Mary sings it.
God doesn’t weave peace in our world in a straight line. Something amazing is happening here. Two unsuspecting, but now expecting, women are thrust into the spotlight on the stage of global redemption. God is entrusting so much to them, an old woman and a young woman. They accept their assignments with humility. They do not complain or grumble, but ask their honest questions with openness. They are ordinary people—the kind God loves to call for extraordinary tasks. Now they meet and the older one honors the younger one, just as the older child will honor the younger child. They’re not caught up in protecting themselves and their rights. They are caught up in honoring God’s working in their lives and in their world. The spotlight of heaven is shining on them.
This week’s Time magazine announces their Person of the Year: Silence Breakers. These are the brave women that have broken silence to break the spell of shame that men of power have placed on them by their reprehensible actions. Mary and Elizabeth are silence breakers too, though a very different kind. In a world in which women had virtually no voice, they are chosen by God for lofty purposes and they speak God’s praises with honesty, grace, and humility. The spotlight of heaven is shining on them.
Mary sings that all generations will call her blessed. Protestants—I am one—have sometimes overreacted to the Roman Catholic emphasis on Mary by de-emphasizing Mary. That is to our poverty. We are to call her blessed. She models godliness. She models bravery and courage. She models faith in action. She honors God with every fiber of her being. How could God have picked such a young, poor, not-yet-married teenaged girl for such a weighty task? How could Mary have possibly known all that God was entrusting to her?