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TWO WOMEN SHARE HISTORY IN THE MAKING
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT – YEAR C
December 20, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Micah 5:1-4A Psalm 80:2-3;15-16;18-19
Hebrews 10:5-10 Luke 1:39-45
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Businesses, churches, and families have meetings from time to time to talk about what’s important to them. Many people, however, see meetings as wasting time that could be used getting stuff done. That is true for many meetings. However, encounters between human persons physically present to one another have value, in and of themselves. Personal interactions with other people is one of the joys of being human, and affirmation that humanity was created to live in community.
I would like to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting between the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother-to-be of Jesus, and Saint Elizabeth, mother of Saint John the Baptist. I truly would not know what to expect. As a male person, I have absolutely no idea how two expectant mothers interact with each other with no men around. As a male individual, I would have no idea what they might have said to each other, what expressions might have been on their faces, what body language they might have displayed, or what they were feeling. Biologically, neither myself, nor any other male person, will ever know what it’s like to feel the kick of a baby inside the womb as Elizabeth did in today’s Gospel reading.
This particular meeting of expectant mothers was a bit unusual, and very significant, as such meetings go. Elizabeth was as surprised as Mary to learn she would give birth to a baby. She was past normal child-bearing age. She and her husband had wanted a family but had given up hope, until the angel Gabriel appeared to her husband, Zechariah, who was a temple priest, while he was offering incense. Good things happen when a priest offers incense. Perhaps we should do that more often here?
And what about Mary? She was an unmarried pregnant teenager, probably about fourteen years of age. To be an unmarried, pregnant teenager today is not what it used to be, in America or elsewhere. In the time when Jesus was born, young, unmarried women were never alone. They were either among a cluster of other women, or with a male relative. Mary did not expect to become pregnant. She was a virgin. She had never had sex with a man. So she was utterly surprised and mystified when the angel announced to her that she would give birth to Jesus. She wondered, how and why am I the highly favored one, blessed among women? It was not because of something she has done, but because of God’s chose her for a special role for the salvation of humankind. In today’s Gospel Reading, Elizabeth so much as recognized that, when she greeted Mary with the words that would later become part of the Hail Mary prayer, when she said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. What is played out between Elizabeth and Mary in the Gospel reading is the relationshipbetween them. To exist as a human person means to be in and enter into relationships with others. Human relations may be extremely varied, but in the end they are reduced to three fundamental types: the relationship with God, with other individuals and with the world that surrounds us. Both Mary and Elizabeth had relationships with God. They had human relationships with their families and associates. Not only were they cousins, but they had something in common: both were pregnant under unexpected circumstances. And they would have a relationship with the world around them through the children they were about to bear.
What Elizabeth and Mary had in common was that the angel Gabriel had announced both pregnancies. Both of these announcements followed a similar pattern: the appearance of an angel; apprehension and fear; reassurance by the angel; announcement of the coming birth; an objection; and the angel gave a sign. The Holy Spirit was active in both conceptions. In the case of Jesus, Gabriel told Mary that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Gabriel proclaimed to Zechariah that his son, John the Baptist, would be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Gabriel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her, and that the child to whom she was to give birth will be called Holy, the Son of God. Both women became pregnant by God’s specific design, to accomplish God’s purposes. Both gave birth to children who would become uniquely instrumental in God’s design for the future of humankind.
The concept of “expectation” is the theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent as we look forward to the Feast of the Nativity, now less than a week away. We wait in expectation of the coming of Jesus, God made human, God with us, because God is always faithful and loving and keeps promises. The expectations of Christians at Advent are, to quote First Corinthians, are to “Be alert, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong and Let love be in all.”
Both Mary and Elizabeth had expectations about what would unfold for their children far beyond what most mothers-to-be experience. Both were children for whom their parents had high expectations, far beyond the super expectations that many American upper-middle-class parents have. These kids had the salvation of the whole world on their shoulders. I don’t envy them. What they were taking on would be too stressful for me, as it probably would be for you. For most of us, our hopes and dreams for the future, our speculations, longings and fears, often must remain vague and indefinite, because no one can verify them. In contrast, the Hebrew people’s expectation of a Messiah is woven throughout the Old Testament prophets, principally in Isaiah, but also elsewhere, as in today’s first reading from the prophet Micah, who foretells the birth of a ruler from ancient origins who will shepherd the flock of God’s people and bring peace. Just like Micah in his day, both Jesus and John spoke with outrage against injustice.
The parental expectations for both John the Baptist and Jesus are set out in songs. For John the Baptist, it was the Song of Zachariah, Elizabeth’s husband, and for Jesus, the Song of Mary. They are printed in the service booklet, and I’ve given you a handout so you take it home for meditation and prayer. It is in the elegant language of the King James Version. And I’ve given it to you in musical form, so you can plunk it out on your keyboard or sight-sing it if you feel so inclined…after all, we are Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, named after the patron saint of music.
The Song of Zechariah is known as the “Benedictus”, the first word of the Latin version. It is about John the Baptist, the previewer of Jesus, who would be the main attraction. Yet John the Baptist played an important role in that capacity. The Benedictus is a divinely inspired proclamation of the coming of Jesus. It articulates the long-held expectations of the Hebrew people for a Messiah who would overthrow their enemies and free them from sin. The Benedictus recognized that the Hebrew people were suffering from wicked foreigners from faraway Assyria and Babylon, with hatred in their eyes and weapons in their hands. The Benedictus, however, expresses an expectation that those bad things can and will be fixed.
Mary’s first expectations for Jesus were explicitly stated in what’s called the Song of Mary, also known as the “Magnificat”, again, the first word of the Latin version of that song. The first verse of it concludes today’s Gospel reading. Mary’s song is one of the most famous songs of Christianity. Mary’s song been whispered in monasteries, chanted in cathedrals, recited in small remote churches by evening candlelight, and set to music by numerous composers. In Her song, Mary sees her Child Jesus as fulfillment of God’s promise of a savior, foretold by generation after generation of prophets, who will make changes in the existing world order. Proud people will be overthrown and scattered. The mighty will be cast down from their thrones. By the strength of God, the lowly will be lifted up, and those who hunger will be fed. The wealthy will go hungry. Mary’s song is all about a God who will, through her Son, bring about a revolution. That’s an enormous expectation for any mother to have for her new-born.
The meeting described in today’s Gospel was an important one for Christians. Mary and Elizabeth shared a dream. It was the ancient Dream of Israel: the dream that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. One day Israel’s God would do what He had said to Israel’s earliest ancestors: all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family, but for that to happen, the powers that had enslaved the world had to be put to flight. God chose these two women to start the ball rolling to accomplish that. However, the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary is not the only one described in today’s Gospel reading. We can see a mysterious relationship between Jesus, in Mary’s womb, and John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb. What happened is this. Upon encountering the presence of God in history, through the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, the last of the prophets of Israel is filled with so much joy that he reacts by dancing in Elizabeth’s womb. Thus, the expectations of Mary and Jesus met one another through their sons before they were even born, foreshadowing their relationship they would later have in life. You may recall that John the Baptist exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God” when Jesus encountered John at the Jordan River, and Jesus was to later praise John the Baptist as the greatest of all prophets.
John’s dance in Elizabeth’s womb was a leap of joy. It was praise for a liberating God. What gave joy to both Elizabeth and Mary was that they were pregnant with hope and possibilities for human liberation. For all human persons, expectancies shape our futures. Hence, all of us, female and male, can experience the concept of pregnancy in a more general way if we allow God to plant seeds in our minds where they grow to fruition. The ideas each of us originate and refine within our minds shape how our lives will play out in our future and that of the world around us, growing inside us until ready to be put into action. That can include plans to improve our lives and our relationships with other persons. It can also include personal projects, like starting a business or writing a book. Just as a pregnant woman nurtures an expectancy that her child will live a happy and successful life, we too can nurture an expectation for our personal plans to bring success. The businesses I started, the church I founded, the music I composed, and the book I wrote that’s about to be published, all were pregnant in the womb of my mind for months, if not years, before they came into being. As Elizabeth and Mary shared their expectations, we too can share with others the fruits of our thoughts in our meetings with one another, and like Elizabeth and Mary, we can develop a deep and empathetic relationship with one another from which develops the interpersonal support needed for our success and happiness. What does that look like? Today’s second reading gives us a hint. We can be like Mary, who said “yes” to God. And we can be like Jesus, who came into the world to do God’s will, which is infinitely more important than human-made laws, be they religious or secular. Our relationships and our meetings with others nurture what grows within us as a reminder that we as human persons were meant to live in community. Elizabeth and Mary were pregnant with children whose mission was to establish a new world order bringing compassion, peace, and justice. However, the work started by their children, John the Baptist and Jesus, did not end when they left the world. It continues today. We, too, can and should, nurture ideas in our minds and caress feelings in our hearts for the continued growth of God’s kingdom, and meet with others to share what is going on inside us and how our ideas will play out in our world. We can all do, in one way or another, what Elizabeth and Mary did when they met. AMEN.