“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”
Today marks the coming to an end of the season of Advent. If you have been following along with the Sunday lectionaries I would not be surprised if your head is spinning a bit today. What happened? Last week we heard about the adult John preaching and calling everyone to repentance. Today the same John is yet unborn, in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb. In both Gospels he demonstrates his prophetic voice by delivering important messages, but that is getting ahead of the myself. (If you want to read the Luke story in more chronological order follow the lectionary for Morning Prayer this coming week. We are in year 2, the fourth week of Advent.)
I want to go back a bit from today’s Gospel and remind us of what has happened in the story right before this. Mary, a devout, teenaged girl, engaged to be married to an older man, Joseph, has been visited by the angel Gabriel. In that visit she was told that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited savior. This child she will carry will be the Son of God and is to be named Jesus. That encounter ended by Mary answering yes to Gabriel, let it be according to God’s word.
There are many glorious works of art, paintings, sculpture, music depicting this encounter of the angel with Mary. We have a copy of one on the altar in the Lady Chapel that is rests there each Advent. It is the beautifully colored Fra Angelico’s work from the 15th century. I love to look at these various art works of the Annunciation. Most often I focus on the faces of both Mary and Gabriel. Usually, the artist will show Mary concentrating hard on Gabriel. Sometimes she has a dreamy expression, off in her own world it would seem.
Sometimes she has a look of surprise or even shock at what she is hearing. The angel on the other hand most often looks serious and intense, though not stern. He has an important message to bring after all. Recently I saw a pair of statues of this encounter and both Mary and Gabriel had looks of surprise and amazement. Like I said, I enjoy focusing on their faces and wondering what must it have been like to receive and give such a message?
Mary was able to give her consent to what would be, because of her faith in God but the scripture does not give us any other words of hers following this meeting. We are left with Mary’s quiet wonder at what she had been told.
This brings us to the passage from today. We are told that in “haste” Mary traveled a fair distance away to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, whom the angel related is also expecting a very important child. This is not so different of what might have happened to an unmarried pregnant teenager even as late as the beginning of this century. The thought was to get the girl away from the gossip and spare her family embarrassment. In Mary’s time becoming pregnant while engaged to another man could be very dangerous, she might even be killed for it. Making inferences Mary was probably an outcast, alone, separated from her family by their astonishment and lack of understanding of the situation.
So, Mary goes to stay with her cousin. This cousin had had an encounter with Gabriel of her own. Elizabeth is pregnant with a son, John, who will become the prophet to tell others of the savior Jesus’ coming. Elizabeth is also probably isolated from others. She was older, beyond the usual age of childbearing and her husband Zechariah was unable to speak throughout the pregnancy as he did not believe the angel’s message. She too was an item of gossip in her town.
What happens when Mary and Elizabeth meet, the in-utero John leaps and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit allows Elizabeth to be able to recognize and acknowledge what is happening with Mary.
Both women, likely distanced from others because of the circumstances of their pregnancies, embrace each other. Their relationship is firm; they have another to lean on. They have formed a community of two.
With Elizabeth’s affirment of who this baby is that she is carrying, Mary is better able to understand what this means. And as she grows in her comprehension, the surprise and fear quickly turn to joy. Her joy overflows in song, a famous song from generation to generation. We have spoken it and heard it twice this morning. Mary’s soul is filled with God’s presence and her gratitude and joy abound. Those emotions are not present in any of the artistic works I have seen from the annunciation. Mary did not sing with Gabriel’s message. This joy at becoming the mother of Jesus, who he will be and what he will do, has taken time for Mary to comprehend. And it is in the supportive presence of Elizabeth that has assisted in this growth.
Being in community with another who is going through similar things helped both Mary and Elizabeth in living into who are these children they are carrying. While the message to each was given by the angel alone, it was the community, the relationship between the two, that aided in the realization of what this meant. Mary would continue to draw on her community to grow in understanding of who Jesus is, throughout his time on earth.
So, what can we learn from this story this morning? Following Mary’s example, as we live with Jesus, it is important that we have a community to assist us in that relationship and in building joy, finding peace and being able to sing out our gratitude for it.
While God or his angels may speak to us alone, we need the Christian community to assist in our understanding of what is His message.
Each of us is a part of many communities. There are communities built around our work, our roles as family members, a like of a certain game or sport, our own physical neighborhoods and so on. However, it is our community which has at the core a shared love of God and desire to know him better, that assists us to grow into our relationship with Christ. Just like Mary, it is this faith community that will help us get beyond fear and amazement to reach joy and peace.
How do we build such a faith community? It is through regularly spending time together, sharing scripture, praying for each other, caring for one another, and demonstrating the love of Christ to the wider world. Community can grow also by working towards a common goal—perhaps helping this worship space reflect the glory of God or in participating in one of the intergenerational formational activities of the church. Another important characteristic of a true faith community is seeking and welcoming others to join it. There are multiple opportunities to build these faith communities that can be areas of growth and understanding of who Jesus is.
Remember that Mary was able to say yes to God at that original encounter with Gabriel, but she did not experience the joy until the affirmation of her cousin and the sign from the yet unborn John. It was then that Mary could sing out her understanding of the wonder that was happening to her and her gratitude for this son that she would bear.
While you have already heard her song twice this morning, I think reciting it again together is a good way to end the Advent season. Please take your bulletin and let us say the Magnificat along with Mary to express our joy at this soon to arrive Messiah.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
The Almighty has done great things for me,
And holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
In every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent empty away.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
For he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
To Abraham, and his children forever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.