December 16 2018
It’s fascinating to me to read Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. When we read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus the story begins with Joseph, and he is quite perplexed by it all. Mark begins his gospel with Jesus as an adult, sallying forth into Galilee and preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand. John begins with his towering theological treatise on the incarnation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.”
But Luke is in no hurry to get to the birth of Jesus. He meanders along, beginning with the old priest named Zechariah, serving in a podunk village…and his wife Elizabeth, who gets pregnant after menopause. For years Elizabeth has lived a disgraced and empty life in a culture that put a premium on child bearing. Now joyfully and miraculously pregnant, she closets herself away from her incredulous neighbors to contemplate the goodness of God to her.
Then Luke shifts his story to another woman, living far away in Galilee. We know nothing about her. Luke gives us no details about her parents, her growing up years, what she’s like. We only hear about Joseph, her fiancé, and he is descended from the royal line of King David. She’s a virgin, and like old Zechariah, she, too, is visited by an angel. But while Zechariah dithers in doubt, she accepts the angels word in faith, “Be it done to me according to your word.
She is pregnant, but not married. Having this child and staying in her home town under these circumstances represents the risk and terror of ostracism and disgrace.
In a situation she does not understand, in the midst of a situation over which she has no control, in a situation where she can imagine no future that is not foreboding, she surrenders herself to the will of God. She does not understand, but she trusts. “Be it done to me according to your word.”
Mary’s dilemma raises all sorts of questions for us. Where was her mother and father when she needed them? What about her sisters, her brothers? Shy did she have to travel to far-off Judea to get support and encouragement from her cousin, Elizabeth. Did she leave her home-town out of the shame of an unwanted pregnancy, not wanting to face the knowing stares of a tight-knit community? As he so often does, Luke tells us none of this, and leaves the details to our imagination.
But what Luke does hand to us is these two women, two powerless nobodies, who suddenly are thrust front and center of God’s plan for the redemption of the world. All the men are absent or silent. Herod is away at his palace. Speechless Zechariah is writing notes. Joseph is dithering about as to whether he should get involved. It’s these two women, cousins, both pregnant, who understand and believe what God is doing. One is old and has no children. The other is young and has not husband. But both are pregnant. And God is at work.
When you think of these two women, you can’t help but think of the long line of women in the Bible who are linked together and bless each other. The Hebrew midwives conspire against the Pharaoh. Miriam and Jochabed, conspire with the Egyptian princess to rear little Moses. There’s Ruth and Naomi, Mary and Martha, Susannah and Joanna, Jesus’ wealthy female supporters, Euodia and Syntyche. Lois and Eunice.
Mother-daughter, grandmother-granddaughter, cousins, friends, all share the strengths of vulnerabilities of being women, knowing often without words the lives and emotions of the other.
I envy the friendship which women share. Men have a harder time at it. We are so competitive with one another. Men could take lessons from the deep and sustaining friendships which are so prevalent in Biblical society and in our society.
But Luke’s main point here isn’t female solidarity, but rather to hear these two women proclaim the mystery of faith. Luke’s main concern in telling this story is theological rather than personal. First, he holds up the blessedness of Mary. In her womb grows the miracle of the incarnation, the coming of God to join the human race.
Our Roman Catholic friends raise her status by naming her sinless, immaculate, and perpetually a virgin. I think they miss the point. It’s Mary’s faith, her trust in God, that makes her blessed. Elizabeth reiterates this truth when she says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. Mary believes in the promises of God, promises that will lead her to sorrow, while at the same time they lead to the salvation to the world.
The second theological truth Elizabeth preaches to us is about the fruit of Mary’s womb, the son to be born. “Why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me.” The mother of my Lord. In this simple statement Elizabeth announces the astounding truth about the child Mary bears. He is the Lord. Adoni. The Hebrew word for God himself. He is to be God incarnate. And Mary is his mother.
Psychologist Thomas Holmes has developed a stress scale,
based on an assigned numerical value of stress-producing
experiences. These experiences usually involves changes–the
loss of a job, moving to a new community, a new relationship,
CHRISTMAS! Yes, Dr. Holmes has computed that simply living
through the stress of Christmas earns you 14 points on the stress
If you look at the Virgin Mary’s situation, you can see that
she earns a lot of points on the stress scale.
PREGNANCY, for instance, earns 40 points.
AN UNWANTED PREGNANCY, 20 MORE.
A CHANGE IN LIVING CONDITIONS–25. (Mary stayed with
her cousin Elizabeth for three months.)
MARRIAGE TO JOSEPH–50 POINTS.
A CHANGE IN FINANCIAL STATUS–38 POINTS.
Surely there must have been words between them when she
discovered that he had not made reservations at the
inn–35 POINTS FOR AN ARGUMENT WITH YOUR SPOUSE.
AND THEN THE BIRTH
–39 POINTS; 16 FOR A CHANGE IN SLEEPING HABITS
— 15 FOR A CHANGE IN EATING HABITS.
NOT TO MENTION ALL THOSE UNINVITED GUESTS; SHEPHERDS,
ANGLES COMING AND GOING AND THREE KINGS FROM THE EAST.
Dr. Holmes says that people get sick at 200 points. I calculate
that Mary’s ordeal earned her a whopping 424 “stressed out”
Well to ease Mary’s stress, the angel Gabriel has confided in her this eye-popping news: Despite her age and barrenness, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant. The mystery of Advent grows in ever widening circles, revealing that God’s surprising
work can take place–
in age or youth,
in the temple or in odd places like Nazareth,
in barrenness or virginity.
As we move toward the birth of Jesus one week from today, I
hope we can linger for a little while in that little hut in the
Judean hill country with Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary, if
only to learn how God comes to us in the mostunlikely places, at
the times we least expect it.
The big word we use at Advent is waiting. We talk a lot
about waiting for God to come into the world and into our lives.
But we’ve got it all wrong. The big word is waiting, but it’s
not our waiting that Advent is all about. Instead, God is
waiting for us, waiting for us to believe, to trust, to open our
eyes to the unexpected.
The good news of Christmas is that God doesn’t stand at a
distance, waiting for us to come to Him. Instead, in Jesus
Christ he has come all the way to us.