Sunday 3 June 2018
Commemoration of the Visitation
We’re doing something a little different this Summer. I’m calling it a Summer of Saints. We usually follow a scheduled set of bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. But in the background, there’s also another calendar of days and readings that we usually don’t pay as much attention to. It’s a calendar of saints’ days and holy days. It’s a bit more common in the Lutheran tradition than in the Methodist tradition, but there are calendars of saints’ days and holy days for both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and for The United Methodist Church. The Lutheran ones appear in a book called More Days for Praise: Festivals and Commemorations in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and the Methodist ones are in a book called For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations for United Methodists. During this summer, we’re going to be drawing on those resources in order to explore some characters that we don’t often pay much attention to. Most of the saints we’ll be meeting are biblical saints, but we’ll also have the chance to get to know a few figures from later in the Christian story.
The commemoration we are marking today is called The Visitation, and it’s the story we read from the Gospel of Luke. When Mary is pregnant with Jesus, she travels to Judea to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. You may be thinking that this sounds like a Christmas story. But if you do the math, John the Baptist is supposed to have been born about six months before Jesus, so that’s June 24th. Then Mary must have visited about a month before that, and here we are.
Some of you have probably heard of the Bechdel test. It’s usually applied to movies, but sometimes to other kinds of storytelling. The Bechdel test has three parts. First, does the story have at least two women? Second, do the two women talk to each other? Third, do they talk to each other about something other than a man? Sometimes there is an additional requirement that the two female characters are actually given names. Only about half of Hollywood films pass the Bechdel test.
As you think through all the bible stories you know, you might notice that they have a significantly worse track record on the Bechdel test. The bible is not very strong on female characters. When they do appear, they are often not named. They only rarely talk to each other, and then almost exclusively about men, usually husbands, sometimes sons. According to one accounting, only three books of the Bible even come close to passing the Bechdel test: Ruth, Mark, and Luke. Ruth and Naomi have a complex relationship and wide-ranging conversations, though Naomi does keep trying to bring things back to finding a husband for Ruth. In the final scene of the Gospel of Mark, the women who go to the tomb murmur to each other “Who will roll the stone away?” Though, that’s hardly voluminous dialogue, and they are talking about the stone that bars the tomb of a man: Jesus.
The third example is right here, with Mary and Elizabeth talking to each other about their pregnancies. This episode, like the other two, is questionable, though. On the one hand, Mary and Elizabeth have not a word to say about their husbands, Joseph and Zechariah. On the other hand, they are talking about their male babies, and even when they’re talking about God, there is the strange sense that they’re talking about Mary’s man. Even so, though, I think there’s the sense that something special is happening here, that we’re getting a focus on the voices of women that we don’t often see in the bible.
Both Elizabeth and Mary function as prophets in this passage. Luke tells us explicitly that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit before she says what she has to say. Mary not only speaks, she breaks into poetry. Both of them utter God-speech—inspired words.
Those of you who have a Roman Catholic background will know Elizabeth’s words better than the rest of us do. Much of the Hail Mary prayer comes from Elizabeth’s words here. Hail Mary, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. That’s all cribbed from the KJV of Elizabeth’s speech. “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry.”
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, they call Mary the Theotokos (Θεοτόκος). Sometimes it’s translated as the Mother of God, but more literally, it means “the God-bearer.” That’s what Elizabeth is trying to say about Mary, that she has been chosen to bear the incarnate God into the world. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Why do have this honor that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Now that is prophecy! The mother of my Lord should come to me!
It isn’t mentioned in the part we read this morning, but by all outward appearances, it’s Elizabeth who has the miraculous pregnancy. To the world’s eyes, Mary is just another unwed mother, but we were told that Elizabeth is well past child-bearing years when she becomes pregnant with her son, John. But like Sarah in the Book of Genesis, she becomes pregnant in her old age, a miracle for all to see. And yet, she somehow recognizes that it is not her pregnancy, but Mary’s that is the greater miracle.
She even says that the child in her womb leaps when it heard Mary’s voice. Sometimes in icons and paintings of this scene, the artists will show a little miniature John in Elizabeth’s belly, leaping, and a little miniature Jesus in Mary’s belly, usually with his hand up in a sign of benediction. In any case, Luke tells us that even the fetal John knows that something important is happening here.
Elizabeth closes her words with this: “Blessed is she who believes that the things God had spoken to her will be fulfilled.” The grammar is a little strange. We’d expect, “Blessed is she who believed that the things God spoke to her would be fulfilled.” That would be a sort of congratulation to Mary for having believed in the past and her belief has been born out in the present. But it’s stranger than that. Blessed is she who believes (in the present) that what God said (in the past) will be fulfilled (in the future). There’s a tension there. The trust in the God is right now, and it’s based on what God said in the past, but it hasn’t been fulfilled yet. We haven’t seen the end yet. There is no guarantee that God will fulfill, that God will be trustworthy. There is only trust now that God will do what God promises in time.
And isn’t that where we find ourselves much of the time? We have these promises from God. We have these words, but they have yet to be fulfilled. There are the big ones, of course: peace, justice. And there is that tension between the good that we can clearly see God doing, and yet the imperfection of our human condition, the not yet complete of God’s invasive kingdom.
But there are also the smaller, but more immediate promises. God’s words spoken especially to me, especially to you. They’re not always as clear as words, of course. Not everyone is visited by the angel Gabriel. But there is that feeling, that sense of calling or purpose, that sense that God has a plan for me, that sense that God is concerned with my life, as small as my life may be. And yet that is often in tension with the not yet of what we sense God has in store for us.
No matter how strong that moment of clarity may have been, no matter how sure we may have felt of God’s calling, no matter how strongly our hearts may have burned, most of our life is spent in the time between those moments of clarity. Most of our life is spent not on the mountaintop, but in the valley. Most of our life is spent in the vagueness, and obscurity, and blurriness, and murkiness, and opacity of our everyday living. When we can’t see the end. When we question if we ever heard anything in the beginning. When we doubt ourselves, and our choices and wonder at all the ways our lives might have played out differently.
And yet Elizabeth’s prophecy suggests that there is blessing in that tension. There is blessing for the one who puts her trust in God even when the future has not yet been revealed, even when the promise has not yet been fulfilled.
Mary doesn’t know, in that moment, what is going to happen. Her immediate concerns—how she is going to explain this baby, whether she will become a social pariah, whether Joseph or any other man will have her now—she doesn’t know the answers to those questions. But she trusts God and the promise that God has made. The promise she has received from Gabriel is that she will conceive by God’s Spirit and that she will give birth to God’s Son and that he will rule on David’s throne forever. That is the promise that she trusts.
But even with those words, she does not know what is coming. She does not know that her son won’t begin his mission until he has turned thirty, an astonishingly advanced age to be beginning in the ancient world. She does not know that he will upset the Jewish religious authorities. She does not know that he will reject the family of his birth as he builds a new community. She does not know that he will create a scene in the temple. She does not know that one of his closest followers will betray him. She does not know that he will be captured and beaten and put on trial before the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, and their puppet, King Herod. She does not know that his male disciples will abandon him. She does not know that she will stand there with Mary Magdalene and the other women and watch as he is tortured and killed on a Roman cross on a hill called Golgatha. None of that is spelled out in the promise from Gabriel. And even after he is raised from the dead, she does not know that he will be taken away forty days later. She does not know that she will be among those in the room when the Spirit comes on Pentecost, that she will be among those who are visited with a tongue of fire, who will proclaim the good news of God in other languages.
None of that is remotely imaginable when Mary visits Elizabeth. Mary has heard the words of God straight from the mouth of an angel, and yet even so, they could not have prepared her for the turns her life would take, for the many twists and detours before God’s words might be fulfilled.
And yet Elizabeth prophesies, “Blessed is she who trusts that what God has said will be fulfilled.” Blessed is she who trusts.
It is Mary’s trust in God that inspires her to open her mouth in prophecy. She may not know all that is to come, but she knows that she is poor, that she is thought to be insignificant, and that all the same, God has chosen her for this special role. She echos the words of Hannah from centuries before, the words we heard read from 1 Samuel today. That God drags the mighty off their thrones and lifts up the lowly. That God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.
These are radical words that Mary speaks. Some of the most radical words in the gospel. But it is her words that set the stage for Jesus’s ministry. Before John utters a single word, before he is even born, Mary is the prophet of the coming Messiah. Mary is the one who proclaims God’s gospel of liberation. Even today, her words echo a call for justice. A little later in the service, we’ll have the chance to sing Mary’s words for ourselves, to hear them speak to our world in the words of the hymn, and I pray that they will move us today as they moved so many other in the past.
On this Sunday, we commemorate two of God’s many faithful women: Mary and Elizabeth. They heard God’s word, and they prophesied. They trusted in what God had promised. Their words and their examples call us still to trust in the one who has promised and to join in the work of God’s Kingdom. Thanks be to God!