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by Ted Schroder
December 17, 2006

Central to Advent and Christmas are the stories of two women: Mary and Elizabeth. Luke, the beloved physician, takes a professional and personal interest in their experience during pregnancy. Immediately after Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she is to bear a son, and that her cousin Elizabeth is going to have a child in her old age, she hurries off to the hill country of Judea where her cousins live. It would have taken her at least three days to walk the 80 to 100 miles from Nazareth. There is no mention of Joseph accompanying her. She would stay with her relatives three months. When she arrives Elizabeth is six months pregnant with John, who will be called the Baptizer.

Why did she take off on such a journey at that time? St. Matthew tells us that, when he discovered that Mary was with child that he was going to divorce her, but an angel appeared to him in a dream and revealed to him her divine vocation. We read that he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth. Perhaps it was to spare Joseph her physical proximity, and to avoid local gossip that Mary decided to get away for a while.

When she reaches her cousins' home St. Luke records an emotional reunion of the two women. "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed in the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?'" (Luke 1:41-43) Mary responds with words which have become famous as the Magnificat, a song that has been sung for the duration of the Christian era: "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."

Here we have two Spirit-filled women, whose bodies are in sync with the Creator. They epitomize the new creation their sons are to inaugurate. In this encounter between two women you have a sharing of divine purpose and power. Despite the male chauvinism of the times in which they lived, and the criticism of the early Christian church as suppressing documents promoting the prominence of women, St. Luke puts these two women front and center in the first chapter of his Gospel. He reminds us that we would not know of the lives of Jesus and John the Baptist without their mothers.

J. Ellsworth Kalas, professor of preaching at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore. Kentucky, cites Paul Engle, for many years the distinguished director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa who wrote a book about Christmas as he remembered it from his Iowa childhood. "It seemed to him, he said, that 'the fourth of July was a man's holiday, loud, defiant, full of risk and explosion.' But 'Christmas was a women's holiday, quiet, sharing, full of cheer and generosity.' He comments further about the ways women made his early Christmases beautiful, then goes on to say, 'Why should Christmas not have been the most womanly of all celebrations? It was a day of praise for woman's most desirable and unique aspect: birth. In the dead season came life.' (Paul Engle, An Old Fashioned Christmas)"

Whatever we may think of that, it is remarkable that the first New Testament report of someone being filled with the Holy Spirit comes when two women are comparing notes on pregnancy and on the marvel of God's work in their lives. God comes into the natural world, into the midst of the lives of these women, and turns what could be seen to be something quite ordinary into something extraordinary. In the process of traveling to share with her cousin Elizabeth, what had happened to her, Mary found acceptance, understanding and affirmation. And what affirmation it is! "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!"

In this intimate scene we see portrayed what is most needed in a time in which we feel we have to measure up to the expectations and standards of others. Elizabeth gives Mary acceptance of her situation, understanding of her condition, and affirmation of what God is doing in her life. The world would be a better place if we were able to extend those qualities to those around us. Mary traveled three days to find that acceptance because the angel Gabriel has told her that Elizabeth would understand because of her own experience. She did not travel in vain. She experienced the good news of God's love, 'gospel love'.

How can we be like Elizabeth to the Mary's in our lives? Whose situation should we accept rather than criticize or try to change? Whose condition should we try to understand rather than condemn? How can we affirm what God is doing in the lives of others without feeling jealous or in competition with them? Elizabeth felt it was a privilege for Mary to visit her. "Why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" Even John in her womb, the one who would say that Jesus would increase and that he would decrease, leaped for joy. Elizabeth praised Mary for her faith and her obedience: "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" (Luke 1:43-45)

The culture in which I was raised did not praise people. I think there was a fear that praise would turn someone's head and cause them to think that they were superior to others. Or it may have been that the average citizen felt that someone else's success or accomplishments (apart from sports), reflected upon their own achievements. There was much scorn heaped on people who did not conform to one's own perception of what was 'normal'. There was a laundry list of what was acceptable and unacceptable in the community. Small town prejudices fostered criticism of others, and cutting people down to size. The Christianity in which I was raised reinforced these traits by promoting high, some might say, unrealistic, expectations, so that any mistake or failure resulted in feelings of shame. Over the years I have had a hard time adjusting to a culture of affirmation and appreciation. The example of Elizabeth brings home the value of such generosity of spirit.

Elizabeth took Mary in for three months until she was about to give birth. These two women enjoyed each other's company for three months. They could talk without fear of being interrupted because Zechariah had been struck dumb by the angel Gabriel. There has to be some humor in that situation. Can you imagine the three of them sitting in the kitchen with Zechariah having to listen and never being able to get a word in edgeways?

As they went about their business, the future of the world was being changed within their bodies. The Holy Spirit was doing his work through them - through two ordinary women, one young, and the other old. What does this tell us about our own lives?

"God is not limited to the 'out there,' but has chosen to come among us. Christmas is an event for a crude manger, near a not very impressive first-century hotel, with preliminary scenes in a hillside town, over a back fence. God is not to be shut off in a corner of life - not even an ornately sacred corner; God chooses to be present in any and every scene, with no reluctance to enter our common life.... Christmas is meant to happen where we are. God enters our ordinary days, our routine patterns - sometimes a back fence, sometimes the world of shared confidences, sometimes the kitchen of a modest home, sometimes the carefully arranged dinner party. The first Christmas was full of surprises, and there seems to be no reason to thin that those surprises have come to an end.

It just might be that the Holy Spirit will break in on your life this Christmastime, intersecting some common moment - in a kitchen or bedroom, in a visit with a friend." J. Ellsworth Kalas, Christmas from the Back Side, p.35)

---The Rev. Ted Schroder is pastor of Amelia Plantation Chapel, Amelia Island, Florida.

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