A feast or commemoration has to be pretty important to transfer it, usually from a Sunday to the following Monday, although these days more often from the weekday, when people should be going to church, to the following Sunday. Like the Ascension, those ten days of waiting for the Spirit, a liminal time between the joy of the Resurrection and the comfort and guidance of the Spirit, but also a time of waiting, anxiety, not knowing. Those days are transferred so that the teaching or pivotal moments of the year, our life in Christ, do not go unremarked. And with the celebration of Pentecost yesterday still alive in our hearts and minds, today is such a day.
Today’s Eucharistic Gospel (Lk 1:39-49) tells of two women, one young and one old, both pregnant for the first time. Danger to both their lives in a world where losing a baby was as common as the death of a mother after a successful live birth. And social shame overhanging both women. Mary, hardly married, although they had found a nice solid devout local craftsman for her. Who didn’t know what he was getting himself into, but had faith in his dreams. Because sometimes dealing with God is like that. And Elizabeth, her shameful barrenness finally overcome, but with a priestly husband struck dumb at the altar of the Holy One of Israel. “And what was that all about?” her neighbors whispered amongst themselves. Is it a feminist narrative of two women in a patriarchal society, ignoring the fact that women drove the moral rules as much or more than the men? But as a feminist narrative, to the extent that childbirth was pretty much in the hands of women relatives and midwives, that is fair.
But let’s try a more pragmatic approach, one so human that it crosses the boundaries of time and culture. I have had a lot of babies. I have walked with a lot of other women through their pregnancies. I speak from experience. A woman finds herself pregnant. She is flooded with emotion: joy, fear, shame, shock. That varies. I suspect that Mary, a child in her early teens, is pretty close to shame, hanging onto her faith over the reality of the angelic visit. But her society wasn’t hanging on to that, and going home and telling her parents wasn’t one of the most joyous points in her life. She runs off for protection and comfort to her kinswoman, and surprise, she, too, is pregnant under some very odd circumstances. So far, we still have a comforting story of two women supporting each other against the glare of society.
Then reality hits. Did anybody ever tell Mary about morning sickness? Pregnancy is wonderful, especially in a world where fecundity is a precious gift. Every pregnant woman, in terms of Jewish culture, is given that new life by the hand and breath of God. But did the Angel Gabriel tell her about morning sickness? So Mary gets through that, with a lot of minty tea and maybe some dried out bread and not much else, for weeks
And then there is the waiting. And waiting. And waiting. My firstborn son, Isaac, was premature, and only lived a few weeks. So when I became pregnant again there was a lot of tension between my body (and doctor) and my will about how active I could be. I wrapped myself around the image of the Eastern European peasant who worked the fields until she sat herself down under a shade tree, popped out the baby, and went back to work. And in fact with each successive pregnancy I became more active. I also grew bored. I was anxious. It wasn’t common to know the baby’s gender. Or if the child had all the required body parts – arms, legs, head. So the uncertainty was always there in the background. At least these two knew they were having boys, which was more than other women knew. Even now with all the medical interventions, such as C-sections and induced labor, often where there is little to no medical reason other than the worldly convenience of the doctor and the mother, pregnancy is a lot of waiting. Of not knowing. Of uncertainty. Of trust wrestling with fear.
And what does that have to do with us? Tugging on the leash to be let out of our shelters? How long do we have to mask our faces? For those of us in the SF Bay Area, Ash Wednesday was the last day of “freedom”, and by that Sunday the Cup of Salvation and hugs were gone, and, within days, the lid slammed shut. Lockup. It is like an endless pregnancy, but without the pain of birth and the joy of a new life in our arms and at our collective breasts. Just the waiting. Empty waiting. Waiting for the labor pains when you already know the kicking has stopped and the child will be stillborn, but we still have to wait. Feeling stretched out. Suffering from isolation fatigue. Sad, sometimes for no reason.
That is despair. And anger. That is not the Holy Spirit.
One would like to think that these two chosen women, holy women, shared in each other’s joy, and retold each other the wonder of their pregnancy. Just as we have to repeat the Scriptural stories, not only the teaching tales and the great sermons of Jesus, but the wonder tales of both the Gospels and the Hebrew Scriptures, and hear in them new meaning in our lives. But perhaps also there was comfort for Mary and Elizabeth in the home of Zacharias, a priest, now chastened, and learning a new and deeper obedience to the Holy One of Israel, although probably he was still fairly confused about what was to come. And Joseph. After the dream. When he knew he had a job to do. Did he send letters? Perhaps a gift of cloth for a new garment for his bride-to-be? But the men were not waiting in quite the same way as these two women, waiting for a birth ordained by God.
And what would it mean? Elizabeth was probably spared from hearing that her son would meet his end as the surprise course at a dinner party. But Mary lived to see it all. No doubt the death of John made her heart jump as she remembered Simeon’s prophecy when Jesus was presented at the Temple (Lk 2:27-35). But that was yet to come. Now is the waiting. As we are waiting. Could this go on for months, years? Maybe we are more like Zacharias, silenced for a while.
The lives of Mary and Elizabeth were not purposeless. They were at the axis of a change in Salvation history. And our lives now are not purposeless. We, too, are pregnant with the Spirit, with a renewed faith, perhaps a time which we must suffer through during this long fast as we wait for that precious Bread and blessed sip of Wine from the altar to feed us, to germinate in us a renewed Spirit as the Body gathers face to face, and a renewed devotion of gratitude, of humility, one which will not sweep away this time of waiting, but will incorporate it into a greater and deeper knowledge and love of God and of his son Jesus. Wait with patience. The Spirit always bears fruit.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls divides her time between Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA, and Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She lives with her cats, books, and garden.