by Bill Carroll
Have you ever needed to depend on other people? It could be family. It could be friends. It might even be strangers. But have you ever really needed to depend on other people?
What about God? Do we rely on God? Do we pray and seek God’s help in our lives? Most often, God helps us through other people.
Jesus calls us to be part of a new community that follows God’s ways of love and puts them into practice. Each of us is a means of grace for all the other people God puts into our lives. Through relationships of brotherhood and sisterhood, modelled on Jesus and his love, we encounter God’s grace and are given strength to share it in the world.
That’s what the story of the Visitation, appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year, is all about. Mary comes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. In the story, Mary is likely pretty young. She’s unmarried and she’s pregnant. In her culture, that means disgrace and possibly violence. She could be stoned to death.
And yet, at this point in the story, we’ve already heard the angel tell Mary her child is special. Her son, God’s Son, will restore the throne of his ancestor David. He will be the bringer of mercy and justice. Of his kingdom, there shall be no end.
Even though she’s perplexed by it, Mary has received this message with joy, embracing her call from God wholeheartedly and with single-minded devotion. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says. Let it be unto me according to thy word.
Mary’s Son is Good News and she receives him gladly, and yet he brings her terror and many unanswered questions. A sword will pierce your soul, Simeon tells her in the next chapter of Luke’s Gospel. As Mary watches Jesus live, suffer, and die, she will discover what these words mean. By being a parent, she will participate in the suffering of her child.
William Butler Yeats captures something of the visceral fear she must feel in his poem, “Mother of God,” where he places the following words in Mary’s mouth:
The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a Sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
As with the Good News of Easter, the conception and birth of Jesus are known first by the women, who receive Good News from an angel with terror and great joy. Our Lord’s arrival in this world, like his death and resurrection, portends disruption of business as usual and fundamental change.
And so, in the shocking newness of the angel’s words and the grace of the Holy Spirit, Mary runs for the hills. She goes to her cousin Elizabeth for strength and counsel. Sisterhood is powerful. Elizabeth is also pregnant in an unusual way. She is much older, past childbearing years. Like so many other women in the Bible, Elizabeth has had trouble conceiving a child. Like Mary’s Son, her child is far from ordinary. He is conceived in the ordinary way, it’s true, but not without divine assistance. He is John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus and the greatest of the prophets.
When these women gather, each draws strength from the other. In the grace and power of the Spirit, each becomes able to confess the saving deeds of God—and tell the other about the astonishing new thing God is about to do.
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Elizabeth greets Mary as one who’s received God’s favor and the mother of the promised Savior. And deep within Elizabeth’s womb, as he will later do on the banks of Jordan, John the Baptist leaps for joy and points to the coming of Jesus in the flesh.
The encounter between these two women is a model for us, as we strive to welcome Jesus into the world and do the work of God’s Kingdom. Because, in Jesus, God refuses to keep silent. In Jesus, God chooses to act and takes a stand on the side of the little ones who have no other helper.
Behold, the Savior stands at the door and knocks. And his love changes everything.
Mary knows it. She knows it as a faithful daughter of Israel. But more than that, she knows it because of the new life that is living and growing within her. Filled with grace and the gift of prophecy, she bears witness to God’s coming Kingdom. She tells us about it in words like those of her Son. For Mary has seen the Kingdom, in which the first go last, and the last first.
And so, drawing on the mighty promises God gave us through the prophets, Mary sings of the liberator God of Exodus, who makes a People where there was no People, who breaks our chains, and brings life out of death:
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 away empty.
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 for ever.
Jesus is coming. In him, the hungry will be fed. In him, the captives will be set free. In him, God’s mercy and justice will arrive. In him, we will get a fresh start and a new life, and God’s love will reign.
“Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king.” Jesus is that king.
His way is love.
Holy is his Name.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
image: Elizabeth Greets Mary by Jason Sierra