Sunday, December 04, 2016

Cousins Mary and Elizabeth and Advent

The first chapter of the book of Luke tells the stories of two cousins, Mary and Elizabeth. The prominence of women in the Gospels is part of what makes Christianity believable to me. In the first century, women had a low status in the very patriarchal society. They had no role in public life. Yet, here they are, playing such important roles in Jesus' birth.

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid,Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink,and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

Elizabeth is the perfect person to meditate on for Advent. She was waiting. In her society, a woman had no status without children. (Yes, I realize such a society is unjust, but that's the way it was.) Luke tells us that Elizabeth and her husband waited for years. They remained faithful to God, but God hadn't answered their prayers for a child. Zechariah got up and went to the temple when it was his turn. Elizabeth did whatever work she did. And then, all of the sudden, they find out that they are going to have a baby!

The scripture says that Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months. Why? I think part of it may have been because she didn't want everyone to know that she was pregnant if she miscarried because then she'd have to deal with all the explanations and sympathies that are always so awkward. She may also have been doing everything possible to keep her pregnancy calm. Every society has it's own traditions about what expecting moms should and shouldn't do.

 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid,Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Mary was in a very different situation. She was young, probably a teenager, who was engaged to be married. Now an angel comes to tell her that she's going to have a baby even though she's not married. Yes, this is highly inconvenient. Her time of waiting is the time between  when she finds out she's pregnant and when the baby is born. Mary was obviously on God's side of things because she doesn't seem to hesitate and says, "I am the Lord's servant." (BTW, the angel talks to Joseph in Matthew's Gospel and Joseph agrees to marry Mary and give Jesus an earthly father.)

39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her

Pregnancy involved lots of waiting. Waiting to feel the baby move. Waiting for nausea to get better. Waiting for the day when you can see your feet again. And on and on. Mary took a trip to see Elizabeth while she was pregnant. Elizabeth felt her baby, John the Baptist kick in her womb, which she interprets as God favoring Mary and her baby.

   And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary's song, the Magnificat, is one of the best pieces of poetry in scripture. As Mary is waiting for her child, the Messiah, to be born, she is remembering the things that God has done for the people of Israel in the past and claiming his promises for the future.

Elizabeth waits for many years to have a child. Mary waits through her pregnancy to deliver her baby, Emmanuel. These are both pictures of Israel's waiting for it's Messiah and for the world waiting for it's deliverer. 

God used these women as crucial players in his plan for bringing his kingdom to earth. Meditate on this during this Advent season.


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