“The Visitation” attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, ca. 1310-20.
Paint and gilding on Walnut. This scene depicts Mary’s visit to Elizabeth from Luke’s gospel.
Luke 1:39-55 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his humble 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 humble. 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.
Luke 1:39-55 The human dynamics in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke are quite incredible. Perhaps, they are easy to overlook because we hear the stories from this chapter so often, always around this time of the year. In it, an elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are told that they will have a baby who will become John the Baptist. A young woman named Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and tells her that she will bear a son, whose name will be Jesus. Later, Mary goes and visits Elizabeth, who is a relative, perhaps an aunt.
There are many people, not in today’s story. There are no men present; neither Zachariah nor Joseph make an appearance. Perhaps we should be wondering where Mary’s parents are. It is challenging to read specifics, but the reality that her parents do not make an appearance here or anywhere else in the gospel stories, tells us that something has happened. Perhaps they have both passed away. Or maybe Mary is indentured, a servant in another person’s home and no longer their responsibility. Or perhaps, having become pregnant out of wedlock, her parents threw her out, which would have been the least violent way a situation like this would have been handled back then.
Regardless, here’s the setup for our scene:
One way or another, Mary, a young, unmarried woman, is told that she is pregnant. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Mary in this encounter. But of course, she is deeply afraid, perplexed, and worried. “How can this be?” Mary asks the angel, but the real questions in her heart are, “What am I going to tell everyone, my relatives, my neighbors? Most frightening of all, what am I going to tell my fiancé?”
She rushes to Elizabeth’s house right away, afraid. There Elizabeth opens her home and her arms and her heart. She thinks Mary’s embarrassing, awkward, even scandalous condition is just wonderful. “Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth says to the frightened, marginalized young woman. Everyone needs an aunt or an uncle or a person in their lives like Elizabeth, someone that can turn fear into hope, worry into power.
And with this hope and power, Mary proclaims a radical message: And Mary said, I praise the Lord God, Because God has blessed this humble servant. And because of this, I will be called blessed now and forever.
For the God of Mercy has done great things for me And is forever merciful to those that believe.
Almighty God is strong, scattering the proud and overthrowing the powerful.
The God of Justice raises up the poor and oppressed And fills the bellies of the hungry with healthy food, While the rich are sent away empty.
God has remembered and fulfilled the promise of mercy made long ago to our ancestors and we will be blessed forever because of it.
Folks could get into trouble talking like that, and even today, there are places in the world where the Magnificat, Mary’s song, is not translated from Latin or Greek because of its troublesome political and economic ideas. The young, poor, vulnerable Mary tells us that God comes into the world in unexpected ways, through the lives of humble and often marginalized people. Further, God cares about how people live and cares deeply about the poor, the lowly, the forgotten, the exploited. Meanwhile, the powerful and the wealthy are brought low in the new world that Mary imagines.
This type of role reversal is prevalent in the words of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and the words of Jesus, Mary’s son. Judgment on the wealthy and powerful often accompanies these role reversal sayings. Usually, the wealthy are condemned because their wealth was gained by exploiting the poor or other dishonest ways. The powerful are condemned because they used their influence to oppress, commit violence, harm, and turn away those in need. Wealth gained in unjust ways and power without justice.
We see Jesus here too. In stories about religious leaders and parables about wealthy landowners. In actions of healing and chasing the money changers out of the temple.
I think too often we characterize Jesus as something entirely other; that his ideas about God and humanity were new and were divinely preloaded into his operating system before arrival. And perhaps we get this notion when we see a nativity scene and that the newborn Jesus already has his halo. Maybe we get this because of the story of Jesus in the temple where he instructs the instructors at the tender age of 12. What’s more likely in our gospel stories is that Jesus listened to the wisdom and radical message of his mother and learned from it.
She taught him to love others and resist tyranny.
She taught him to share a meal with anyone, regardless of social standing.
She was the one who first brought him into the presence of outcasts like people with leprosy and those haunted by their demons and taught him that above all, they were people in need of caring and healing.
And she instilled in him a devotion to God’s vision of the world, one that honors the dignity of all thing things, bringing together all creatures under the loving care of the merciful Lord.
With all of this, I wonder, what if fear had gotten the better of Mary when she found out she was going to have a child? Indeed, we would give her a pass: a pregnant, unwed teenager in a world that crushed pregnant, unwed teenagers regardless of the circumstances. What if fear had caused her to go into hiding? To avoid those places and people that could be harsh?
Instead, she traveled to someone that loved her, someone who was able to lift her out of that fear. But more than that. Mary isn’t only lifted out of her fear. With hope for the future and with great power, she proclaims God's mighty works and her position as beloved by God. This world is important, and so is she.
So, what about our fears? We have them, many of them. We’ve probably gained a few more this year. There are the classics. We fear death. We fear most losses: the loss of a job or a relationship, loss of control over our time, loss of function or health as we get older, loss of our children as they begin their own lives, loss of status in our community, loss of community. We fear violence; we fear change; we fear being embarrassed in front of others. We fear others. We fear that we are not smart enough or good looking enough or healthy enough or balanced enough or resourceful enough or strong enough. We fear black ice and bad news, unexpected bills, and food poisoning. We fear the future, the past, many parts of the present, and all of the unknown. And in 2020, we fear a virus, an election, a lack of toilet paper, and a bumpy transition in political power. Just to name a few of our fears…
Fear is actually a good thing, a necessary reaction that tells our body to be alert and act accordingly. But we know that fear can also snowball, and a once reasonable fear can turn into a lifetime of fearful living.
One of my favorite thinkers, the Romanian essayist Emil Cioran writes:
In normal doses, fear, indispensable to action and thought, stimulates our senses and our mind; without it, no action at all. But when it is excessive, when it invades and overwhelms us, fear is transformed into a harmful principle, into cruelty. A man who trembles, dreams of making others tremble, a man who lives in terror ends his days in ferocity. Hence, the case of the Roman emperors. Anticipating their own murders, they consoled themselves by massacres… The discovery of a first conspiracy awakened and released in them the monster. And it was into cruelty that they withdrew in order to forget fear.
But we, ordinary mortals who cannot permit ourselves the luxury of being cruel to others—it is upon ourselves, upon our flesh and our mind that we must exercise and indeed exorcise our terrors. The tyrant in us trembles; he must act, discharge his rage, take revenge; and it is upon ourselves that he does so. So decides the modesty of our condition. Amid our terrors, more than one of us evokes a Nero who, lacking an empire, would have had only his own conscience to persecute.
O, what cruelties we visit upon ourselves and others when we act out of fear.
And it makes me wonder, how many other times and in how many different ways has God tried to enter into this world, only to be rebuffed by our fears? Think of all those times we decide not to act because of fear. When we avoid taking risks because we are protecting this or that part of our lives. When we avoid getting to know others because we imagine they are different than us. When we decide not to act when bad things happen because we don’t want to ruffle feathers, be in uncomfortable situations, or risk conflict.
But God, who in our Scriptures tells us, "Do not fear" more than any other commandment, challenges us to step out. So, every year during Advent, we read the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, and hear a story about a young, unprotected, pregnant woman who did not give in to her fears. She had help. When a great difficulty arose, she sought the counsel of a loving and supporting ally, someone who could find hope in a world of unknowns.
And we gather as a church, as millions of other people of faith gather around the world because, as a mother, Mary inspired in Jesus a loving care for all in his midst and a deep desire to lift up those on the bottom.
My prayer for us, then, as we consider this Scripture, is that we find ourselves somewhere in this story. May we identify our fears and not give in to them. Like Elizabeth, may we bring hope and power to those around us who seek our counsel in times of distress. And may we be courageous, like Mary, so we can inspire the next generation of healers and teachers to be faithful to God’s vision for a better, more just, more peaceful world. Amen. Blessings, Pastor Jared