Fourth Sunday of Advent Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

Fling Wide the Door

          As the darkness begins to lift, as we heed the call to level the mountains and raise up the valleys, after we are scalded into our expectations by the harsh words of John the Baptizer, we come at last to the kind of Gospel message we are hoping to hear: pregnancies, miracles, a beautiful hymn of praise to God. Here in this part of Luke’s sprawling opening chapter, Mary reveals that the recent cosmic events in which she has been caught up have taught her a thing or two about how God operates.

Not holding to the status quo, not feathering the cushions of the wealthy and doubling down on oppression, but just the opposite: by casting an unflinching gaze upon the margins, the darkened corners, the shadows, and by summoning into the spotlight the powerless, the voiceless, and those with no expectations at all.

It’s worth noting, and it is peculiar to Luke’s infancy narrative, that women are clearly the center of attention in this first chapter. The only man who makes an appearance is struck dumb. Luke had both Matthew and Mark before him as examples. He could have begun with a lengthy family tree showing Jesus’ noble origins through the great kings and patriarchs, all of whom, of course, are men. Or he could have emulated Mark and begun with the baptism of the adult Jesus. But he makes a point of keeping the attention on the women.

And that signals something to us about Luke’s Jesus. Here is a Messiah, a king, the fulfillment of prophecies, who is determined to search out, to notice, the ones on the margins, the ones whom everyone else overlooks. And in this chapter, the women whom Jesus notices behave in similar fashion.

By right and by custom, Elizabeth should be shaming Mary for her shocking behavior. Getting in a family way before the wedding. Imagine. As an older female relative, Elizabeth had a duty to scold Mary, to point out the error of her ways, and to make sure she knew that there would forever be a blot on her name.

Instead, Elizabeth welcomes and honors Mary, blurting out the astonishing news even before Mary has a chance to say anything. And she does so in a way that makes sure that Mary – terrified, uncertain, fleeing her home town – understands what a gift she has been given. Here we see and experience the amazing story of women ministering to one another. In so many Bible stories, and so often today, women are expected to care for others and not address our own needs. Clean up other people’s messes, wipe other people’s tears. But in this scene, Mary and Elizabeth care for each other – and they allow themselves to be cared for. They provide us with a new model of ministry, one in which two people are co-equal in nurturing one another, each being a servant to the other. This scene could well be the first glimpse in the Gospel of Luke of what Jesus’ Kingdom of God looks like: a place in which servant and served are turned on their heads.

And what Elizabeth does for Mary in the way she addresses her is equally astonishing. She alone affirms Mary’s role as a prophet. She is telling Mary that she is so much more than just a mother-to-be. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by God. Blessed is she who believed.”

Mary, unsure and frightened, goes to her kinswoman, and Elizabeth assures her that her radical “Yes” to God was no mistake. And in doing so, Elizabeth affirms Mary’s unique role as Jesus’ first disciple.

What happens – not just in Luke 1 but in the larger church, now, today – when we listen to the voices of women? Elizabeth calls Mary blessed, and Mary responds by turning that good news outward, insisting that all of us, the oppressed, the poor, and the lowly, we all are blessed. Mary responds to the unlikely liberation to be found in her acceptance of God’s call, and she calls on us to do the same. She embraces her role as prophet with a beautiful call for justice.

It can be incredibly difficult for women to claim their own blessedness. Their own beauty. Mary – young, frightened, marginalized – teaches us to do that. “From now on, all generations will call me blessed!” Mary is demonstrating how to live into the beautiful life that God has planned for her. And by claiming her own blessedness, Mary can become a blessing to the whole world. Large concepts, like women in leadership, are impossible to grasp in the abstract. Someone must be first. It takes someone to live that role, and others to witness it, before attitudes can begin to shift. It’s true what they say: once you know, really know, someone who is black, or gay, or different in any other way, it becomes impossible to keep the world on the same old axis.

And this scene in the Gospel of Luke bears that out. What changes when it’s a woman, particularly one who has experienced pregnancy, speaking about two pregnant women finding their own voices, standing tall and proclaiming, “I am beautiful. I am blessed”? The Bible is filled with metaphors of labor, of nursing mothers, of experiences unique to women.

Pregnancy is freighted with expectations. It is a time heavy with hopes as well as weighted down with fears. And just as it changes the conversation to have someone who has been there and done that reflecting on the experience, so Luke shows us a world turned not upside down but right side up – two women uniquely positioned to show us God’s realized kingdom.

We can practice self-affirmation all day long. But when someone who has previously had no voice, or even an expectation of a voice, receives affirmation and even a kind of anointing from one of her own kind, it overturns everything – the world, for Mary, has suddenly become not turned upside down but right side up, perhaps even Jesus side up. It turns out the Kingdom of God is a place in which when all voices are heard, the result is that all doors are opened, all barriers are torn down, and no one is on the margins.

Where do we seek the affirmation we need from those who have been turned away as we have? In the same place, and in the same way, as Mary. When someone who knows what it feels like to be ignored, repressed, and brushed aside looks us in the eye, embraces us, and tells us to claim our status as prophets. We who bear the Word of the Lord, like Mary, are now liberated to say with her, “I am beautiful. I am blessed.”