By Debie Thomas
The angel Gabriel leaves, and Mary runs. “With haste,” the Gospel writer tells us on this fourth Sunday in Advent, a newly pregnant teenager makes for the hills, not slowing down until she reaches the home of Elizabeth, her also-pregnant cousin. When her kinswoman welcomes her, she bursts into song — a song so subversive, governments twenty centuries later ban its public recitation.
I love this Gospel story. I love it because it’s one of the rare narratives in the Bible that is female-centered. (The priest Zechariah — Elizabeth’s husband, and the man-presumably-in-charge — is literally silenced throughout.) I love it because its setting is domestic, intimate, and earthy. But most of all, I love it because it allows me to view the mother of Jesus as a whole person. To view her, in Nadia Bolz Weber’s language, “without sentimentality or cynicism.”
This is no small achievement, because we (the Church) have buried Mary under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some of us pray to her. Others ignore her on monotheistic principle. Some call her “Theotokos,” the God-bearer. Others champion her as a model of holy femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. To some, she is a child prophet extraordinaire. To others, the victim of divine manipulation.
Would the real Mary please stand up? Well, I think she has. I think Luke’s account of the Visitation gives us a portrait of Mary that cuts through most of our assumptions and stereotypes. A nuanced portrait that balances fear with courage, doubt with faith, vulnerability with strength. Along the way, it gives us a portrait of ourselves — of what we, the Church, might become at our very best. Here, then, are three gifts I believe the Visitation story offers us for our Advent meditations.
The gift of community: As soon as Mary says “yes” to Gabriel’s astonishing request, she goes “in haste” to see Elizabeth. She doesn’t isolate herself. She doesn’t keep God’s revelation a secret. She doesn’t play Lone Ranger and attempt to go it alone. Instead, she seeks out a fellow-traveler
Although Luke doesn’t elaborate on Mary’s reasons for visiting Elizabeth, it’s easy to imagine why a girl with a story as crazy-sounding as hers might make such an urgent journey. Tradition tells us that Mary is only thirteen or fourteen years old when the angel Gabriel appears to her. In her cultural and religious context, her pregnancy is a scandal. At best, it renders her an object of scornful gossip. At worst, it places her at risk of death by stoning.
Needless to say, she needs safety, affirmation, empathy, and companionship. She needs someone to recognize, nurture, deepen, and celebrate the work of God in her life. Someone who will receive, not reject. Love, not judge. Nourish, not condemn.
Could there possibly be a better job description for the Church? A better prototype for Christian community? What would it be like if we sought each other out with the trust and openness of Mary? What would it be like if we (like Elizabeth) received with tenderness the marginalized and vulnerable people who dare to come to us, seeking refuge and nurture? What would it be like if our communal worship echoed the full-throated call-and-response of these two kinswomen who find themselves caught up in God’s bold, risky, world-changing work, and decide to find strength in each other’s company?
In this Gospel story, Luke essentially describes the first Christian worship service in history. Mary and Elizabeth — the young and the old, the unmarried and the married, the socially established and the socially vulnerable — finding common ground in their love for Jesus. As Henri Nouwen describes it, “God’s most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community.” What a gorgeous and challenging example for us to live up to.
to be continued…