The characters we’re using for the third week of Advent reflection are Mary and Elizabeth. Scot McKnight has been blogging about them all week, with a daily entry considering different aspects of how the Christmas story affected them. I have not been meditating on these two characters so much this week, but have some near-extemporaneous thoughts I’d like to string together. Hold onto your seats, we’re going to try some stream-of-conciousness blogging. Only slight interruptions will occur while I Google something, but you shouldn’t really notice the pauses ;^)
It’s a little odd I suppose that the Christmas story begins with unexpected events. Perhaps odd because the Advent season is about waiting, about expectation. It’s about hope fulfilled, and yet the fulfillment of the hope, the end of the waiting, comes as a surprise. It comes in unexpected ways.
Two women, mothers-to-be… both unexpected. Elizabeth the old woman is about to be a new mother. Mary the young woman, yet to be a new wife but about to be a new mother.
Oh, the social surprise.
In our culture when such a long time passes between the wedding day and the first child, people start asking questions. When a woman past a certain age intends to have a child, people start asking questions. Elizabeth must have gotten quite used to questions… but they had probably stopped asking. My wife and I waited several years after getting married before starting a family (our tenth anniversary was only days away from our oldest daughter’s first birthday). We went through a period of questions from well-meaning church people about when we would be starting a family. We waited long enough that they stopped asking and started assuming. For Elizabeth, the assumptions were true — at least some of them were. They were having trouble conceiving, but it was not a judgement of God in any way, or a lack of his blessing in their lives. He was just saving it all up for the right moment.
In our culture when an unwed woman is expecting a child, assumptions are also made. This was no different in Mary’s day, and but the stigma is certainly not now what is was then. It isn’t now what it was 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago. Times have changed… and now there’s even a “solution” for it. But that’s another matter. Mary faces a real social predicament here. On the one hand she’s had a visit from the angel Gabriel, and is full of Joy for the coming of the messiah. On the other hand, this isn’t going to be easy…
The Bible understates things somewhat in saying,
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
This is a pretty clear case of getting out of town for just the right season. “With haste” is just a quaint way to put it. She likely waited a while, making plans with Joseph and determining how best to handle the situation… as in, “What do we tell the neighbours?” and then when she was starting to “show” and “her condition” would soon become plain to all, she “got outta Dodge.” She had this country cousin, up in the hill country, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was family, and even if her husband was a priest, she could probably hide out there. Maybe she could tell them the truth, and they would believe. Really, there weren’t a lot of homes for unwed mothers to be found in Judea in those days.
She doesn’t need to expain, she finds… what a reception! After Mary greets Elizabeth, Luke tells us,
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, â€œBlessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.ï¿½?
Mary must have been quite relieved, for she responds with The Magnificat. She stays with Elizabeth (and Zechariah, of course) for three months… up until it’s nearly time for Elizabeth to give birth.
Imagine poor Zechariah… we considered him in our first Advent reflection of this series. Recall how the poor chap was stuck in a house with a hormonal pregnant woman and couldn’t speak. Imagine what went through his mind when Elizabeth went to him later that day and said, “Hey Zach, you remember my cousin Mary from down in Nazareth? Engaged to that carpenter feller. Well, guess what….” So now he’s stuck in a house with two pregnant hormonal women. We already know he couldn’t protest taking in an unwed mother. At least Elizabeth will have someone to talk to, and he can go hide out in his den with a few of his favorite scrolls. “Call me in three months when it’s time for the baby, okay? I’ll be in the den brushing up on my Messianic Prophecy 101.”
Both Elizabeth and Mary have children of promise. Children awaited, children who fulfill prophecies from hundreds of years before. No pressure there… just raise them as best you can: if God didn’t think you were up to it, he’d have chosen someone else. Was the manner of their deaths also unexpected? I think they knew. Both of them seemed to raise the ire of the religious leaders whenever they began to preach. I imagine dinner conversations when each of the boys was in their teens… as they said things about “the establishment” to their parents, did their fathers say, “Now son, don’t go making waves… that’s just not how things are done.” Or did they listen, and wonder to themselves, “Should I be encouraging this kind of thinking?” I think they must have come to suspect it, if not when the kids were babes, then when they began their public ministries. Children of promise have a tough road. It takes a special kind of person not only to be such a child, but to parent one. There’s a strange mix of grief with the joy. If they know what’s coming, it’s best not to think about it until you have to.
When Herod goes on the rampage against young boys, we all know that Joseph took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt. What did Zechariah do with Elizabeth and John? John would also have been a target, being close enough in age. Was he a big boy so that the parents could say he wasn’t really 2, he was three — or whatever? Did soldiers ever call on him, or did they ask in town who lived down that road, and was John spared by assumptions made at the answer, “That’s the home of Zechariah, the old priest.” Who knows? John escapes Herod’s “solution” for unwanted baby boys.
Joseph flings the door open late one afternoon and finds himself face-to-face with some strangers on his doorstep. Magi. There are a good half-dozen camels, maybe twice that. There’s an entourage with servants. “Uh, Mary? Where’s the baby?” These guys are your basic astrologers, new-age types. This might not go over well when word gets back to the Synagogue. They see the toddler Jesus, the infant king, and they worship. Leaving three gifts (there were three types of gift, not three wise men), they take their leave and being warned in a dream, they head home by a different route.
Joseph has a dream too, and an angel appears again in the dream. Whenever an angel appears in one of Joseph’s dreams, it seems something difficult is about to befall him. So here’s Joseph, about to become a fugitive. He’s not a man of means, and flight through Egypt with a family in tow is not going to be easy — or cheap. How long will he be in exile, perhaps unable to work, or to lodging. I’m fairly sure that he and Mary looked at each other and said, “We can’t do that stable-thing again!” (I wonder if Joseph had many years of Mary reminding him, “I told you to call ahead for reservations!”) But comfort normally takes a back-seat to resolve.
That morning, Joseph finds himself in the market with three things to sell. Not his usual carpentry, this is much more valuable. He’s selling gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Just a little of each, in exchange for currency. They’ll travel well, and he’ll sell more along the road.
The third Sunday of Advent is typically Joy. I think we’ve covered quite a range of emotions that will have been sparked for the characters in this story… and particularly for Elizabeth and Mary. There is wonder, fear, uncertainty, grief, apprehension… and there is joy. There’s an underlying joy that is accentuated by the other emotions, especially the contradictory ones. Grief tinged with joy. Fear with a strong undertone of joy. Given a bit of reflection, all these emotions can be coloured by joy. Joy in the birth of any child changes the nature of all the emotions to follow. Even pain. Given the descriptions of pain (and obviously I don’t know anything about this first-hand), we might sometimes marvel that not every child is an only child…. except that joy can be allowed to colour all the emotions that follow the birth of a child.
In the Advent season when we remember joy, we think of the “great joy which shall be for all people.” It isn’t a joy for only Elizabeth, for only Mary… this is a joy that their two boys are a part of, a chain of events has are set in motion. It’s something bigger than they are, bigger than each of their little families. But on the other hand, their joy is a special kind.