20th December, 4th Sunday of Advent, morning
Revd Kate Tuckett
One liability of having heard the Christmas story over and over again is that we know how it turns out. There is no way to recapture the initial shock of the news: that God is coming in the flesh to show us what real life looks like. For the past couple of weeks John the Baptist has been the messenger of that news. If you’ve been here or keeping up with the readings at home, you’ll know that the news has not been all that good. There has been a lot of talk about axes, pitchforks and unquenchable fires. So it is a real relief this morning to hear news from a different messenger – who will turn out to be Mary the mother of Jesus.
This may very well be my very favourite reading in the whole of the gospels. The story of Mary and Elizabeth is a beautiful and a moving one. It’s a story of female friendship, of a young girl visiting an older woman and them walking together, being alongside one another, supporting each other to bring new life to birth.
It’s a story of great joy. Elizabeth feels her baby leap in her womb and pronounces God’s blessing upon Mary. Mary will respond with her own song of praise, in rich poetry of the Magnificat. But it’s a story of joy of new life in a context that is hardly conducive to its flourishing. Elizabeth is too old for children and Mary is unmarried. This is a story that is either impossible, or so far beyond the limits of social acceptability that it might as well be.
It’s a story about bodies. It’s about two women whose bodies are changing as they play their part in God’s story – which will of course continue to be an embodied story. We might imagine Mary and Elizabeth as they meet, laughing as they greet each other, hugging, perhaps placing their hands on each others’ pregnant bellies.
It’s an intimate story within the huge and cosmic story of God coming to earth, A story of encounter, of touching, of kindness. This is the context in which new life is felt and blessing is pronounced.
It may be that Mary has come to seek refuge with Elizabeth. Pregnant outside of marriage was punishable by death within Jewish law. As soon as Mary arrives, Elizabeth’s baby jumps in her womb. Elizabeth smiles and proclaims ‘Blessed are you Mary. Blessed are you amongst all of us; blessed is the fruit of your womb; blessed re you for believing that this would happen.’ And Mary finds her voice too. She feels safe, understood and supported. And the words will come tumbling out: ‘My soul is bursting with the greatness of the Lord, and my whole being is thrilled with God. He’s noticed me, the lowest of them all, and I honestly believe that in future people will be call me incredibly blessed.’ We call it the Magnificat. She calls it delight.
Two women are responding from the bottom of their hearts to the greatness and goodness of God, despite the strange and frightening circumstances they find themselves in. Two women whose who beings leap for joy as they recognise the presence of God with them.
When did you last leap for joy, I wonder? We will all have our own moments of heart leap: perhaps it is upon a piece of news that is a great relief to you in some way;; perhaps, in a strange way, it is the presence of another person in the time of greatest sadness; perhaps it is reading something or hearing a piece of music that moves you in a way that cannot be expressed; perhaps it is something about the stunning and silent splendour of the natural world that makes your heart leap and laugh.
The baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when she came within the magnetic field of God’s presence, which was in Mary. And Mary’s heart leapt for joy with the realisation of what God had entrusted to her, and those famous words of praise tumbled from her lips.
What seems to make people leap for joy is becoming aware of the presence of God. But we can only become aware of the presence of God if we’re attuned to it and ready for it, if we are prepared to look for it. And the fear is that very often we’ve closed our receptors down and are not expecting to encounter the living God. And so we don’t.
Mary and Elizabeth were attuned to the presence of God. And so they were ready to be overwhelmed by the reality of God in that hidden life in Mary’s womb. Mary had made space for God to act and he did. Elizabeth had made space in her life for the forerunner of Jesus, and the child leaped within her when Jesus came near.
And so if we can make space for God to act and become attuned to his presence, able to recognise the transparent moment when it comes, we too might experience the odd lumbering leap for joy. It seems to be the case that practice makes perfect. We need to practise the presence to God. To remember him in the midst of ordinary life, to glance in his direction while we’re on the tube or hanging the washing out or watching the news. If we can do ordinary things in the name of Christ and recognise Jesus for a moment in each other, then God may break into our lives and steal our hearts away.
Doing this takes work and perseverance and practice. Sometimes we talk about Mary’s yes, but all Mary has trust, trust that God is with her and for her and who wants her to have life. She certainly doesn’t have a 3-months scan or a husband or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says ‘This child really is mine, now leave the poor girl alone.’ All she has her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next – and that apparently will be enough to make her burst into song. She doesn’t wait to see how things will turn out first. She sings ahead of time and all the angels with her.
And so if there are big changes going on with you right now, if something is under way that you can’t predict the end of, and your stomach is rolling what your own version of morning sickness, then you might try following Mary’s lead. Who knows? Maybe the Holy Spirit has come upon you. Maybe that shadow hanging over you is the power of the most high.
So as we hear this beautiful story of friendship and joyful connection between two women who found themselves caught up in God’s saving action, we might ask ourselves who will walk with us and support us in our journey of response to the call of God in our lives. Who is the soul-friend, the spiritual midwife who, as Elizabeth did, recognises the hidden work of the Spirit in our lives,, perhaps unbirthed, perhaps incomplete, but who will rejoice with us at that which is waiting to be fully realised and embodied.
Seek out that person. Because it often takes another person to help us to recognise our experience of God --- whether that is through a gentle dawning of light, an encounter, a touching, a kindness, a peace, a heart leap. But when we do recognise it, it will be enough, for one touch of Christ is greater than a thousand doubts and dull days. Our task is simply to be ready and waiting, to be alert for the presence of God with our spiritual receptors turned on.
The child leaped for joy in his mother’s womb. The child in us can leap for joy too as we come close to Christ, who was carried in the womb of Mary, for us and for our salvation.
This sermon uses materials from the
Brown Taylor, B. (1999), Home by another way, London: SPCK
Pritchard, J. (2001), Living the Gospel Stories Today, London: SPCK
Slee, N. (2007), The Book of Mary, London: SPCK