On the third Sunday of Advent, we light the pink candle, for love. It is also pink for Mary. It is no surprise to see her remembered on this circle of waiting. Remember that Mary’s Advent was much longer than ours – a full nine months long! When I think about Mary, I usually see her in my mind’s eye in the soft hues of the Christmas cards, and the beautiful statues. A demure young woman in her 20’s, with a peaceful, saint-like glow about her. I think of Mary soft and warm as a newborn’s receiving blanket. Calm, peaceful, confidently expecting the pregnancy the angel announced to be confirmed by her body.
But this story may hint at something a little more ordinary…. Fear…. With her words, Mary accepted the message of the angel about her future. But quickly she would have realized that this pregnancy would mean shame, rejection. So she ran. She had to have time to think before the pregnancy became obvious, or while she waited to wake from this dream. Could this really happen? Doubt had to be mixed up with the fear. It was every father’s wish that his daughter would give Israel the Messiah. But not like this. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Fortunately, the angel gave her a clue about where to go – to her auntie Elizabeth, who was living a very untimely pregnancy herself. The young “shouldn’t-be-pregnant” with the old “shouldn’t-be-pregnant” – they could learn together, lean on each other.
Just imagine the situation we have here: Elizabeth, beyond the age of child-bearing. How old was she? No way to know! But my guess is between 40 and 50, maybe a little older. Zechariah calls himself an “old man,” and describes his wife as “well along in years.” Let’s say they were 48 and 55. How many of you men were feeling a little creaky by the time you were 55? Women, at 48, would have been well along in the process of menopause. Yet, we all know people who had healthy pregnancies which began during menopause. It is uncommon, but it does happen, then as now.
The community of women would have gathered around Elizabeth and helped her take care of her body and her coming baby. Remember that they did not have hospitals, and monthly prenatal exams then. There would have been a midwife or two in the village, or nearby. But mostly, the women took care of each other, sharing their common body of knowledge. Elizabeth would have been on the fringes of this circle of women most of her life. She had no experience with pregnancy or birth. She would not have been someone to turn to when needing some matronly wisdom. Now she was in the position of being guided by the young women of the village. I wonder how she felt about that?
Then there is Mary. Also pregnant, or at least the angel said she would be. Her body likely had not confirmed it yet. She was probably between 12 and 14 years old, according to tradition. As a rule, a girl, with her first pregnancy, would have been the delight of all the village aunties and the pride of her mother. She would have plenty of advice and good care given her.
But Mary had no reason to expect a welcome in the women’s tent. She was not supposed to be pregnant during her engagement. Embarrassment would have distanced her from her closest confidants. No wonder she went to Elizabeth. Two women, bound together by their tenuous relationships to the community of women. They could lean on each other. And Mary could learn first hand about what Elizabeth was learning. She could learn the experience of pregnancy and childbirth with her old aunt.
She stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah until their baby was born, learning all she could while she had the time. Then she returned to Nazareth, by that time beginning to show her pregnancy. She returned to Nazareth to face her family, Joseph, the village scorn. I can hear Elizabeth whisper in her ear as she leaves, “Remember that you always have a home with us, even if the whole village turns against you, even if Joseph divorces you, even if your family throws you out. Always, always, always, here you are at home.”
It is interesting that this story is told from the perspective of Elizabeth. It is she who welcomes Mary and first blesses the child she carries. In many versions of the Bible, the Magnificat, which we read earlier was sung by Elizabeth, not Mary. Recalling the words of so many of the prophets, it reads like the words of someone long-steeped in the ancient songs. Either way, the graceful, confident tone of these words tends to let us forget that Mary was a young, inexperienced girl, not yet out from under the wings of her father.
Perhaps the pink candle of love should be called the candle of Elizabeth. It is she who so clearly welcomes with love. It was she who gathered wobbly-kneed Mary in her arms and gave her a home when she needed it most. Did Elizabeth know the rest of the story? Of course not! We tend to assume the actors in the drama know everything we do. But Elizabeth wrapped up Mary in her arms without knowing whether this pregnancy she spoke of was real or dream, without knowing what Mary had been up to, and what the real story may have been.
All she knew was what her “gut” told her when the child in her womb kicked her in the lungs. Her body told her that it was a leap of joy, of good news. Her greeting – “Blessed be the child you will bear” – is not particularly unusual. All young marriageable women were blessed with the wish for children. But running through this delighted blessing is overflowing, confident love, pouring over this poor, fearful, hopeful child. And it was a gift to young Mary. It was the Spirit speaking through Elizabeth in a way that said, you are enough, whatever happens, you are blessed.
Did you, do you, have someone in your life who blesses you like Elizabeth blessed Mary? I didn’t have an auntie like Elizabeth. But I had a grandmother who was, and is probably the person after whom I picture what Elizabeth was like. Strong, opinionated, knew the rejection of the circle of women, but always had a welcome place for any of us kids, and an abundant meal for all comers. Grandma, like Elizabeth, gave us space to become whatever we would become, surrounded by loving, confident warmth. Do we give safe space to each other to follow the Spirit, to be loved, no matter what? God is love. Human embracing love is the presence of God among us, an incarnation.
Mary’s life was broken open. Nothing would ever be the same. When I read Richard Rohr’s comments this week, I couldn’t help but think of Mary.
Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we’re used to. This is always painful at some level. But part of us has to die if we are ever to grow larger…. (https://cac.org/the-three-boxes-2016-12-06/)
Even in her joy, Elizabeth already knew the pain of being broken open. She was now full of life, new purpose and the new hard work of raising a child. She was changed by a joy which would be costly, and she knew it. She knew that this young woman who had come to stay with her was going through her own suffering. That was okay with Elizabeth, no matter what. Whatever Mary faced, Elizabeth would stand with her.
Her words of wisdom to this young girl might have gone something like this…. Her words of wisdom for Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church, at 125 years old in this world of rapid change might also go something like this:
You know, this child-bearing stuff is for the young. I’m sure you will enjoy much of it. But for me, it has not been easy. Yes, it is a gift. Yes, this child has taken away my shame in the village. But I am too old to watch my child reach adulthood. He will not be old enough to care for me in my final days.
I wonder if our church is also in its late child-bearing years, pregnant with new life-giving practices all around us. Taborspace, and other ministries birthed here have taken away our shame in the village. But is this child here to give us life, or for someone else? There is an Advent-like sweet-sad tone in Elizabeth. Let’s listen again:
This child, while I am its mother, is not for me. Not for taking care of me in my old age, or for giving me grandchildren, to carry on my name. This child is a gift, not for me, but for our people, maybe for all people. I am an old woman. I would like to rest, to be cared for. I want to enjoy my family, go to the synagogue, hear the familiar Scriptures read, sit in the same place, hear the same voices. But everything is changing. It’s a new world. God is doing something new. It brings a seed of fear in the pit of my stomach. God is doing a new thing, and that is good. But it doesn’t mean all the fear is gone. I live in both worlds – eager for the new ways and afraid for the old to pass away.
Advent is a time of waiting, a pregnant pause. It portends change, like it or not. We are in the season of Advent, not just in 2016, but in our life as a congregation. Something new is coming. We are part of it – excited and fearful at the same time. Elizabeth reminds us that this is all surrounded in strong, welcoming, embracing love. It is good, God is doing it. So we light the pink candle, reminding us that this light comes with love – always love.