Sunday, December 24, 2023, the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Readings: Genesis 18:1-15; Luke 1:5-56
Almost from the time the leaves begin to yellow, we begin thinking of the upcoming holidays: All Hallow’s Eve, Thanksgiving, and now Christmas. The individual days may be filled more with work and preparation than with eager expectation, unless one’s a small child, yet this long, extended period feels, to me at least, like the only remaining time of year when everyone is engaged in a shared tradition. And it will suddenly stop on January 2nd, as if exhausted by an orgy of consumption. But for now, Christmas has been in the air — or at least on the radio — for weeks. So many songs telling so many stories: stories of parties and consumption, of gluttony and lust; stories of a young refugee mother on a long journey, arriving late at night, finding no place to stay, exhausted and unwanted, and giving birth in a cold stable.
But what does scripture say?
Much has been left to our imaginations. Two versions are preserved in the canonical Gospels. And like any good tale told around a campfire, each teller tells the story his own way. Matthew takes explicit care to link the nativity with prophecies of a virgin birth, and of origins in Bethlehem, and Egypt, and Nazareth. Luke leaves it to his listeners to connect the dots.
Luke begins, not with Jesus, but with the parents of John, called the Baptist, who prepared the way of the Lord. Listen: this is a story of two women, from the same family, who could not have children. Once upon a time, in the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah. And he had a wife, named Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, but they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
While Zechariah is alone in the temple, the messenger of God tells him Elizabeth will bear a son. Zechariah recovers quickly from his initial fright, and exclaims, “Inconceivable! I’m an old man, and my wife, she’s no spring chicken either.” The messenger Gabriel is taken aback. He’s given Zechariah the news of a lifetime, and instead of a thank you he’s asked for proof? And so, Zechariah is struck dumb, perhaps both deaf and dumb. And he will remain so “until the day that these things take place … which will be fulfilled in their time.” Incommunicado, he returns home to Elizabeth where, in time, she conceives.
No one else knows.
Elizabeth hid herself. We can presume that few, if any, knew she was pregnant. Even today it’s customary to wait some time before announcing, especially outside the immediate family. Elizabeth, I’m sure, has her suspicions. She hid herself for five months, perhaps out of custom, perhaps because she does not know whether she has conceived or is no longer “in the way of women.”
Six months after Elizabeth conceives, Gabriel returns. This time to Mary.
Zechariah trembled at the angel’s appearance. The shepherds quaked with fear. And so Gabriel’s first words to them are “Fear not.” Not so with Mary. “Hail, favored one,” he says. Mary’s cool. She’s calm. She’s collected. She’s puzzled, not scared, wondering to herself, “what does that mean?” Mistaking confusion for fear, Gabriel goes on to explain, “Fear not. You have found favor with God. You will bear a son.” Unlike Zechariah, Mary does not ask for proof: she wonders, “How can this be?”
Gabriel goes into the technical details, then offers a sign: “Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Gabriel paraphrases Genesis, drawing Mary’s attention, and ours, to the founding of the nation of Israel:
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD?”(Genesis 18:11–14 ; ESV)
Sarah, hearing that she would bear a child, laughed, the sarcastic laugh of “Yeah, right. That’ll happen.” Mary, in contrast, given this extraordinary visit, welcomes it: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be.”
But then, then she rushes off to visit Elizabeth.
Luke makes no mention of a difficult journey, but of haste. Mary might have been running next door for a missing ingredient at a key moment in her recipe: an ordinary trip. To speculate otherwise, we would have to look outside the Bible, at a map. Luke tells us Gabriel came to Mary in Nazareth. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. (Matthew doesn’t.) Luke tells us that Mary went to the “hill country of Judah” — that is, the area around Jerusalem, which topographically is a lot like the Appalachian Plateau — to visit her aunt Elizabeth. Tradition says Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in Ein Karem, about 5 miles to the west of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is about 5 miles south of both. Each is about 90 miles from Nazareth, up hills and down. The trip is roughly the same, both in distance and terrain, as from Staunton, over Shenandoah and Jack and Allegheny and Cheat mountains to Valley Bend, in the Tygart Valley of West Virginia. Or as if I walked from my house in New York through Connecticut to Massachusetts and back on the Appalachian Trail. So, not exactly next door.
These days our sense of distance and difficulty varies so much from what was usual before the automobile. Unless we walk we have nothing to compare it to. Even when we are familiar with the route, it’s hard for us to imagine Jackson’s army moving from Staunton to McDowell over a day — but they did — much less for us to imagine Mary’s trip in the landscape and circumstances 2,000 years ago in Roman Palestine. It’s almost beyond comprehension the distances people traveled, on a regular basis, without planes, trains, and automobiles. But they did; it just took longer.
I get tired just thinking about it. Earlier this year, Evan and I, along with his Boy Scout troop, hiked up and down a couple of hills in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range — 18 miles, 6,325 feet up and 6,480 feet down — over three days. Our plan was to take the long, steep, scenic route along a creek with multiple waterfalls to the Appalachian Trail above the tree line on the ridge, make our way to the next summit, then rest for the night in an Appalachian Mountain Club hut before heading out to the next two peaks and another hut. I was not prepared at all. Evan had no problem: he’s 17 and fit, not 52 and unfit. I slowed us to a crawl by stopping to admire the view — and breathe.
At the trailhead we had parked next to two young ladies, in their early 20s, one of whom was pregnant, setting off a hike with their infants. I was surprised to find them happily enjoying the hut before us, their children crawling about the place. The next morning they sprinted off up the hill heading south down the trail while we headed north. If memory serves, we met them again in the parking lot, two days later, just as fresh as could be.
So Mary rushes off to visit Elizabeth, where the extraordinary is made plain.
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, “Blessed 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.”
Now, Elizabeth knows she is blessed.
Now, Elizabeth recognizes Mary is blessed.
Now, Mary knows she is blessed.
Before this moment, Elizabeth did not know she was pregnant. Now she knows. Before this moment, Mary did not know. Now she knows.
“And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her home.” In three months, after the birth of John, as anyone who can do the math knows, Mary returned to Nazareth three months pregnant, walking another 90 miles, up hill and down. Then did it again, this time to Bethlehem.
The extraordinary thing about the birth of Christ was how ordinary it was. Joseph’s family is from Bethlehem. Mary’s family, Elizabeth’s, is in the next town over, the distance from Monterey to McDowell. What took them all the way to Staunton is unsaid: probably work. The Empire needed them to fill out some paperwork at the Bethlehem office, so they did what one does: stayed with the aunts and uncles and cousins on the small bed in the spare room, upstairs, under the eaves, away from the goats and chickens on the first floor, away from the aunts and uncles and cousins on the main floor. “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him the manger, because there was no space in the spare room.”
Neither Sarah, nor Elizabeth, nor Mary could bear children. Sarah and Elizabeth because they are too old; Mary because she is unmarried. But they do, and such children! The father of Israel, the Forerunner, the Savior. Neither Sarah, nor Elizabeth, nor Mary could have expected to amount to much.
Just ordinary people.
Ordinary people by whom God did something extraordinary.
Why would God choose them, of all people? Who knows. The idea is so inconceivable we look for reasons and imagine stories to explain away how ordinary they are. Just women, overjoyed they will have children. Just women to whom miracles happened. Our minds rebel at the thought miracles happen to ordinary people. And not just to our modern minds. It’s not enough that God chose Mary, so stories arose that she was conceived by the Holy Spirit to a barren mother; stories that she was not from a poor family or an average family, but to a very wealthy one; stories that she remained forever virgin: extraordinary, not ordinary, fitting man’s idea of the appropriate Mother of God.
But here she is in Luke. Just Mary. Her uniqueness is her unusual calmness when a fierce angel appears, her unusual agreement to be God’s vessel, her unusual normal-ness of rushing off to visit Elizabeth to see if it’s true that Aunt Elizabeth is pregnant, because she is, after all, just an ordinary girl.
The stories we tell matter quite a bit, but we tell stories that help us to understand. And the truth? The truth of it is that God is with us. Not a god only of the rich and powerful. Not a god only of the poor and weak. But the God of all, with us, wherever we are. Such an extraordinary thing, with ordinary people, from an everyday birth, for “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”