|"THE VISITATION" by Fergal of Claddagh, on Flickr|
"My soul magnifies the Lord,---
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Today, we begin at the end. The end of Advent, the end of winter days getting shorter, the end of our Christmas preparations, and the end of the intertwined stories of Mary and Elizabeth. In today’s gospel as they finally meet together, two cousins, two servants of the Lord, two miraculous pregnancies. Mary, the young cousin, is carrying in her womb the son of God, and Elizabeth, the old cousin, is carrying in her once-barren womb the prophet John, who would later be called the Baptizer.
We know Mary’s story – about Gabriel’s visit and Mary’s willingness to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Mary is our vision of expectant waiting, a pregnant woman awaiting the birth of her child with anxious excitement, because this is the child who will change the world.
In today’s gospel, Mary sings about a world turned head-over-foot at Christ’s birth. She sings about how God’s mercy will prevail over an unjust world. Power will be shifted. The poor and lowly will be raised up. The hungry will be filled. The weak will be made strong. The forgotten will be remembered. God’s promise to his people will be fulfilled, that they shall live secure, and Christ the Messiah will be great to the ends of earth, and shall be the bringer of peace.
Now maybe I’m a little cynical, or at least a little despairing, but this new world, filled with justice and mercy and peace, seems pretty impossible to me sometimes. I long for it, desperately. I grieve for it. And I wait for it, even though my heart often wavers and has difficulty believing that I will ever see this restored world for which I wait.
As we close out this Advent, as we grieve our slain children, as we stare cancer straight in the eye, as we lament wars and rumors of wars, and as we bear the weight of unanswered prayers, for us, I am more and more convinced that it is not Mary’s story that we need to hear. No, in the darkest days of our Advent waiting, we need Elizabeth’s story. Elizabeth, who holds company with Sarah, Rebekah, and Hannah, and all of us who have ever felt barren and unfulfilled, who have waited on a God who seems far off.
Elizabeth’s story is very different than Mary’s. Elizabeth is not young. She is long married. She is barren, without children and without a future. Elizabeth is righteous before God and blameless, faithful and of priestly lineage. And still, for the better part of her life, her faithfulness had proven fruitless to accomplish the deepest desire of her heart. It takes a whole lifetime of waiting and disappointment for God, at the chosen time, to do the impossible and to bring her a child.
Elizabeth gives us permission to admit that waiting is hard. Elizabeth knows that it is hard to wait when there are no guarantees. She knows that waiting is not always expectant, and that waiting sometimes feels like being trapped between impatience and impossibility.
Elizabeth is a character for any of us who have learned that we cannot always draw a straight line between prayers offered and prayers fulfilled. Hers is a story for any of us who feel stuck and stale and tired as we wait for impossible things:
- Impossible things like the questions we have about our ordinary lives for which we have no answers: why we fall ill or why loved ones suffer, or why unthinkable tragedies unfold before our eyes;
- Impossible things like the big things in our future that seem insurmountable: discerning where we will work or live, big expenses like houses or cars or healthcare, facing chronic or terminal illness;
- Impossible things like the dreams and hopes that seem to frivolous to consider or too difficult to attain: getting your fifteen minutes of fame, earning a promotion or landing your dream job, going back to school to finish your degree – or to earn another one, miracle cures, defying the odds.
Elizabeth challenges each of us to believe that this one simple statement might actually be true. And not true in a trite sort of way - you know, trivializing our own hopes or the hopes of others with a quick "Nothing's impossible for God" and a shoulder shrug. I'm talking about really really believing it.
Believing that the God who did crazy and miraculous things back in Bible days still does crazy and miraculous things in our world. Having the audacity to believe that things can change, that our world can be different, that God really acts in our lives, even when things seem improbable, crazy, or downright hopeless. Having the guts to trust God even when things don’t go our way. Having the peace of spirit to ask in prayer, “What impossibility is God seeking to make possible in me and in my life?” and “What is God seeking to birth through me?”
The good news that Elizabeth gives us is the assurance of God’s possibility in our current state of impossibility. She points to a God who is unhindered by human limitation, a God who draws blessings out of barren places. We need Elizabeth’s story because it reminds us that closed doors aren’t always locked doors. Elizabeth’s story gives us strength to keep believing that God can work miracles for us, even if he hasn’t yet, or even if they aren’t the miracles we’d have chosen for ourselves.
See, the miracle in Elizabeth’s story is not that she got what she wanted. It’s not that God answered her prayer just like she had hoped for. The miracle in Elizabeth’s story is that God chose to birth his possibility through her own human impossibility. God brought his life out of human barrenness. God gave Elizabeth a new story in place of her old one, and God in Christ offers each of us a new story as well, in place of our old stories. Our old stories of brokenness are replaced with God’s story of wholeness. Our old stories of discontent are replaced with God’s story of peace. Our old stories of death are replaced with God’s story of life.
And so we find ourselves right back at Mary’s Magnificat, singing about new worlds and new stories and a new vision of God’s justice and mercy being born in a stable and God’s grace and peace sleeping quietly in a manger.
With Mary, we sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for the Mighty One has done great things, and holy is his name.” And with Elizabeth, we feel joy leap within us as Christ comes to visit us. We have hope for ourselves and for our world, because two unlikely women conceived two unlikely children. Two unlikely women said “yes” to God’s possibilities. Two beautiful, unlikely, blessed women meet us here and embrace each of us, and whisper into our ear, “Nothing is impossible for God.”
And so, to the impossible, to the unlikely, to the miraculous, to God himself, we say “yes.”
Yes, Lord. Be born again to our hearts. Bring your possibility to birth in us. You are the Mighty One. You have done great things. And holy is your name.