|Sermons | Luke 1, 39 - 22|
Mary walks across the hills to visit her cousin Elizabeth – I always pictured a kind of afternoon walk to the neighbouring village, a friendly family affair: two pregnant women getting together to discuss the development of their babies, a bit like in our parents-and-toddlers-group.
The beautiful music by Johannes Eccard we heard just now made me take a closer look. His interpretation challenges the cosy picture:
Why do we always stay at home? Let us venture out into the mountains.
For the first time I understand that Mary makes a long (and dangerous?) journey from Nazareth, where she lives, to a town in Judah. 200km or thereabouts! Did Luke (who writes this story down) – die he know his geography? Was he aware what it means for a young woman, in her first months of pregnancy, to go on such a journey, alone? No reason is given for the trip. It follows immediately after the announcement by the angel. Was she perhaps sent away by her family? To avoid gossip in the town? To put some distance between her and her fiancé, and give him time to think this through?
I am reminded of many a story of girls being sent to remote places and distant relatives to have an unplanned baby before they return. Or even not to have it. Or being sent away for good.
The bible does not invite us to ponder on the days of walking, sore feet maybe, and certainly many worrying thoughts.
We were given a Christmas story of its own kind illuminating the story of Mary and Elizabeth: the woman who told it, grew up and married in Silesia. Her husband died for “Führer, Volk und Vaterland” as the letter said. And then the Russians came, her daughters were entrusted to a treck to the West, and she stayed to help hide the silver and other valuables. When the Russian soldiers arrived, they did not ask – they simply broke in and demanded food and “a little love”. They hurt me very much, the woman says later. And when finally she got away from her village, fleeing westwards, she found that she was pregnant. The journey must have been hell: battling with her revulsion against this child, which was growing in her. Until one night she dreamt of an angel offering her a baby and saying: one half of this is from you – which half will you have? On the morning she knew she was going to have and love this child. She was never able to make contact with the daughters again, but a son was given to her, ‘and he’s been good to me, she says’.
Back to Mary and her if not unwanted, but certainly unexpected baby. Days of uncertainty. Elizabeth’s welcome made all the difference. The first stirring of her own baby, the wonderful gift late in life, opens her heart and her understanding to Mary. She helps the young cousin to see this baby in a divine light, as a special gift from God – like the woman from Silesia did. Mary’s response is expressed in the Magnificat praising God who lifts up the lowly and casts the mighty from their throne.
Isn’t it amazing how an encounter between two pregnant women was seen as important enough to pass down through the generations and be written down in Holy Scripture? We tend to think of God in terms of Religion, church, hymns, liturgy, prayers. Here is a very worldly story to tell us about God - God becoming incarnate under most unfavourable circumstances, starting with an unwanted pregnancy of a single mother. That’s where we should look when we seek God! Eccard sees it this way: Why do we always stay at home. Let us go out, across the mountains, leave our comfort zone, meet one another, and the spirit’s greeting will open the heart, and we discover God inside the other, even inside the one in disgrace.
Can I add a second dimension to the encounter? It’s actually the baby, John the Baptist, who recognizes the other baby, Jesus. John the Baptist and Jesus will both be spiritual leaders of their time, both with a group of followers, disciples. We know that there was a certain competition between them, almost like among us churches. Who is the right one? Here, good relationships are established from the beginning. John and Jesus recognize each other as coming from God. John will later be the one who helps Jesus understand his mission, and baptizes him. We can sometimes experience something similar (although it’s hard, I know): that we sense God in the other tradition, in the teaching or convincing community or liturgy or work of love. Why not express this more often? The spirit helps us to discern, and opens the heart – why not open the mouth more often?
Ecumenism already around the birth of Jesus! Matthew, in his account, includes ecumenism in a different story: the three who journey very far, we are told, to acknowledge God’s presence not only in a different religious movement, but even in a completely different country and culture. Let us listen to how Peter Cornelius tells the story and applies it to us today.
Peter Cornelius: drei Kön’ge wandern aus Morgenland.
Wandre mit – go, join their journey, walk with them. And bring your most precious: give him your heart.
It is so obvious: today’s gospel stories encourage us to move out from our comfort zones.
Over history, they have become icons of homely family life – even the scene in a shack with a baby in the fodder trough. We have a very understandable tendency to make our faith, and our God, as comfortable as possible. So God’s Spirit has a hard job, over the centuries, to get us out and about, again and again, using new experiences and different people and cultures.
I hear a wonderful, if slightly scary challenge. As we find ourselves –I’ll speak for our Lutheran Church here in Ireland, you can speak for your own experience – as we find ourselves losing in relevance, struggling to keep up something resembling a friendly culture club, we are invited to take courageous steps and meet God in different environments again.
Let’s take Mary’s courage, Elisabeth’s warm and helpful recognition and welcome, the kings’ adventurous spirit, and the open minds of all of them, to leave our comfortable churches and find God being born out there. We’ll have to work out what this means in practice, and we will certainly need all of you to help us find our way! The promise is there, and the inspiration is there. The star of love and mercy which we can follow.
We can encourage one another by singing: mache Dich auf und werde licht, denn dein Licht kommt. amen.
© The Lutheran Church in Ireland, Corinna Diestelkamp