We wouldn’t know it just by listening to this morning’s Gospel, but Elizabeth had a lot going on before Mary came to visit.
The Gospel of Luke, written to “provide an orderly account” of all that had happened, begins NOT with the announcement of Jesus’ birth, but with that of John the Baptist. This is because, for Luke, particulars matter. So, let’s rewind about 6 months.
Elizabeth is the wife of Zechariah, a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. She lives near Hebron, the ancestral home of Abraham and Sarah, about 20 miles from Jersualem. She’s descended from the line of Aaron and so we can assume her whole life has been steeped in the rituals and teachings of the Temple. Luke tells us that she and Zechariah are righteous. They keep the commandments. They’re good people. But - Elizabeth is unable to bear children. This has opened her up to ridicule and shame from her family and neighbors.
One day, Zechariah comes home from serving in the Temple and he’s unable to speak. We can assume that, through a combination of writing and charades, he finds a way to tell Elizabeth what has happened: While he was offering incense at the altar of incense in the Temple, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him. Gabriel told him that he and Elizabeth would have a son, who would follow the example of the prophet Elijah, and would prepare Israel for the coming Messiah. When Zechariah asked how this could be possible, Gabriel took away his ability to speak. We can only imagine Elizabeth’s amazement. Not long after, Elizabeth conceives and declares: ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
And so, long before Mary set out to visit her, Elizabeth was tuned in to God’s work in the world.
She was keenly aware of the movement of God in her own life. What she doesn’t yet realize is that God is also at work in the life of her cousin Mary.
Next, Luke tells a story many of us will find more familiar: And then, Luke says: “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph…” When Elizabeth is six months pregnant, Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that she will give birth to the Son of God. When she asks how this is possible, Gabriel says “Look - even your elderly cousin Elizabeth, who was barren, is six months pregnant. Anything is possible with God.”
And that brings us to the portion of the Gospel we hear this morning: The Visitation. When Mary, still reeling from the news that she will be the God-Bearer runs to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary recognizes that Elizabeth might be the only person in the world who can begin to come close to understanding what she’s going through.
Mary is hardly in the front door before Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims: “Blessed are you among women...and why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Mary hasn’t had time to tell her the exciting, terrifying, Good news yet. And yet Elizabeth knows that Mary is expecting. She knows that God is hard at work in Mary’s life. She recognizes God’s presence in Mary, and in the process is filled with the Holy Spirit and becomes the first person in Luke’s Gospel to refer to Christ as Lord. And he isn’t even born yet.
And Mary, encouraged by her cousin’s witness and held in Elizabeth’s blessing, begins to sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is about salvation. She’s affirming the old, old story that God is in control. God will make the world right. God promises to liberate the oppressed and cast down the oppressor. Like Elizabeth, Mary is, clearly, a woman who knows her scripture. A woman who knows her prophets. And, it’s worth noting, young as she is, she isn’t afraid to be prophetic herself, even as she stands in the house of a priest of the Temple.
In many ways, the Visitation is the perfect Advent Gospel. This story tells of an encounter between two women, both aware that God is doing something powerful in their lives. Something that hasn’t happened yet. Nevertheless, they’re paying attention, they’re both open to the movement of God in each other’s lives. They listen to one another. They witness to one another. Embolden each other to prophesy.
Mary and Elizabeth don’t know exactly what will happen when their children are born. They know what God has promised them. And they know who God has revealed Godself to be in scripture.
It shows us what can happen when we pay attention. When we keep watch. When we open ourselves to the movement of God in our own lives and in the world around us.
Elizabeth was tuned in to God’s movement. Elizabeth sees Mary. She listens To mary. She loves Mary. And by so doing, encourages Mary to be the strong, prophetic woman God is calling her to be.
Have you ever spent time with someone, where it feels like you really know one another? Where you can be fully yourself? That’s what Advent, what Christianity is all about. The God who made the world and all that is in it. The God who Scatters the proud and pulls down the might to lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with Good things. This God has come to us. And is coming again.
Like Mary, like Elizabeth, we are called to participate. To keep watch. To listen.To pay attention to the movement of God in our own lives. And then, hold space to witness to God’s movement in the lives of others.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me. And holy is his name.