Harrowing Of Hell
August 16, 2015

St. Mary the Prophet

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Take a look at the image of the icon on the front of the bulletin. What do you see? What memories or feelings does this picture evoke for you? What comes to mind when you imagine Mary the mother of Jesus? Is she a saint to whom you pray? Is she the ever-blessed Virgin Mary? The Mother of Our Lord, Jesus Christ? Or is Mary an unwed teenager startled in a field by an angel who had her life turned upside-down? Is she a young woman, meek and mild, a servant of the Lord, who did what was asked of her out of submission? Is she a chaste virgin placed on a pedestal and worshipped as the ideal woman – holy and pure?

You may identify with her strongly as a fellow parent, a woman who experienced suffering through the loss of a child, something no one should ever have to experience. Or maybe your feelings are even less than that, maybe you feel ambivalence—and Mary is a minor character in the background of a larger story in which Jesus is the star.

Today I want to challenge you. I want to invite you into a different way of thinking.
This is a teaching sermon about Mary, Elizabeth, and the gospel of Luke. And in the end, I hope that you will perhaps begin to see Mary a little differently than you do now.

I want to let you in on a little secret. Mary is a prophet. She was bold and courageous. She was strong, and she was powerful. God called Mary out of her ordinary life and invited her into something extraordinary and she said YES.
So God empowered her to answer that call, which she did with boldness, courage, strength, power, and JOY! The angel Gabriel visited young Mary in a field and told her she would bear a child, the Son of God, to be called Jesus. After a brief back and forth, Mary responded, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And the angel left.

On this feast day, we hear the next piece of the story from Luke’s gospel. Mary, who we can only assume is newly pregnant, takes off in a hurry to visit her cousin who is also with child. Mary travels south from Nazareth towards Bethlehem into the Judean hill country to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth where her elder cousin immediately greets her.

The stories of John the Baptist and Jesus intersect here, before they are even born, when their mothers greet one another in joy and with blessing. Mary arrives saying, “Hello!” But Elizabeth already knows. She already knows everything because her response to a simple greeting is this: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” In other words, “The story I heard about you was true! You are pregnant with the child of God. Welcome, my cousin. Please come in!”

This passage fills me with delight each time I hear it, and yet I have so many questions! Why did Mary go to Elizabeth? What was she thinking? How was she feeling? How did Elizabeth know? Was it revealed to her in prayer? Was it revealed to her by an angel? Was it just obvious when she set eyes on Mary that something was radically different?

Elizabeth felt the child leap in her womb upon seeing Mary, but that’s not uncommon. During pregnancy babies are leaping, punching, and kicking all the time. So, what about this encounter was so different? So inspired? So charged with the Holy Spirit?

This scene is striking for a number of reasons beginning with the fact that the characters are two women, and no men are present. This is quite rare in the Bible. In the entire Old Testament, there are only seven scenes in which this occurs and only a few in the New Testament. Women-only scenes are super rare and yet this gospel is bookended with them. Luke’s gospel account begins with this scene – this exchange between Mary and Elizabeth and it ends with the women who observed Jesus’ burial and went to the tomb on Easter morning.

The first two chapters of Luke’s gospel invite the reader into the world of women and begin the story of Jesus from their perspective. But we are invited into more than a world of pregnancy and childbirth, we are invited into a world of prophecy that has power. Mary and Elizabeth are prophets for joy and for power.

They have both received a blessing from God and have been empowered by God to play a part in conveying that blessing to future generations. Their prophetic voices, as expressed in Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary’s Magnificat, and in their lives as women and as mothers of children who would change the world, demonstrate the great trust God placed in them. God called them out and empowered them. And they answered that call with boldness, courage, strength, power, and joy!

Mary is central to our Christian story. She anchors the Holy Family and appears in scripture during the biggest turning points: the birth of Jesus, adolescent Jesus teaching in the Temple, the first miracle, and of course at the foot of the cross. And have you ever noticed that Mary is never shown in a domestic setting like so many other women in scripture? She appears talking to an angel, giving birth in a stable, fleeing to Egypt, witnessing in the Temple, at a wedding in Cana, at the foot of the cross, and outside the tomb. This detail points to Mary’s identity in scripture and how we ought to view her today. Mary is a prophet. Prophets are never shown in their own homes. Homes are places they leave to bear God’s word to places where they are sent.

There is a lot of evidence towards viewing Mary as a prophet, but I believe we can also view Elizabeth as having a prophetic voice. She may not be a prophet in the same way as Mary is – leaving home to bear God’s word in the places to where she has been sent, but Elizabeth has the insight to see God at work in Mary and the courage to speak that truth.

At first glance, this is a story about pregnant cousins happy to see one another or perhaps an older family member looking out for a teen mom who is being hidden away for a time. But when you start peeling back the layers and really examining the women, the nuance, this scene within the context of a much larger narrative, you get a strikingly different story. You see two strong women who greet one another in blessing and joy. You see two powerful prophets who will change the world. You see boldness and courage in their actions, not the shame and disgrace that so typically distort this passage.

So carry that forward to your own lives. What do we assume about people or groups of people at first glance that is mistaken or incorrect? What biases, prejudices, and stereotypes hinder our ability to see people for who they truly are? There isn’t enough time to answer all of the big questions I’m going to ask, so instead I want to leave you with plenty to think about. First, consider how impressions or assumptions resonate in your life, in your experience: do you believe what other people tell you rather than what you see with your own eyes? For example, the church has traditionally interpreted Mary as the archetype of femininity and purity and we have believed it, but I hope after hearing this sermon you will remember that Mary is a PROPHET.

The challenge for us is to have the courage and boldness of Elizabeth to truly see others for who they are AND to notice when they change. I think that may be the most difficult. Elizabeth knew Mary had been changed and she celebrated that change! I know I run the risk of being so caught up in the kingdom of my own making that I might miss the change in you, or a friend, or a loved one.

In conclusion: think about how you see others, the assumptions you make, and from where you get your information. Also, stay attune to changes that occur in yourself and others because God is always at work inside us. Finally, as we move to a new and different way of contemplating Mary, who else might there be in your life that also deserves a fresh perspective?