Harrowing Of Hell
August 17, 2014

The Prophet Mary and “Being” Elizabeth

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

I would like to take a quick poll. How many of you have spent some time among the Roman Catholics? Can recite the Hail Mary? How many of you played the role of teenage Mary (or Joseph) in a Christmas Pageant? (That one I can claim.) How many of you are drawn to artistic representations of the Madonna and Child? In paintings, icons, and sculpture, like our own Rose Window here over the altar. If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this sermon is for you.

Today’s sermon is about Mary and Elizabeth, cousins who both bore sons who would change the world. 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. 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. Like Mary, prophets are never shown in their own homes. Homes are places they leave to bear God’s word to places where they are sent.

Following the earth shattering news that she is pregnant with the Son of God, young Mary leaves with haste and travels to her cousin Elizabeth’s home. There, she is greeted, an unwed and pregnant teenager, not with scorn or judgment, but with open arms and blessing.

Overcome with relief most likely, she responds in poetic verse, as she sings the Magnificat. It is a song of praise, also known as a canticle. Canticles appear in both the Old and New Testaments where they interrupt and adorn the text. In combination with the book of Psalms, they make up a vibrant core of poetry. In her essay, “The Canticles,” Irene Nowell writes:

Canticles “function like a bridge between telling our story and turning to God in prayer. In form and style, they resemble psalms, but they differ in their setting….These prayers are set in the mouths of specific people in specific situations. They both interrupt the flow of the story and add to its meaning. They are bridges over the gap between life and prayer.”

Bridges over the gap between life and prayer: what a beautiful and apt description. How do you experience the gap between life and prayer? Is it jarring and forced, or something you can easily slide back and forth between? Last Sunday, Diana preached about silence and the value of listening for God in the silence. That is another example of a gap between life and prayer, stepping into the silence.

At bedtime with my children, we repeat the same few prayers over and over as a way to move into more spontaneous prayer. We always begin with the words from Evening Prayer, “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this night…” At the completion of that prayer, we say what we are thankful for and remember those who are sick. We always end with the Lord’s Prayer. These small rituals begin to form a bridge between life and prayer in a way that is natural, familiar, and comforting. I may swap out the opening prayer with the Magnificat for a while and see how these prophetic words of Mary, shape and inform our conversations with God.

Here in the gospel, Mary’s song is an echo of Hannah’s song in first Samuel. It is Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s blessing. But before we talk about Mary’s song anymore, let us back up and spend some time with Elizabeth. Elizabeth is six months pregnant herself with a miracle child. Although well past her childbearing years, God has graced Zechariah and Elizabeth with a baby, John the Baptist as we will know him. When Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, arrives on her doorstep pregnant, unwed, and alone, Elizabeth moves right past judgment and shaming, and instead offers God’s blessing. We need more Elizabeths in this world. When you look in the mirror—when you look at your neighbor—what do you see? Do you see the worst traits? Do you see the things you wish you could change or avoid? OR Do you see God’s redeeming hand at work?

As a working mother of two young children, I often look in the mirror and see the ubiquitous “mom-guilt” staring right back at me. I can choose to see the woman who is always behind, always tired, never fully present for anything, and struggling to keep her head above water.

Or I can choose to see God’s redeeming hand at work. I can see a woman who cares deeply about her vocation, this church, and God’s kingdom. I can choose to see a wife and mother who loves her family dearly and is trying her very best. Being part of a community sometimes means “being Elizabeth” to each other. Whether it is in a small group, over a cup of coffee, or across a dinner table, sometimes we need to move right on past judgment and shaming, and instead offer God’s blessing.

But before I forget, let us return to Mary, today’s celebrated prophet. In the Old Testament, angels visited Jewish prophets and asked them, “Will you serve God in this terrible and murderous time?” Angels visited Gideon in the winepress, Isaiah in a temple vision, Ezekiel in a vision in the sky, and Jonah in a dream. Mary is another recipient of this proud tradition. Counter to the social mores of the time though, the angel who visits Mary doesn’t honor her womb, virginity, abstinence, or even her submission. The angel honors her grace and she consents. Mary doesn’t submit, she consents and her experience of God and Christ becomes our shared experience. She consents and asks, “How will this be?” Into her fear and uncertainty, Mary speaks the holy. She bears witness to the question spoken within her and she says, “YES.”

Mary’s life and example speak the holy in a way that has rippled out across millennia. The challenge for all of us is to emulate Mary and Elizabeth in the way we choose to live our lives. May we have the courage to speak the holy in our choices, in our vocations, in our families, and in the way in which we engage God’s world with integrity and faith. And, may we have eyes like Elizabeth, to move right on past shaming or judgment and into a place of blessing. God’s redeeming hand is at work all around us as well as inside us. That is what we must have the grace to see.