In the rabbinical tradition, there is a type of literature known as “midrash.” As they read scripture, the rabbis recognized that holy words create as many questions as answers and leave much unsaid. They believed that scripture was a living document, sacred yet evolving over time to respond to new situations in the peoples’ cultural and religious history, and so they filled the gaps with commentaries and stories of their own. They didn’t claim to have all the answers, but they believed that “God is still speaking,” and that new situations call for imaginative, creative, and relevant interpretations. Today, I will be sharing a bit of a midrash, based on the relationship of Mary and Elizabeth, and John and Jesus, relatives and spiritual friends.
A month after Gabriel’s visit, Mary headed to Elizabeth’s house. Though Elizabeth was now almost forty, fifteen year old Mary felt a kinship. She had known Elizabeth all her life, and Elizabeth was the one relative with whom she felt connected, the one whom she could trust with her amazing story. Mary had heard that after years of trying, Elizabeth, who was presumed infertile, was now pregnant. And, now that she was pregnant, Mary needed a big sister – a spiritual mother – with whom to stay. Mary was uncertain about her future: unmarried and pregnant in a community where scandal could lead to ostracism or abandonment, she sought refuge with Elizabeth and Zechariah. “Maybe we can share our joy,” she thought. “Maybe, they’ll understand what I’m going through. They have a miracle of their own.”
And, so Mary travels, getting out of town before anyone can see that she’s pregnant.
Like Mary, Elizabeth is amazed at her condition. “Only God can do this,” she thinks to herself. “But, at forty, will I be able to take care of this boy? Will I be healthy enough? Will Zechariah and I live long enough to see him into adulthood?” She is overjoyed at Mary’s visit. But, the moment, she sees her young relative, she intuits that something unusual is going on in Mary’s life. As they embrace, she feels a stirring: her baby, six months in the womb, leaps for joy. As they hug, Mary feels the child’s movements as well, and begins to sing praises to God.
“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.”
For three months, these women live side by side, sharing counsel with one another, providing support and encouragement, until Elizabeth gives birth. For the rest of their lives, they treasure that encounter, and although Roman power seems to increase – and the gap between the rich and poor grows larger – they live in hope that their two boys can make a difference. They don’t always understand their boys, they seem preoccupied with another world, they aren’t satisfied with business as usual, or the old time religion; they not only talk about God, they seem to experience God as the deepest reality of their lives.
Thirty years pass, Mary is now in her forties and she still misses Elizabeth, who lived to old age, passing at sixty. Their boys have followed the beat of a different drummer than most of their contemporaries. But, through the years, Jesus and John stayed in touch, studied together, and even went to the live at a religious community near the Dead Sea to learn more about the faith of Israel.
First, John bursts on the scene, a social and religious reformer, embodying Mary’s prophetic words – preaching about a just society, in which the usual order has been turned upside down – the powerful care and the lowly and lost find jobs and homes. And, reunited with his friend John, Jesus is inspired to begin his own ministry. Lives are changing, persons are experiencing new life, and John’s dream is becoming a reality – “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
We don’t know if John or Jesus ever met again, following their encounter on the River Jordan. We don’t know if the coming of the Spirit, like a dove alighting on Jesus’ head, was a sign to John that his prophetic days were coming to an end. We hear that John was arrested and executed by Herod. We know that some of his followers continued to practice his way of life until they encountered the message of Jesus, taught by Peter and Paul.
And, we do know that in this Advent Season, these two women and their sons have much to teach us. They tell us that God can come to us in surprising and unexpected ways. They remind us that whether we are young or old God has a dream for our lives. They alert us to God’s constant call to repentance and to change our ways.
The message of these two women, and their sons, lives on, and echoes through the ages. We are still unsettled and inspired by Mary’s hymn of a world in which every child has enough to eat, good housing, and the freedom to learn. There are times this message grows dim and we become content with the way things are, but then we overhear hear two women sharing glad tidings and their sons telling us to “Wake up, join the movement, welcome the stranger, speak for justice, feed the hungry, and seek peace.”
There is a divine discontent we feel in Advent. There is a spiritual restlessness and the vision of a better world. There is something that wants to be born in us – the dream of peace, the heart of compassion – a world in which God is real, love abounds, and we – small though we think we are – are part of God’s story of healing and redemption in our time and place.