Preaching Luke 1:39-45 (46-55) Part 2
A sermon in the form of a midrash is an effective way to explore the deeper dimensions of Mary's visitation with Elizabeth. A midrash is an imaginative embroidering of a biblical story that honors the spirit of the scripture. Our Christmas carols are midrashim. They enrich the nativity account with details that go beyond the scriptures yet capture the wonder and glory of the incarnation. The church has long welcomed these imaginative works because the season cries out for poetic enchantment to declare what literalism can never achieve.
Luke places the incarnation in the context of deep friendship between two pregnant women. The qualities of their relationship are the very qualities that Christ will himself teach and embody. Since recent scientific studies suggest that stimuli outside the womb may influence the developing embryo, it is not far fetched to believe that Jesus' inner peace and compassion may have flowed to him from God through the supportive relationship that Mary and Elizabeth shared.
Because the sermon is a midrash, the preacher is allowed freedom to play with time so that the story takes place simultaneously back then, and here and now.
I picture Elizabeth alone. She is seated in a chair, next to a table spread out with photographs. Her face is wrinkled, and the wrinkles have added, as they often do in older people, a beauty that our youth obsessed culture fails to see: the beauty of a soul that knows life's depths.
Elizabeth begins to peruse the photographs on the table beside her. She has always thought it would be good to organize them in an album but has never gotten to it. They are all snapshots of her niece, Mary, growing up. Mary in her cradle. Mary on the floor with her blanket. Mary taking her first step. A lot of the pictures feature Elizabeth and Mary together. Mary leaping into Elizabeth's arms. Mary with her stuffed donkey. Elizabeth teaching Mary a song. Elizabeth making Mary a cake and Mary with the frosting all over her face. Mary in the first dress that Elizabeth made for her. Having no child of her own, Elizabeth had taken Mary under her wing. She always said to Mary's mother, "If I had a daughter, Mary would be the daughter I would want to have."
Studying the pictures of the past, Elizabeth tries to make sense of everything she has been through. She reflects on the long years of disappointment when she could not conceive a child, then the years of joy helping to raise Mary as if the little girl were her own, and now the astounding fact of becoming pregnant in old age. Elizabeth struggles to formulate a prayer, and she finds her heart oscillating between gratitude and bewilderment. One moment her heart fills with thanks that at long last her prayers are answered, and then the next moment she is asking: "What kind of God are you, who would give me such a life?" Elizabeth's gratitude almost breaks into song, but before the first note can rise from her throat it gets caught in her question.
The pictures, the memories, the gratitude, the song she cannot quite sing, and the questions are all flowing together in Elizabeth's heart when there is a knock on the door. The old woman gets up and opens the door, and there stands Mary, showing the first signs of her own pregnancy. All the confusion of Elizabeth's heart gives way to a truth so intensely present in Mary that even the child Elizabeth is carrying leaps in her womb. Elizabeth exclaims to Mary: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb."
No sooner does Elizabeth complete her greeting than Mary breaks into song, as if she were an angel sent to sing the song that Elizabeth could never quite release from her own heart. "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."
Elizabeth feels the song belongs to her as well as to Mary. It is a song for all women, all people who have known sadness and oppression. Elizabeth begins to cry, less for the hardness of her past and more for the goodness of the gift that is now hers and Mary's.
Elizabeth begins to wonder, "Where did Mary get this song?" and then Elizabeth begins to scan the photographs. Her eyes land on the picture of little Mary leaping into her embrace as a child while the grown Mary sings: "He has shown strength with his arm." Then Elizabeth looks at the picture of little Mary with cake frosting all over her face while the grown Mary sings: "He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away." Elizabeth recognizes some of the words. Mary's song has deeper roots than only the photographs and the memories of childhood. Some of the words are from songs that Elizabeth taught her, songs that other ancient women had sung. Those ancient songs and the photographs on the table make it clear that Mary's song is rooted in her community, in its traditions, and in the friendship that the old woman and the young girl had shared together. Then it dawns upon Elizabeth: "God was working through me all the years that I have loved Mary to prepare her for this moment. I was not a barren woman. I was bringing love and faith to birth." At the very thought of this, Elizabeth finds herself joining with Mary to sing the refrain: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."