Two extraordinary pregnancies

Advent 4
Luke 1:36-45
Marian Free

In the name of God who surprises and disturbs so that our hearts and minds might always be open to the new things which God is about to do. Amen.

Luke begins his narrative about Jesus with the account of two extraordinary pregnancies– one to a woman who is barren and now is well past menopause, and the other to a young woman who has never had intercourse. The stories are closely intertwined as Luke compares the two women and their offspring and introduces themes which will be elaborated further later in the gospel. Luke’s story telling techniques are also in evidence in the first chapter of the gospel.

The birth narratives are for Luke, not just an obvious place to begin, but they form a bridge between the promises of the Old Testament and the new story which is beginning. The key characters – Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Anna and Simeon – are all steeped in the promises and thus form a solid platform on which to introduce the new directions God is taking.

Our gospel reading today gives only a small part of a much larger story. Zechariah, the husband of the barren Elizabeth is performing his duties in the sanctuary of the Temple when an angel announces that his wife will bear a son. Zechariah is so astonished by this news that he is struck dumb until the birth of his son. The whole community is involved with his vision, because the Temple is filled with people at prayer who, when he emerges, cannot help but notice that something significant has occurred.

Mary is also visited by an angel, but while like Zechariah, she is puzzled, she accepts that God is able to do what the angel has announced and instead of remaining silent visits Elizabeth to give voice to what has happened.  Mary’s vision is private and persona but she chooses to make it known. Zechariah returns to Elizabeth who does indeed become pregnant and sees in her pregnancy the hand of God. Mary has no husband and becomes pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The two stories come together when Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s home. In this pericope, Elizabeth’s role is to be a prophet. Perhaps inspired by the baby in her own womb, she pronounces Mary to be the “mother of her Lord” and herself to be blessed by Mary’s presence. Mary stays with Elizabeth for some time, but apparently has gone before the birth.

In the tradition of the heroes of the Old Testament, both Mary and Zechariah burst into song which reveals the deeper significance of the events – Mary’s pregnancy, John’s birth. The world has changed for the better, it is a more balanced, fairer place thanks to the intervention of God.

Luke’s story-telling techniques become obvious in this first chapter. Luke tends to pair stories to reinforce the point that he is making – the story of the lost sheep paired with the story of the lost coin, the man healed on the Sabbath paired with the story of the woman healed on the Sabbath and so on. He tends to bring together the stories of two people, both of whom have had a religious experience which they only partially understand. When the two come together they are able to see and understand the full picture. So for example, Peter’s vision only becomes clear when he sees Cornelius and Ananias’ instruction to receive Paul, only makes sense when Ananias sees that Paul has been transformed by his encounter with the living God.

Here, when Elizabeth recognises Mary as the mother of her Lord, the role of her own child becomes clearer. At the same time, what Mary knew by faith, she now knows for certain, because of Elizabeth’s affirmation.

The way in which the two stories are related, tell us that of the two children, Jesus is to play the more significant role – John’s birth, while extraordinary is not without precedent, and it is John who leaps in the womb at the presence of Jesus and Mary is identified as the mother of “the Lord”. The stories are not evenly balanced for instance John’s birth is mentioned only briefly, but there is a detailed account of his naming and circumcision. Jesus’ birth is described in great detail, but his naming and circumcision are only mentioned in passing.

Not only does Luke emphasise the generous response of the marginalized to God but he also demonstrates God’s preference for the poor and oppressed.  Both Elizabeth and Zechariah are members of a long line of priests. They are also described as “righteous”.  In Jewish terms they are part of the religious aristocracy – obvious choices to carry out God’s will. Mary on the other hand is a peasant girl from a remote village who has no known lineage, yet it is Mary who trusts what the angel says to her and it is Mary who is given the more prominent place in the unfolding of God’s will.

God’s actions in this situation are both familiar and unfamiliar. The Old Testament is peopled with barren women who conceive as a result of God’s intervention – Sarah, Rachel and Hannah. All however conceived children with their husband as does Elizabeth. It is not difficult to see God’s hand here. Mary’s situation is very different – she is an unknown AND unmarried. That God should choose her, and use such an unorthodox approach is as shocking and challenging as it is unexpected. The element of surprise indicates for Luke the hand of God. God’s new thing will be a break from what has gone before – it will be both expected and unexpected, in line with the promise and pointing to a new direction.

Throughout this Advent, a theme has been developing. Not only has the presence of God drawn near, but there seems to have been a movement from the external presence of God to God’s presence within us. During Advent, we have been asked to take note of God in the people and things around us, to remove the barriers which prevent us from seeing God, to allow our lives to be transformed by an openness to God and finally to join with Mary in saying “yes” to God’s presence dwelling within us. Christ comes to birth only because Mary responds to God’s request. Christ continues to be born in the world in and through those of us who say “yes” to God, who allow God to take up residence in their lives, and to grow and come to life in them.

Every year at this time, we celebrate God’s coming in Jesus Christ, we acknowledge that Christ is always present in the world and in our lives, we allow Jesus into our hearts and make him known through our lives and as we do, we prepare both ourselves and the world for his coming again in glory.

Mary said “yes”, so that we would say “yes”. Let us say “yes” to God’s presence dwelling within us.

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