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Advent 4: Pregnant

Leonard Vander Zee

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Last May, Jeanne and I toured Turkey. One of the highlights was our visit to Ephesus. Ephesus, the biblical city, is now magnificent ruins, in fact probably the greatest ruins in the whole Middle East. We were staying at our hotel in the Aegean resort city of Kushadasi, a boisterous, glitzy place. The ruins of Ephesus are a half-hour bus ride outside of town. We spent a hot day touring the magnificent marble streets, gaping at the great temples; the theatre where there was a riot over Paul’s preaching led by Alexander the coppersmith, the library of Celsus. The next day we had arranged to rent a car to tour some other archeological sites along the Aegean coast. But that night I had this nagging thought.

About four miles outside Ephesus was a place called Marynmar. We had read about it in some guidebooks. It was supposed to be the site of the home of Mary the mother of the Lord. There are two traditions about Mary; one is that she died in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion where the church of the Dormition now stands. The other is that she actually ended up in Ephesus, under the care of the apostle John, who set up his own headquarters there. This makes some sense in that Jesus puts John and Mary together from the cross. Pope John Paul II, a great devotee of the Virgin Mary, evidently believes this was the actual place of her final sojourn and death, and has blessed this site.

I didn’t really want to go there. I figured it would be just another gaudy shrine where people hawked postcards and souvenirs, another parking lot filled with buses belching diesel fumes. But that morning I suggested to Jeanne, let’s go. I just felt like I needed to go there. We drove up the hills behind Ephesus. Olive groves gave way to great pines. There was a parking lot, and busses and a modest stand selling drinks and souvenirs just as we expected. But there was a long path from there to a little chapel, and as we walked down the path and approached the chapel everything got quiet. I was overpowered by the place, by what seemed like a holy aura. Inside the tiny chapel were some kneeling benches. Jeanne and I both felt a strong desire to pray, and we knelt. It was as though I was somehow closer to the Lord by praying in the place where his mother had lived and died. Something of her joy, her sorrow, her faith, rubbed off on me that day.

This experience confirmed something I’ve felt for a long time, that we Protestants have lost something when we so strongly rejected the veneration of Mary. We tend to throw out Mary with what we call Mariolatry. We are so concerned to exalt Christ that we fail to recognize how his mother leads us to him.

The fourth Sunday of Advent is always Mary’s Sunday. As we come close to Christ’s birth, we are brought close to the woman who gave him birth. And this year, we contemplate that part of Luke’s account of the birth of Christ which is called the visitation.

It’s really interesting how Luke builds his account of Christ’s birth. In Matthew we are quickly introduced to a perplexed Joseph, and the birth itself is barely mentioned. Mark begins with Jesus preaching ministry and says nothing of his birth. John begins with his great theological treatise on incarnation (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”). But Luke is in no hurry. He sort of meanders into the story. He begins with Zechariah and Elizabeth, an obscure priest and his wife. An angel tries to involve Zechariah in what God is doing, but Zechariah’s doubts and questions get him in trouble with the angel who shuts his mouth. The focus then falls on Elizabeth, his wife, a newly pregnant old woman. For years she has lived what in that culture was the disgraced and empty life of a barren woman. Now joyfully and miraculously pregnant, she shuts herself away from her peering neighbors to contemplate God’s goodness to her.

Then Luke suddenly shifts to another woman far away in Galilee. We know even less about her. Luke tells us nothing of her parents, her siblings, only that Joseph her fiancée is of the house of David. She’s a virgin, she’s engaged to be married to Joseph, and she gets an unexpected visit by an angel. But this visit turns out quite differently than the visit to Zechariah. While Zechariah dithers in doubt, Mary accepts the angel’s word in faith. “Be it done to me according to your word.”

Full of this great, frightening, awesome news; tipped off by the angel to her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary goes off on a long trip to visit her cousin.

This strange visit raises questions, doesn’t it? Where was Mary’s mother, her sisters? Why did she have to go all the way down to Judea to share with an old cousin? Was it the shame of pregnancy out of wedlock; the knowing stares of a tight-knit community? As he so often does, Luke leaves the details to our imagination.

But what Luke does give us is these women, two powerless nobodies, who are suddenly at the front and center of God’s plan for the redemption of the world. All the men are absent or silent. Herod’s away at the palace, speechless Zechariah’s writing notes, Joseph’s dithering about whether he wants to get involved. It’s these women, cousins, both pregnant, who understand and believe what God is doing. One author comments on this scene with gentle insight: “One is old and has no children; the other is young and has no husband. But both are pregnant. Godhas been at work.” Here they are together; embracing and talking about the extraordinary blessings that have come to them.

I almost feel like I’m trespassing when I read this passage; like I’ve stumbled in on a womanly get-together where talk of pregnancy and quickening, and stretch marks make me feel like an outsider. It happens to me a lot around church where women tend to gather during the week more than men. This is a passage about two strong and blessed women who share deeply in their joys and apprehensions. One thing I envy about the female half of the species is their extraordinary ability to share in close bonded friendship with each other.

Elaine Storkey’s book on Mary reminded me that Mary and Elizabeth are linked in a long line of women who share together and bless each other. The Hebrew midwives conspire against the Pharaoh. Miriam and Jochabed, conspire with the Egyptian princess to raise little Moses. There’s Ruth and Naomi, Mary and Martha, Susannah and Joanna, Jesus’ wealthy female supporters, and Euodia and Syntyche, who while they worked faithfully for the gospel, also, like many women friends, had their spats.

Mother-daughter, grandmother-granddaughter, cousins, friends, all share the strengths and vulnerabilities of being women, knowing often without words the lives and emotions of the other. Even in our individualized societies today, women can break free from the prevailing self-sufficiency and experience an enriching interdependence. Sisters and cousins can show deep care for each other. Neighbors and friends can share mutual needs and receive gifts of understanding and love from each other. Womanpower, was not something discovered in the 70’s, it has always been there in those deep sustaining relationships women form with each other. This wonderful meeting of the two pregnant cousins, Mary and Elizabeth, recalls all of these relationships, and touches the depths of women’s partnerships throughout the ages.

But for Luke the primary purpose of the story was not to show female solidarity, but hear these women’s voices proclaim the mystery of faith. Mary, it says, “entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” Was Zechariah there, a sullen mute sitting in the corner, unable to direct the theological discourse?

Elizabeth takes over, or rather her fetus does. He leaps in her womb at the sight of cousin Mary and her unborn child, the child. But Elizabeth knew what this was all about. She becomes the first preacher in Luke, ordained on the spot by the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the first gospel message. “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.'” (1:42-45)

While Luke draws us in with the story of the meeting of these two pregnant cousins, his major concerns are theological, not personal. First, it’s the blessedness of Mary. The blessedness of Mary is the profound truth that she has been chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus. Her’s is the womb chosen for the miracle of incarnation, the coming of God to join the human race. Roman Catholics raise her status by calling her sinless, immaculate, and perpetually a virgin, but I think they miss the point. It is Mary’s faith, her trust in God, that makes her blessed. Elizabeth reiterates that truth when she says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary’s believes in the promises of God, promises that will bring her pain and sorrow, while they bring salvation to the world.

It is in that blessed faith that she becomes a model for all of us. By God’s grace we have all been overshadowed by the Spirit, and Christ is born in our hearts. We are pregnant with the promises of God. Mary was not just a passive instrument in God’s hands, a womb to be used. She freely cooperated by her faith and obedience in the salvation of humankind. When we respond with faith to God’s electing love, we too can give birth to hope and peace and love in a world torn apart by sin.

The second theological truth Elizabeth preaches to us is about the fruit of Mary’s womb, the son who is to be born. “Why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” The mother of my Lord. In this simple statement, Elizabeth announces the astounding truth about the child Mary bears. He is the Lord. Adonai, the Hebrew name for God himself. He is to be god incarnate. And Mary is his mother.

This brings us back to Ephesus where we started. It was in Ephesus, at the great ecumenical council of 431 held in the Church of Mary whose ruins are still visible today, that Mary was declared theotokos (literally God-bearer), or mother of God (a term that was upheld by Calvin too). And the biblical background of that great statement of orthodox faith is the greeting of Elizabeth (“the mother of my Lord”). You see, the great concern of this council was not to establish the veneration of Mary, but to enshrine the divinity of her son.

The Council recognized that what was at stake here was the bedrock truth of the incarnation. If only Christ’s human nature was born of Mary, as some claimed, then God the Son had not become incarnate, and if God had not become incarnate of the virgin Mary, the very salvation of the creation was impossible. The child born of Mary at Bethlehem is God, the very divine Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, come to us in human flesh. As the council put it, “If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore that the holy virgin is the mother of God (for she bore in a fleshly way the word of God made flesh) let him be anathema.”

Elizabeth said to Mary, “the mother of my Lord” Mary is the God-bearer. In her womb the very Son of God, “one substance with the Father, God from God, light from light, true god of true God”, came to dwell. I find I’m not alone in my experience at Marynmar, the house of Mary near Ephesus. Mary, theotokos, is our specially chosen human sister who bore the Son of God and leads us to him. She was chosen to supply God with flesh and blood, muscle and brain. She bore him, nursed him, cuddled him, taught him, played with him, and nurtured him. She feared for him, saw him abused and killed.

She’s one of us, but she’s a very special one of us. Kathleen Morris writes that a Presbyterian seminary professor used the language of the early church to counsel a student struggling with family problems. “You can always go to theotokos, because she understands suffering.” Or the grieving Lutheran woman who said, “I love Mary, because she also knew what it is to lose a child.” Mary’s gritty faith teaches us all to trust in God’s promises, even when the way seems dark. Her loving hospitality, offering her very body to be God’s home, encourages us to open our hearts and homes to all God’s children.

In the Roman Catholic Church in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a large crucifix hangs over the altar. On the left wall, yet still standing among the congregation, there stands a simple, modest unadorned figure of Mary. She does not draw attention to herself. She stands among the people of God, and with them, her eyes are turned to the cross. That’s where Mary belongs. She has a special place among God’s people of all times and places, as the first one who believed the promise and gave herself to God’s purposes. By her faith and obedience she brings Christ’s love, power, and salvation into this world.

St. Methodius, martyr in 311 AD offered this stunning poetic tribute to Mary:

Thou art the circumscription of him who cannot be circumscribed;
the root of the most beautiful flower;
the mother of the Creator; the nurse of the Nourisher;
the circumference of Him who embraces all things;
the upholder of him who upholds all things by his word;
the gate through which God appears in flesh;
the tongs of that cleansing coal.
Thou hast lent to God, who stands in need of nothing,
that flesh which he had not,
in order that the Omnipotent might become
that which it was his good pleasure to be.
Thou hast clad the Mighty One with that most beauteous panoply
of the body by which it became possible
for him to be seen by my eyes.
Hail! Hail! Mother and handmaid of God.
Hail! Hail! Thou to whom the great Creditor of all is a debtor.


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