“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. 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.”
And Mary said,
“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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”
I spoke with a good friend today who is going through hell. If it can go wrong, it has gone wrong. Serious problems with her health. Idiots at the doctor’s office that pay no attention to what they are doing, making the same mistakes over and over and over and causing delays in her treatment. Serious problems with her kids. Idiots in the school system who seem to think that parents can solve all the problems their child has if only they will try hard enough, even when the problems are beyond the parent’s control (hello, genetics!) Problems with her house, that like all problems with housing take a good deal of money to solve. Problem upon problem, and none of them have easy solutions. I called her after reading her Caring Bridge journal entry.** All of my friend’s journal entries have shared her frustration with navigating the medical system, but this is the second journal entry in a row that has been filled with serious signs of despair.
I have to admit that it’s tough listening to someone whose problems are so big that there are no cute solutions to suggest; it’s hard to hang in there when there are no resources to offer that will help the situation. After a while, you realize that the best thing you can do is be present in the midst of hell. There are quite a few people who would pay good money to avoid hell in their own life and do everything they can to escape reminders that hell is real and active in other people’s lives; this is how I came to realize that there is value in simply hanging out with a good friend whose life has hellish places. When half the people you talk to turn tail and run from the hell in your life, hell starts seeming like a very lonely place to live. Having someone to sit with you in hell, while it doesn’t change the hell at all, makes hell that much more bearable.
Except that hell is never as bearable as you’d like it to be.
Today’s scripture bears witness to that.
Today’s scripture passage is about Elizabeth and Mary; the mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. One was ridiculously young, unmarried and pregnant. The other was way, way too old to admit to having sex, let alone admit to being pregnant. Elizabeth is estimated to be 88 years old at the time that she conceived John. I have no idea if that was true, but she was old enough that when the angel Gabriel declared to her husband Zechariah that they were going to have a child, Zechariah replied “I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (Luke 1:18b) Zechariah may have just as well have said “Look man, Viagra hasn’t been invented and let’s just say that my wife doesn’t need tampons anymore.” The fact was that Zechariah and his wife had prayed to conceive a child for many, many years without any luck; at this point both Elizabeth and Zechariah had given up. After this many years stuck in the hell of infertility, they had built a house there and given up on anything ever changing.
God loves moments like that, because those are the moments when His intervention yields the greatest change.
The moment when you think everything is broken. The moment when what is happening isn’t supposed to be happening and you just want to die. The moment when what isn’t happening was supposed to be done a long time ago, and you are so humiliated that you want to fade into the woodwork. Moments when everyone knows that everything in your life is wrong. There you are: you are in hell, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to get out.
But you’re wrong, and God knows it. God loves moments like that, in fact, God excels at working through moments like that.
And this is the whole point of today’s scripture. You see, today’s scripture is the moment when the young, unmarried, and embarrassingly pregnant Mary comes to visit her old, decrepit, and embarrassingly pregnant aunt Elizabeth. The two women, neither of whom should be pregnant, greet each other with joy and sing songs of praise to God for what neither woman ever expected could happen.
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. 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.’ And Mary said, ‘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.’”
Doesn’t it sound like Mary and Elizabeth are happy beyond words? And they are…for this moment.
Despair and hell are places where we wait for moments like the one Elizabeth and Mary had together, moments when everything that is going wrong is placed in a framework where it all makes sense, where our suffering and our struggle begins to come together in a coherent picture that no longer seems to be filled with random tragedies but instead is filled with events coordinated by God’s own hand to bring us to a place that we didn’t believe actually existed.
These kind of moments are never fun while you wait for them and they often aren’t fun when they are happening. They gain their meaning only in retrospect because at the moment they happen, you’re still kind of in hell.
Think about it: Mary is about 13 years old, unmarried, and pregnant. The standard wisdom of the day is that Joseph should have refused to marry her and she should have been taken outside the city gates and stoned to death. Her whole family is humiliated, and her husband looks stupider than stupid for not kicking her to the curb. Mary looks like a tainted woman (and that’s saying it nicely.)
Elizabeth is old. Maybe she isn’t 88 years old, but really…would 78 be better? 68? 58 and pregnant? How about 48 and pregnant? No matter how you look at it, at Elizabeth’s age, pregnancy is a problem. It isn’t just that she’s so old that she’s not supposed to be having sex anymore. It’s that she’s so old that carrying a child is a major problem. She’s at risk for all sorts of things going wrong, including the death of both the mother and the child. And if she lives through the birth, then she has to raise a child…and HOW old is she? Can you imagine chasing a toddler full-time–not as a grandparent where you send them home at the end of the day but as a parent, where your raise them 24/7? Can you imagine dealing with a toddler at 48 or 58 years old? How about at 78? The idea of chasing a toddler at 88 years old is beyond imagination to me. Elizabeth isn’t just embarrassed about being pregnant, she’s terrified of what this pregnancy will do to her old body and what raising a child will demand of her old body.
God has created what appears to be an untenable situation for both Mary and Elizabeth, and yet Christians read these passages at Christmas and we tend to paint them as happy, sweet moments of joy. NO!! The rejoicing that happens in Luke 1:41-55 is nothing more than tiny little sparks of joy that flared up in the midst of what appeared to be very close to hell for both Elizabeth and Mary.
This turns out to actually be the greater promise of the Christmas season: that joy and peace and salvation appear as sparks in the midst of hell itself. When John and Jesus were being born to Elizabeth and Mary, so much of what was happening was all wrong. The government and the economy in Israel were bad. Everyone was registering so that they could be taxed (yippee!) Neither Elizabeth or Mary was supposed to be pregnant according to what was acceptable in Israeli culture. Neither of them was pregnant at an opportune time in their own lives. For both of them their pregnancy was life-threatening (Mary due to Israelite law, Elizabeth due to her age.) For both of them their pregnancy had the possibility of ruining their lives. Yet God used these pregnancies, endured in the midst of hellish times, to create salvation for all people, everywhere.
God tends to work best in the blackest of nights. God’s hand is most visible when the night is so dark as to be a total blackout. God excels in rescuing us from the most terrifying situations and the most horrific places.
Why am I willing to sit with my friend in the midst of her personal hell? Not because I am such a good person—that is a ridiculous notion. I am no better than anyone else. I am willing to sit with my friend in the midst of her personal hell because this is where God always begins to do His best work and I just want to have a court-side seat when He starts to turn things around for my friend and her family so I can join in the rejoicing.
The promise of Christmas is that no matter how much hell you have endured, God will take a single spark of hope and turn it into salvation so strong that everyone is swept up in the joy of it and is transformed totally.
God be praised as we wait for the birth of the One that change all things to glory. Amen.
** Caring Bridge is a great way for people with serious illnesses to update everyone they love about their illness and their treatment with just a single journal entry.
Because I won’t be writing next week (so much to do before Christmas comes) I leave with you one of my favorite scripture passages. We sang this every morning at Claremont School of Theology as we chanted our morning prayers. It brought tears to my eyes every time I sang it, and it brings tears to my eyes now. It is meant to give hope to those who are still suffering in hellish places.
Luke 1: 78-79
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Merry Christmas! May the joy of the birth of the One Who Is To Come overwhelm you and end all your suffering and pain and lift you up until you praise the name of the Most High God.