by Melissa Harl
The scene in the Gospel of Luke of two expectant mothers who meet to support each other is filled with remarkable poignancy. Both women are experiencing their first pregnancies. Each expectant mother needs and seeks comfort and support from the other in the unusual circumstances surrounding her pregnancy. Elizabeth is elderly and (we are told) has long felt shame for the gossip people have shared about what they call her barrenness. If a woman never conceived a baby, in her day the suspicion was that God had found her at fault somehow and had closed off her womb. So it’s no surprise that Elizabeth is thankful when she declares that “the Lord looked favorably upon me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25).
In Elizabeth’s sixth month, her kinswoman, Mary, a young woman engaged to be married, learns from a heavenly messenger that she too will become pregnant, in her case through some mysterious intervention by God’s Holy Spirit—that is, without the participation of her fiancé Joseph. So we should not be surprised to read that in her confusion at this news, and facing her own potential shame, Mary slips out of town. Mary rushes out “with haste” to Elizabeth’s home, isolated as it is in the hill country of Judea, in hopes and expectation of finding welcome and support. And welcome she does receive, and so much more.
As we just have seen from Luke chapter one, when Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting upon entering her home, she exclaims her blessing on the arrival of “the mother of her Lord.” Very confusing words for Mary to hear, I would imagine! Elizabeth explains, “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy!” In response one of the women sings the Magnificat—“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!” In place of the judgment and suspicion that Mary might have feared she would feel from her older cousin, she receives a warm embrace and assurance about the future. For the next three months the two expectant mothers offer each other mutual aid and assistance.
Neither Zechariah (Elizabeth’s husband) nor Joseph (Mary’s fiancé) is mentioned much in this part of the story, and I think that absence is worth noticing. Unlike the other Gospels, here in Luke, the experiences, emotions, and hopes of Mary are featured prominently. In Matthew’s gospel, the other telling we have of the infancy narrative, Mary functions primarily as a source of embarrassment and confusion for Joseph, who requires divine intervention not to “put her away quietly.” Here in Luke we see an active and inquiring young woman who both accepts her destiny and ponders its implications. And, in turn, Elizabeth acts as an especially well-informed witness to Mary’s conception, pregnancy, and future importance.
Last week we heard from Pastor Jane about those attitudes and actions so central to the Advent season—waiting, anticipation, preparation, and witness. I might add to these a feeling of mutuality and community. Yes, Advent is a season where we focus on the imminent arrival of the Christ child. So much of our focus will naturally fall on that special baby, soon to be heralded by a heavenly choir of angels, laid in a humble manger for his bed, attended by shepherds, with worshippers arriving from far-off lands, and a rather bemused or even bewildered Joseph. But within all this anticipation and joy, Elizabeth and Mary provide us a lovely example of two people offering each other mutual support and care in that same time of waiting. Let us not forget the women carrying the babies, with all their hopes and fears.
Those of us brought up in the Protestant tradition, as I think many or most of us were, have tended to underplay the importance of Mary the Mother in our thinking and practice, even during the Advent season. Oh, certainly we give her a place at the creche, modestly gazing at her newborn infant in the manger. And people expecting the arrival of their own children will often feel a connection with Mary in this time of waiting and preparation. What the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth brings home so strongly for me is the importance of community and mutuality in these times of waiting. Waiting for good news, amidst all the frustration we are feeling, all the endless waiting these days as we look for the proverbial “other shoe to drop.” What’s coming next, o Lord? What’s next for us and for our world?
In our Protestant traditions, Mary quickly fades as a figure of much importance beyond her momentous role as the mother of Jesus. In other branches of the Christian family, of course, Mary plays a much more prominent part as consoler and intercessor and as the approachable, female member of the heavenly family. Mary’s appeal in times of trouble and worry was brought home to me nearly twenty years ago on a family trip to Egypt, just weeks before George W. Bush would launch his invasion of Iraq. The Christians of Egypt were being pressed hard between conflicting forces as the drumbeats of war grew ever louder. Their stubborn adherence to their faith made them feel more and more isolated and vulnerable in an atmosphere of hostility and potential violence. Indeed, just a few years later, militants set off deadly bombs in Coptic Christian churches across the country. Perhaps these dangers help explain why Mary the Mother could be such a focus in times of crisis.
We were visiting Egypt in connection with my research interests in Coptic Christianity—its liturgies, monastic life, and desert spirituality. About ten percent of Egyptians today are still Christians, persisting in the faith brought to their country nearly two thousand years ago. Due in part to their isolation from more dominant strains of Christianity since the Arab Islamic conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, the Coptic church maintains many ancient practices in their worship still today.
We spent part of our time in Old Cairo, where I could visit the Coptic churches and meet the bishop who oversaw visits to monasteries in central and southern Egypt. After he have me permission to stay overnight in one such community, Bishop Iohannes went on to invite me to attend a late-night worship service in praise of the Virgin Mary being held there in the capital city. The season we call Advent corresponds more or less to the traditional Coptic month of Khoiak, when the community celebrates Mary the Theotokos—the one who gave birth to God—with nightly services of praise and prayer. She can for many people seem more approachable and more comforting than that mysterious and at times remote Triune Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In that time of constraint and concern as war loomed over the Middle East, the Christians of Egypt could turn to worship with their community to find mutual comfort and support.
I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to accept the bishop’s invitation to attend that late-night worship service. I was told that most of the night would be spent in singing hymns in both the Arabic and Coptic languages, interspersed with occasional remarks from the clergy. When I got into a taxicab a little after midnight, I asked the driver to take me to the church in Zeitoun: did he know where it was? What I knew was that it was located in a residential neighborhood where Mary had made her presence felt 35 years before in an apparition on the church roof. This heavenly sign confirmed to Coptic Christians that this was the spot where praise of Mary the Mother would have special significance. The cabdriver, said that yes, he did know the church—that’s exactly where he had gotten married!
So, my cabdriver was a Coptic Orthodox Christian, but he was dubious when I told him that the bishop had claimed that there would be many worshippers gathered to sing and pray in the middle of the night. “Well, maybe a few old people will be there,” he said, until we got closer to the church. There was no way he could drive us through the crowds milling outside the church for two or three blocks in every direction! When I finally did manage to enter the building, I did find some older people, along with thousands of worshippers of all ages singing their hearts out in praise of Mary the Mother. As I looked around, I saw people mostly in their thirties and forties, some with small children in tow, and their joy in being together, while singing in community, was palpable.
I took my place next to a couple of women who shared their hymnbook with me. Though I couldn’t follow along very much when the throng was singing in Arabic, when we switched to the Coptic language, and I could give voice to those ancient rhythms and melodies that I had been studying so long as mere artifacts of the past, my heart overflowed with emotion. I will never forget that feeling of connection. We sang hymns without a pause for thirty or forty minutes straight. I lasted only two or three hours before heading back to our hotel, but those services of praise for Mary continued every single night, ten or more hours every night, throughout the month that led up to Christmas.
Our musical traditions here at First Church are of course quite different, and these days raising our voices loudly and joyfully together in worship is something we must keep contained as we await a better time, a time that surely must be coming. We don’t sing praises of the Virgin all night long, and we probably never will. But I do have a favorite memory of our singing about the coming of Mary the Mother right here in the sanctuary. Byron was at the piano, and as he played the chords and sang the opening lines of this song I would imagine nearly everyone in my age group knew it by heart:
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, “Let it be.”
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me …
There will be an answer, Let it be.
I’ll never forget how so many of us in the pews that day joined in and sang those words, spontaneously I think, Let it be. As we continue these days to face the many challenges of this pandemic, for what seems like forever, perhaps we can take a deep breath and hear those words afresh and anew.
So, who could one imagine is this Mother Mary who comes in times of distress and need? It could be the Virgin Mary, or just as likely, Mary McCartney, the singer’s deceased and beloved mother. But I think that any one of us could play that role, too, as we stand together in our times of stress, and need each other’s comfort.
How do we offer ourselves and each other the care we need today? As I listen to the Magnificat as sung by the women in Luke, or in our service this morning, I hear a call for resilience, a call for community. Mother Mary came to Elizabeth in their time of mutual need and support. Christians in Egypt continue to find strength in their communal praise of Mary singing together beneath the very spot where she showed herself to them two generations ago. Today in our own circumstances, as we face all the complications of our personal lives along with the pandemic—this endless, perplexing, frightening, infuriating pandemic—we choose to gather here at church, in person or online. Here, together, we experience the presence of God’s love and support as made manifest through our abiding care for each other, whatever comes our way. Amen! Let it be so!