December 19, 2021
One thing I think we all do during this Christmas season is, either on or around Christmas day, we’ll either pile into a car laden with gifts and travel to a relative’s house who hosts the annual Christmas get-together, or we’ll be that host, waiting for everyone to arrive. It’s really one of the more wonderful parts of this season, that it’s a time when even people who don’t get to see their family very often still get the chance to get together, exchange gifts, tell stories, and be with each other for a little while. But sometimes, that trip can’t wait. There are some circumstances where a trip has to happen now.
That’s what Mary did in our reading this morning. Right after she had gotten news from Gabriel that she was chosen by God to bring the savior into the world, after she had agreed to the plan and prepared herself to be a teenaged mother, maybe the possible consequences of that decision started to occur to her. She was engaged, but she wasn’t married. She lived in a small town; people would talk. What had she gotten herself into? She didn’t have any idea what to expect! But she remembered that her cousin, Elizabeth, was in her own unique situation too. And she lived far away; far enough to insulate Mary from prying eyes and gossiping tongues, at least until she could figure things out. So she got her stuff together—much like we do for our Christmas get-togethers—and travelled the eighty some miles from Galilee to Judea to see her cousin.
After the miles and miles of travelling, she finally arrived at Elizabeth’s home. And while the text doesn’t mention it, I always read this scene like Elizabeth is at some chore in the other room when she hears Mary open the door, announcing her presence with a playful “knock-knock!” What follows is this absolutely beautiful scene. Elizabeth, not a shred of judgment in her, reacts with unvarnished joy when she realizes that John’s kick in her is the Spirit saying what’s up with Mary and why she’s here. There’s no question about whether Mary had considered what she would do. No worries about how this was affecting things with Joseph. Just a pure, unmasked celebration of the good news of just who Mary was carrying into the world.
And then they spent three months together! Three months, where the teenaged Mary and the aged Elizabeth could swap advice about morning sickness and strange cravings, and talk about how to raise boys in a Roman occupation, and what kind of world their sons were going to make happen, as touched by God as they were. They learned and they shared and they spent time together, experiencing pregnancy at the two extremes—one about as early as it could happen, and one about as late as it could happen, just two trimesters apart. And I think in that fruitful time, Mary and Elizabeth started talking about what their sons would one day proclaim as the Good News, which Mary sang about when she first got there. There was a lot of wisdom being shared at that home in Judea.
But that’s one thing we do so often, isn’t it? We learn by listening to the wisdom of others. And usually, we see that as younger people absorbing the lessons their elders teach them. Mary, after all, needed to learn from Elizabeth what to expect in her pregnancy, because she was a full two trimesters ahead of her. Our kids learn the Christmas story by us telling it to them, and pointing out the important lessons we learn in it. Beau is going to grow in the faith because we, his elders, are going to model what forgiveness and hope and sharing the kingdom look like. But Mary and Elizabeth tell us something else. They tell us that wisdom isn’t a one-way street.
The thing I love about this story of the visitation is how Mary and Elizabeth, from such different generations, show us something different about how people of such different ages can learn from each other. There were definitely things that Mary didn’t know, and she could only learn by listening to her elder cousin. But there were also things Elizabeth could learn from Mary—starting with the words of her song. They learned from each other and they both grew into the place God was calling them together—Mary in becoming the mother of God and the fierce voice of God’s justice, and Elizabeth in shaping her prophet son John and insisting on her place in the story in her own right.
Too often, I think, we get pulled into this idea that only one side has anything to learn. Either the younger generations know nothing useful and have no idea how the world works so they need to be quiet and listen to the august wisdom of their elders whose life experience and worldly knowledge is obviously the only right thing to know; or the older generation is so ossified in their opinions and their ideas are so outdated that they just need to abandon it all and listen to the radical new reality of the younger generation. Mary and Elizabeth show us a third way—a cross-generational, bi-directional way of growing in wisdom and understanding to work toward God’s dreamed-for future.
They remind us that, yes, Elizabeth is opening her home and offering her wisdom. She has decades more experience of the world than Mary. She knows the ins and outs of the priesthood—her husband is a priest, remember?—and has a firm grasp on the Temple’s way of talking about God. She has the weight of the Levite heritage behind her, so she can talk about what God has done and who God is. But Mary has just as much to offer. She sings her song about a God who brings down the mighty and fills the hungry with good things; she has the spark of the Spirit that hasn’t been blunted with cynicism, and hope for all that God does and will do in the world. They each have something equally important to share and they both—more importantly—listen to each other.
How can we apply that lesson to our own faith lives? Well for starters, like Mary and Elizabeth, we can empty ourselves of the notion that we only have things to offer, and nothing to receive, from others. We can let go of the stereotypes that those older or younger than us are in some way deficient in their understanding of who God is and what God is doing in the world. And we can listen to each other. Listen when the kids give their intonation and voice to the Christmas program today. Listen when your elders tell the story of how God has acted in their life. Listen when the ancestors speak to us in the songs we sing and the liturgy we speak. Listen when the prophets proclaim love and liberation in the streets. Listen, and know that the Spirit moves in each of us.
Because Mary didn’t come to Elizabeth’s house without the song of God’s revolution in her heart; but neither did she come deaf to her cousin’s lifetime of experiencing God’s actions. Because Elizabeth didn’t welcome Mary into her home without her decades of God’s steady presence in her home and in her life; but neither did she welcome Mary devoid of interest in hearing about how God was doing something new and unexpected. They listened to each other because these two women knew that God speaks in many voices, old and young alike. They trusted that God was speaking faithfully in the midst of their months of conversations and songs and chores and meals.
So when you gather this week to celebrate Christmas, and there’s a big cross-section of family of all ages, don’t forget to listen. Listen to their stories from years long ago. Listen to their budding hopes for the future. Listen to how they’re seeing God turning the world upside down, and how God has done the same in the past. Listen and remember that God speaks through each of us so that all of us will be heard.
Thanks be to God. Amen.