The Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 39 to 45
When we tell the story of Christmas and the birth of Christ we go to the gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke and we try and fit their stories together. Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Jesus, so we take some parts of Matthew and some parts of Luke to make our story.
According to Matthew, Joseph found that Mary was pregnant before they were married. He assumed that the baby was some other man’s child and wanted to divorce her quietly. However, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told Joseph not to be afraid, but to go ahead and marry Mary.
Matthew goes on to describe the visit of the Magi, the wise men, from the East and how King Herod wanted to kill Jesus. However, an angel warned Joseph in a dream and he took the child and its mother and fled to Egypt. King Herod then had all the babies in Bethlehem killed.
In Matthew’s version of Christmas, it’s all about what the men did, Joseph, King Herod, the Wise Men. Mary is not recorded as saying anything.
But when we turn to Luke’s Gospel, which is where our reading comes from today, we hear nothing from Joseph; and King Herod and the Wise Men are not mentioned at all. Instead, the Angel Gabriel, Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth do all the talking. And there is no talk of divorce, or anyone wanting to kill anyone else, or escaping as refugees to Egypt. Luke’s gospel is about what the women did and said. It is about pregnancies, Elizabeth’s and Mary’s, it’s about love and joy and life and hope rather than scandal, murder and fear.
Our reading is called the Visitation because it is about Mary visiting Elizabeth. Elizabeth was old, and her son, John the Baptist will be the last prophet before Jesus. Mary was young, and her son, Jesus, will begin a new age, an age of forgiveness and salvation. It was perfectly natural that Mary would want to visit Elizabeth, but Luke records it carefully because he wants us to see that the old must give way to the new. John, as he himself said, must decrease, while Jesus increases. John the Baptist is a prophet, but Jesus is the revelation of God.
And the baby John, even inside his mother’s womb, hearing Mary’s voice, leaps for joy. The Holy Spirit of God is stirring and inspiring both Elizabeth and John, and this is where the joy comes from. Those of you who have read my Christmas letter may remember that I said, Joy is not just freedom from care. Joy is not just happiness. Joy is not just lightness of heart. Joy is not just hope for the future. Joy is all of these and more. Joy is the knowledge of the presence of God in our lives. Joy is the knowledge that we are an essential part of creation. To be joyful is to know that we belong in the world. To be joyful is to know that the Maker of all things lives in solidarity with Creation! To be joyful is to know that the Life of all lives with us and in us. To be joyful is to now that the Future of the universe includes us!
This is exactly why John the Baptist jumped for joy, exactly why Elizabeth greeted Mary with the words, “Blessed art thou among woman blessed is the fruit of thy womb!” And it is exactly why Mary burst into song and sang the Magnificat. That was Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s joy. We ourselves sang the Magnificat for the psalm, and we’ll sing it again at the end of the service.
Mary begins by singing her joy that God has chosen her to be part of the salvation of the world – all generations will bless Mary because she was chosen to give birth to the Saviour of the world.
The Orthodox church gives Mary a special title – Theotokos – which comes from two Greek words, Theos, meaning God and Tikteiv, meaning “to give birth to” so that Theotokos means she who has given birth to God or bearer of God. So Mary praises God and her spirit rejoices in the God of her salvation, because God is working the future of the world in her, in her womb, in her child, Jesus.
The rest of the Magnificat, after the first three verses, is all about God at work in the world. Mary sings that the work begun in her will continue until all the world is transformed and made new. Mary has been chosen to give birth to the future of the world. No wonder that Elizabeth cried out, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord!” in other words, “Happy and joyful is she who believes that God’s promise to the world will be fulfilled in her.”
The article I read about Theotokos – remember it means God-bearer – said that all Christians are Theotokoi – god bearers. This does not mean that we will give birth to the Saviour, but it does mean that we carry the Christ-child around with us in our own bodies. This is what it means when we say, we are the body of Christ; his spirit is with us. Jumping for joy inside us like a child in its mother’s womb, is the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit.
So Mary is an example for all of us, men, women and children. Mary committed her life to the fulfillment of God’s promises. If she had said, “No.” to Gabriel, who knows what would have happened.
Now God is asking us to do exactly the same thing.
The angel Gabriel comes to us either in our waking life or in a dream saying, “Hail, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!” and we are given the choice to say, “No. I won’t take the risk. I will hide the child away, never to see the day, never to be born, never to grow to maturity.” or we could say, “Yes, I will bear the Christ child for you into the world. I will show in my body that God is made flesh. I will show in my actions that the Holy Spirit is still at work. I will be as Christ to the world today.”
Let us pray to God that we may choose to make the right answer.