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Sunday 19 December 2021: Advent 4

Becoming Advent people

Luke 1:39-45

By Mary Coates

Baptist minister based in Milton Keynes, who works for the French association Servir Ensemble; author of Women Without Walls (Graceworks)

Context: a communion service with an ecumenical, diverse, suburban congregation

Aim: to explore what it means to live the Advent hope

What does today’s Gospel say to us about Advent hope? It presents us with a picture of two women celebrating the promise of God’s new age breaking in: one young, one old, one at the beginning of her pregnancy, one already some six months gone. Many scholars argue that this passage is really about the way in which John the Baptist recognises Jesus even from inside his mother’s womb, and they see Mary and Elizabeth as secondary. But let’s not belittle the significant role these women play in the Advent story. What can we learn for our Advent journey from the way in which Luke portrays them?

Mary and Elizabeth are meeting in a house, and we might well expect to find women in biblical times in such a domestic setting. Yet for Luke, the ‘house’ has deeper resonance. It was in a house in Jerusalem that the Holy Spirit first came upon the disciples at Pentecost and in a house that the Holy Spirit came upon the Roman centurion Cornelius. It was in houses that the early Christians gathered for worship. So, when Luke tells us that this meeting takes place in a house where Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, he is not describing two women meeting up to trade experiences of morning sickness. He is inviting us to see in Mary and Elizabeth a pre-figuring of Christian believers gathering together as the church.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is not reserved to Mary. Here the elderly Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and given extraordinary discernment. Firstly, giving voice to the hope of things unseen, she boldly recognises God’s work in Mary. If Luke tells us that Mary sets out ‘soon after’ being visited by the angel, he does not tell us how soon after. In Biblical times there were no pregnancy tests, and it may well be so very early in Mary’s pregnancy that Mary herself has not yet had any physical confirmation. Which makes Elizabeth’s words all the more astonishing as she echoes and affirms the promise from God that Mary has dared to believe.

Secondly, Elizabeth is gifted with prophetic, joyful insight. She feels her baby kick and interprets it as an important sign. He must be leaping with joy in recognition of Mary’s child. What assurance! Later in the Gospel, Luke recounts how the adult John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus. John has an inkling that Jesus might well be the ‘one who is to come’ but he is not totally sure. He needs to put the question to Jesus directly. In contrast, Elizabeth has no doubt whatever as to the identity of the ‘fruit’ of Mary’s ‘womb.’

Thirdly, Elizabeth is given confessing, relational faith. By referring already to Mary’s child as ‘Lord,’ she employs the title by which the early Church, gathered to worship, will herald the risen Christ. Yet Elizabeth does not just say ‘Lord,’ but ‘My Lord.’ She places herself without hesitation in relationship to the One who is to come.

It is highly significant that this scene focuses on two women. In the ancient world, women were considered to be among the most lowly of society. Yet in this Advent scene, Luke depicts how already God is lifting up the lowly. Elizabeth is a sign of God’s new world to come. This may be the house of the priest Zechariah, but it is not the illustrious man who declares God’s truth here. As a result of his lack of faith, Zechariah has been struck dumb and it is Elizabeth, the faithful woman, who utters the all-significant, prophetic words.

We are nearing the end of another year during which the coronavirus has dominated the headlines. Many of us, thankful to receive a vaccination, have also been aware of the way in which the coronavirus has exposed grave divisions between the wealthy and the developing nations. When the vaccinations were first available, it was the rich who, contrary to Advent hope, filled themselves with the good things, and it was the humble poor who were sent away empty.

Real Advent hope is not just about hearing God’s promises again and sitting waiting for something to happen. It’s about an active hoping, allowing God to shape and fill us so that, like Elizabeth and Mary, we ourselves become a sign of the promise of God’s new world. In that world, the lowly play their full and equal part and the poor are heard to speak the truth of God.

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