December 23, 2012 “ 4 Advent C
Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
If you needed encouragement, where would you go?
Some of us would go to a therapist, someone who has experience with a wide range of human predicaments and who has some tools to apply to help us, someone who is able to remind us of our options and can help us gain a better perspective.
If we needed encouragement some of us would go to a priest, someone who also has experience with a wide range of human predicaments but one who is steeped in the spiritual realm, one who is trained to look for the hope that breaks into our world even beyond our abilities to make things different. In many ways, as a priest, I am in the business of encouragement. As our incoming Junior Warden reminds me from time to time: I am paid to be optimistic.
If we needed encouragement, we might well go to someone we know has been where are now and has gotten through it. We might look for a cancer survivor, someone who has grown through marital difficulties, one who had the same injury or surgery we have just had, someone who has suffered a loss similar to ours. We may gravitate toward a support group, a number of people who have been in our predicament but are a little ahead of us in recovery, people we can watch and learn from.
Mainly when we need encouragement we go to someone who will listen, someone who will accept us as we are, who won’t be lost in our dilemma, someone who won’t be working out their own issues on us by trying to fix us in some way, someone who will give us the gift of their time as we sort through things for ourselves.
Some of us might just come right here and get on our knees and pray. We might lay out all our burdens to God alone and then take the next step in our lives as we wait for the pall to lift.
Here we are just a couple of days before Christmas, a time with such high expectations for things to be just right, but a time when very few things can measure up to the pressure, a time when we feel we should be hopeful and encouraging, but a time when many of us are in great need of encouragement ourselves.
And today, as holy wisdom would have it, we find ourselves in the middle of the story where Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus, travels to be with Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist. Mary is young, a teenager who has a commitment from Joseph to stand by her and support her but that commitment is stretched to its breaking point by the pressures of friends and society. Mary is alone for now, having been singled out and spoken to by a messenger from God, but we all know that messages from God usually bring a lot of tension and confusion before they bring peace and clarity.
Mary comes to Elizabeth in need of encouragement. She comes to someone who is where she is but a little ahead, to someone who is older and wiser, someone steeped in spiritual matters, someone who has struggled herself, someone who has similarly had her whole world turned upside down by a message from God, who has dealt with her husband’s shaky commitment, and who now is a vessel of holiness, someone who will listen and accept her where she is, and embody the hope of where she is being led. It’s not that Mary comes here with nothing at all but she comes looking for someone who will listen with her for what God has in store. That’s not work typically done by ourselves. It is a holy encounter we witness today just a couple of days in our lives before Christmas.
As Mary enters the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and as they converse with each other, the child Elizabeth is bearing leaps in her womb. Later on in pregnancies, that often happens. The child kicks and moves around and it is exciting. But Elizabeth observes the holy in the ordinary and knows it is a sign from God. She is moved to share her experience, strength and hope with Mary: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
Having been accepted and affirmed, Mary herself is moved to sing the now famous hymn that carries her name. It is perhaps the supreme hymn of encouragement that Mary passes on to future generations. Representing all the lowly and the outcast, all that is vulnerable in this dangerous world, she claims the hope that is offered so wondrously and unmerited. Mary carries that hope, a hope that will carry her through the remaining months of her pregnancy, a hope that will carry her through the raising of her child, a hope that will carry her through her son’s suffering and death, a hope that will find the even greater hope of the resurrection. Mary carries that hope into our world, into our lives, where our expectations are so high and so fragile. Things will not always be as we expect them but they will be good, because God himself is good, and all that is will eventually become the good. Mary is encouraged and becomes encouragement for us.
Her hymn speaks of what we believe to be the kingdom of God, that time when there is no poverty or hunger or fear, that time when our prideful wills freely choose to seek what God wills because we come to trust that this will be so much better for us and for all. The hymn points to the kingdom, not a place of reversal of fortunes but a place of mutuality, not a place where the poor and the rich trade places, but a place where all are fully satisfied, not a place where the oppressed become the oppressors but a place and a time when all are made whole together. It is not just a personal blessing but a song for all the people she represents, all those in need, all of us.
Advent and Christmas include not just a genuine concern for the poor and disadvantaged, like St. Nicholas, but also a witness to God’s will that the reign of God be established in our human relationships now, and ultimately in the eternal expression of God’s kingdom. There is a great hope that has broken into the world. It comes to Elizabeth and Zechariah, it comes to Mary and Joseph, it comes to you and me, and it carries us into all that is good. That is the hope that excites our expectations here so close to Christmas Day, expectations that we sometimes confuse with more magical concepts of how our dysfunction may be relieved for a shining hour or two. No, the Advent and Christmas hope is a much bigger one, the hope that at the second coming all shall be made well, the hope that the upcoming birth of the Savior will begin to instill in our hearts. That hope will carry us because that hope is begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.