Date: December 19, 2021

Bible Text: Luke 1:39-55 |

Mary and Elizabeth are Jesus’ first disciples. They are prophets in their own right, proclaimers of the coming reign of God. The baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb will prepare the way. The one in Mary’s womb is the Way. And this moment between Mary and Elizabeth points us to something at the core of our faith. 

Earlier this week, Kaitlyn Schiess, a doctoral student at Duke Divinity School, Tweeted this about today’s gospel reading: 

Every discussion of “biblical womanhood" should include the fact that in Luke 1, two pregnant women celebrate their new motherhood by passionately discussing the coming overthrow of every earthly empire.

It’s true: the song that follows their interaction speaks about God rescuing their people from their enemies and delivering them from oppression. And not only that but God leveling the scales and toppling social hierarchies: scattering the proud, deposing the mighty, and filling the hungry, coming to the aid of the poor. It reminds me of what the luminary bell hooks, who died last week, pointed out in one of her books: “For so long everyone has wanted to hold on to the belief that the United States is a class-free society— that anyone who works hard enough can make it to the top. Few people stop to think that in a class-free society there would be no top.” Mary sings of the kingdom of God in which there is no “top” but God. 

Some versions of the Bible point out in a footnote for verse 46 that some early manuscripts attribute this song to Elizabeth, not to Mary. Either way, this is a woman’s hymn, a Spirit-inspired protest song, claiming a vision of liberation for herself and her people. 

So I have to confess that it’s a little odd for me to be the one recasting the story of two women, one older and one younger, and trying to find some meaning in it. As a man who is not a parent, I have my blind spots with the story. The lectionary puts it in front of me right before Christmas each year, but I’ve never sat with it, at least not with the interaction between Mary and Elizabeth; I usually move right to the song. After years living here in what we call the Southwest, I see more La Virgen de Guadalupe in my mind, and linger on Elizabeth’s words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” 

But the team at A Sanctified Art has helped me notice a few details this go-around, the human details. I don’t think you need to be or have been a pregnant person to appreciate those human aspects: how a young woman discovers in a startling way that she is pregnant under unusual circumstances, to say the least; that an older woman discovers in a startling way that she is pregnant under unusual circumstances; that Mary is perhaps scared, confused, and doesn’t know what to do, so she rushes to the home of an older relative. Curiously, she doesn’t run to her parents, or to a relative who lives close by, or to a neighbor, but to somebody out of town. Luke includes the detail that “Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then returned home.” Why? Why stay there and not return home? Why not go to be with Joseph? 

Luke leaves us guessing, because the narrative jumps right to Elizabeth giving birth to John. In the Advent Devotional this season, Vilmari Cintrón-Olivieri, writes: 

… a place where God’s love dwells freely and abundantly is sanctuary.

Hearing the news of her pregnancy, Mary sought such a place. As a pregnant teenager, poor and unwed, dangers and uncertainty—both physical and societal—surround her. With haste, she journeys to Elizabeth’s house. Elizabeth—and the child in her womb—welcome and affirm her… 

For three months, that home and the arms that received Mary became her safe haven. Elizabeth’s welcome, blessing, and care were safe space, just what she needed as she prepared for the important call ahead. Mary would give birth to Jesus and would educate him in his formative years. The world saw the imprint of this young woman in the life and teachings of her son, Jesus. Mary herself was sanctuary and Jesus’ first home.

That phrase “safe space” has been caricatured these days, especially in reference to college campuses. It’s been caricatured as a condition in which people expect to be free from discomfort, stress, or being confronted with ideas that challenge their worldviews. Safe space is easy to knock if you’re someone who’s never regularly needed it. But here, in this story, it takes on a deeper significance. Safe space, sanctuary, is not only what Elizabeth offers Mary, but what Mary offers Jesus, and what Jesus in turn in his life offers so many people as he gathered them around his table and called them to follow him: down and out fishermen, lepers, sex workers, tax collectors, demon-afflicted people, and the like. 

Sanctuary. 

The sanctuary, the haven Elizabeth provides Mary, is a gift we give one another. It’s a very embodiment of the love of God. 

Who has provided sanctuary for you? Who has given you refuge? 

The teacher you can confide in. The uncle or aunt who listens without judgment. The friend who always has your back no matter what. The partner with whom hours pass in perfectly-content silence. The person you came out to for the first time. The person who sat with you in your grief. The one who stood up for you when others ostracized you. The person who dragged you out of bed when all you wanted to do was shut the world out. 

And not just individuals, but groups of people too— the Bible study, the recovery group, the basketball team, the every-Tuesday-morning-coffee folks. It’s a very sacred thing when we do this for one another. 

I will never forget reading an article about a little church in the Netherlands. 

Every day, for more than three months, a church service at a small Dutch chapel went on around-the-clock. Pastors worked in shifts. Volunteers worshiped.

The Bethel Church in The Hague started its nonstop service on Oct. 26 to protect an Armenian immigrant family from deportation, under a Dutch law that forbids police from disrupting a church service to make an arrest. 

For 96 days [that’s 2,300 hours!] the Tamrazyan family lived in the red-brick church building in a residential neighborhood. 

Hundreds of pastors from the Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium rotated through the church between October and January to carry on the service... Pastors said they were taking part on behalf of all the children of asylum-seekers, not just the Tamrazyan family.

"The Protestant Church of The Hague respects court orders," the community center wrote in a statement in November, "But finds itself confronted with a dilemma: the choice between respecting the government and protecting the rights of a child."

… one of the Tamrazyan children… read a poem…

"Around-the-clock 7 days a week 

We praise and worship God 

It makes the flowers in my heart grow 

It makes me thankful 

In a way I've never been before."

When I read that article almost three years ago, I thought to myself, “That is church!”

That is church. That is St. Mark’s at our best. This congregation has a charism, “a gift from God for the church and the world, given as a different way of living out the Gospel” for hospitality. God has given St. Mark’s a gift for providing safe haven and refuge for all kinds of people for whom the world is not always a safe space. People seeking asylum. People needing a place to sleep when it's cold. Groups who do life-saving work in the community. As we look ahead to our future, whatever it holds, that’s something Elizabeth and Mary keep in the front of our imaginations. How and for whom and in what ways do we offer sanctuary, intentionally and in partnership?

That sense of generous welcome, belonging, safety and love is a central feature of the kin-dom of God, the realm Mary and Elizabeth heralded. Sanctuary is at the heart of the gospel. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew? “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Before we are able to offer that to others, we must receive it ourselves in some measure, in some way. When we receive the sanctuary Elizabeth offered Mary, the safe haven God offers each person in the One whose birth is right around the corner, we are able to share it with others. May it be so with you this season. May it be so with us.