Biblical Antenatal Group

December 23, 2018

Helen Jacobi

Advent 4     Micah 5:2-5     Luke 1:39-45

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Mary – brave, active, faithful, not afraid to seek help. Elizabeth – strong, welcoming, speaks her mind.

Mary and Elizabeth are our last two characters of Advent. In the bible group which met last week we noticed the difference between last week’s story about Joseph and today’s story.

Last week we read the Matthew version of the birth story and in it Mary is silent. Everything is done to her. Today Mary acts and speaks. Elizabeth is equally vocal. Joseph is not present.

 

We have met Elizabeth earlier in Advent with Zechariah as they learnt they would be the parents of John the Baptist.

 

Mary was just an ordinary girl who went to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth. Mary was escaping the shame and scandal and gossip of being an unmarried mother. She may well have been running for her life. No one was going to believe stories of angels; she did what young pregnant women have done for centuries – she got out of town!

Elizabeth would have been the object of gossip as well, being pregnant later in life and her husband Zechariah mysteriously struck mute in the process. So the two women took refuge together, supported each other.

 

Mary and Elizabeth would have shared their fears and hopes, they would have sewed clothes for their babies, talked about their strange experiences, encouraged each other. And Mary would have assisted Elizabeth when the time came for John to be born. The biblical version of an antenatal support group.

 

Woven into this very personal every day encounter of 2 pregnant woman are threads of Israel’s history – when we hear Elizabeth’s words “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” many of us might think of the Roman Catholic prayer

Hail Mary, full of grace.

Our Lord is with thee.

Blessed art thou among women,

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,

pray for us sinners,

now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The Hail Mary is of course based on Elizabeth’s words and is still prayed by millions every day. It sounds beautiful and it is beautiful.

 

But when Elizabeth said these words, or when Luke wrote them for her, they were referencing words found in the song of Deborah in the Book of Judges, and said of Judith in the Book of Judith (Apocrypha) [1]. The song of Deborah (who was a prophet and judge in Israel in the 12th century BC) describes the murder of the Assyrian general Sisera by a woman, Jael. “Most blessed of women be Jael” it says, and then the song describes in grisly detail how she struck him with a tent peg and a mallet (Judges 5:24-27). The story of Judith is set in the time of the exile of the 6th century BC but is not thought to be history, rather a tale of a woman Judith held up as an example for the women of Israel to follow. She too kills her enemy (cuts off his head while he is sleeping) and is praised “O daughter you are blessed by the most High God above all women on earth”.

 

“Blessed are you among women” began life not as a pious prayer but as a war cry of praise of women who joined men in the battle to redeem Israel. Now Mary and Elizabeth join this line of women who bravely stood up to the oppressor. Mary’s strength also reminds us of Miriam, with Moses leading the people of Israel to safety after the crossing of the Red Sea.

 

The personal, intimate encounter has woven into it threads of the macro history of the people of Israel. Luke is writing politics here.

 

And Luke is writing politics in the next verses. Luke says when Mary discovers her part in the story of God’s coming to earth she sings. She sings words based on the ancient song of her foremother Hannah. She sings about God and God’s blessings for the poor and lowly and those who had waited for generations for God to fulfill God’s promises. Her song is a very radical piece of theology about God changing the world.

 

In Ein Kerem near Jerusalem there is a church built to honour the visit of Mary to Elizabeth when they were both unexpectedly pregnant with their sons. It is called the Church of the Visitation. The Magnificat, the song of Mary, which comes after the passage we read today, is reproduced there in 42 languages. Set in beautiful tiles on the wall of the courtyard of the church her words can be read by all who come.

 

The Voices have sung a Magnificat for us every Sunday of Advent.

 

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants for ever. (Luke 1:46-55)

 

Mary was a girl who felt called by God to take risks, be brave, and bring a child into the world who would be God’s son. God dwelling with us, Emmanuel, the word made flesh. A child who would show us the way. At one level this is the story of an ordinary girl who had a baby. The way Luke writes it, it is the story of women claiming their place in the changing of our world forever.

 

So sing with Mary, sing with Elizabeth, delight in their stories and their courage and our hearts and minds will be alive with the transforming love of God this Christmas season.

 

[1] Richard Horsley The Liberation of Christmas; the infancy narratives in social context p 84 1989 Crossroad

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