When I read the Bible, I often find myself wishing that the writers had put in a bit more detail. If you’re not very familiar with the Bible, it’s easy to feel there is more detail in there than you could ever put to good use. But most of the stories are told in a fairly telegraphic way; just the bare essentials and enough veiled hints to keep the theologians working for centuries now.
Today’s story is a good example. What do we know about Mary and Elizabeth? Well, not a great deal as it turns out. Elizabeth is found only in the first chapter of Luke. She was very devout, married to the priest Zechariah, and somehow related to Mary, although we don’t know how. Up to this point, she and her husband had been unable to conceive, which was a shameful state of affairs at that time. We know this because of the prayer of thanks she offered to God when she became pregnant. She was greatful that God had taken away “the disgrace I have endured among my people.” After she became pregnant, she “remained in seclusion,” for five months. This sounds reminiscent of someone who has had a challenging time getting pregnant and wants to make sure she is careful. Then, she welcomed Mary into her home for three months. When Mary first arrives, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, and she spontaneously praises God for the child carried by Mary. That’s about it; pretty much the sum total of what we know about Elizabeth.
By comparison, Mary is much more familiar. But, what we know about her still doesn’t add up to very much. She plays an honored role in the birth stories, but then, apart from a few brief references, she is shunted aside. When Jesus is twelve, he becomes separated from his family and Mary ends up searching frantically for him for three days. Three days, can you imagine the state you would be in if you lost a child for three days in a major metropolitan area? I think I’ve told you about the time we were at Disneyland and our daughter, Sarah, wandered off among a sea of people. She was only gone for about a minute. I was panicked. When I finally saw her, I literally climbed over several rows of people waiting in line. But they completely understood how frantic I was. When Mary finally finds Jesus in the Temple, he reacts like a typical teenager. Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” You can almost hear the, “Aw mom,” in his voice. People often wonder why, after this story, we don’t hear anything about Jesus until he begins his adult ministry. The best answer I’ve ever heard is that, after his little performance in the Temple, his mother said to him, you are grounded for the next twenty years!
When Jesus finally begins his public ministry, there is a story about Mary coming to a place where Jesus is teaching and asking to speak with him. When Jesus gets word that his mother and brothers are outside, his response is to turn to the people around him and say, “Who are my brothers, sisters and mother?” Then he answers his own question. “Here they are. My mother, my brothers and sisters are those who do the will of my Father in heaven.” It made for a nice sermon illustration, I suppose, but it didn’t demonstrate a lot of loyalty to his actual mother. He made it sound as if she might be unfamiliar with what it meant to do the will of God. Yeah, right.
Mary also appears at the wedding in Cana, but just long enough to ask Jesus to help out with the drinks. Finally, at the end of his life, we find Mary at the foot of the cross. According to John, it is here that we have Jesus’ only recorded act of genuine kindness toward his mother. As he is dying, he looks upon her lovingly, and and says, “Woman, here is your son.” Then, looking at his most trusted disciple he says, “Here is your mother,” making sure Mary would be cared for after he was gone. That’s it. That’s all we have. We don’t really know what kind of relationship Jesus and Mary had. All we know is what the gospel writers saw fit to tell us, and they were much more focused on the son than the mother.
Still, the picture of Mary that emerges is of a loving, faithful and long-suffering mother, sitting on the sidelines of her son’s all-consuming ministry. As to Elizabeth, we have no way of knowing, but I imagine the same could be said of her; a loving, faithful and long-suffering mother, sitting on the sidelines of her son John’s all-consuming ministry. Were they happily married? Did they like to sing, or dance, or tell stories? We’re they known for their cooking? Or weaving? Did they believe all the things people were saying about their sons? On these and many other subjects, the Bible is silent. We may presume they were important and valuable people in their own right, but as far as the Bible is concerned, once John and Jesus are born and raised, their mother’s work was essentially over.
Today, as a society, that’s an idea we’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with; that a woman’s primary value lies in her ability to have children. We’ve seen some real changes, real upheavals in our lives around gender roles and traditional identities. The old social conventions of men as “breadwinners” and women as “homemakers” sound sort of quaint these days. I haven’t heard it much lately, but there was a time when some people believed that for a woman to be “just a mother,” was not enough. Barbara Ehrenreich made a typical comment in an essay for Time magazine some years back. At the time, she was writing about the conflict between the British royal family and Princess Diana. She said, “The problem with Di, and the root of the British royalty’s entire crisis, is that the only honest description of her occupation would have to be ‘hired womb.’”
I’m certainly not anti-feminist. I’m not anti Royal family either, for that matter. By now though, most people seem to have woken up to the fact that women, with or without children, are valuable in their own right, every bit as much as men are. The battles over women having a right to work, if they choose to, are mostly over, although equal pay and equal treatment are still issues. And, I think, I hope, we’ve also gotten beyond the notion that being a mother is somehow a lesser calling than being a professional. For a lot of people, the more urgent problem is trying to find a way to do both; finding a healthy balance between home and career. It’s an agonizing process.
But Mary and Elizabeth were products of their times. The simple fact is, we only know anything about them at all because of the children they bore. And that’s not a bad thing. Bringing a child into the world is a sacred event. Being a mother, or a father for that matter, is a high calling. Raising children should never be diminished in relation to anything else we might do in life. But, interestingly, their being mothers is not the reason they are honored in the Bible.
The main point of their stories is not that they became pregnant, but that they were faithful. They placed themselves at God’s disposal. They became vessels, filled by the Spirit, and thereby participated in God’s plan of salvation for all people. They are examples for us because, in one way or another, we are all similarly called. Each of us has been uniquely created to embody the divine in our own way. As we move through our own life’s journey, there is nothing more important than to understand how God has called us, and to respond faithfully. There is nothing more important than to appreciate the unique combination of gifts we have each been given, and to place them at God’s disposal. As Mary put it, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”
Part of this morning’s scripture reading is the passage we call “The Magnificat.” It is Mary’s song of praise to God for being chosen to play a role in bringing healing to our broken world. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” In the last few years, in our family every Christmas as we decorate our tree, we have listened to another version of Mary’s song. This one is sung by Amy Grant. It’s very beautiful, very human, song called Breath of Heaven.
I have traveled many moonless nights.
Cold and weary with a babe inside,
And I wonder what I’ve done.
Holy Father you have come,
And chosen me now, to carry your son.
I am waiting in a silent prayer.
I am frightened by the load I bear.
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now. Be with me now.
Do you wonder as you watch my face,
If a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am. For the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong. Help me be. Help me.
Breath of heaven, hold me together,
Be forever near me, breath of heaven.
Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness.
Pour over me your holiness, for you are Holy,
Breath of heaven.
May we all come to understand the ways in which we have been uniquely created to embody the divine, and to allow the breath of heaven to breathe in our lives and pour holiness on all we do.