I was reading from the early chapters of Luke as a part of getting ready for Christmas, and I came to the moment when the angel appears to Mary. So the Bible translation I read says that when the angel appears Mary feels “greatly troubled.” Translating that into what I might say inside my head if an I were her is something along the lines of, “Oh, crap.” Then the angel tells Mary she’s going to have a baby, and Mary says, “Who, me? Are you sure you have the right person? I, um, I haven’t had sex yet and even though we don’t have sex ed here in Nazareth, I’m pretty sure I can’t have a baby unless I, um, you know… with someone?” And then the angel says, “Yep. That is correct. But in this case, God’s going to make it happen. That’s what you get to do when you’re God. Congratulations!” And Mary says, “Um, okay. I’m not going to disagree with God” (Luke 1: 26-38, my very loose translation).
I read that story one morning last week, and then we watched The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, in which a group of delinquent kids—the Herdmans—take over the Christmas pageant from the typical cast of characters. So instead of Mary being an angelic, blonde-haired, blue-eyed and rather self-righteous doll of a girl (Alice Wilkerson), she becomes a scared and confused kid who yells and cries and has dirt on her cheeks and under her fingernails (Imogene Herdman). All of a sudden Mary is a kid who is desperately trying to figure out how to take care of this baby entrusted to her, this baby she didn’t ask for and didn’t expect, this baby who may very well ruin her upcoming marriage to Joseph and leave her destitute and unable to provide for herself or the child.
We know Mary was frightened, because the angel says she doesn’t need to be afraid. We know Mary was confused, because she asks questions. And we might even be right in speculating that Mary was not thrilled about this news. That even with an angelic visitation, the situation felt pretty hopeless. She will soon be a poor, unmarried, teenage mother.
And then Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Just imagine. You’re going to see your older relative, and you’re filled with this news that might be from God and also might have been a dream and might mean the end of your marriage that hasn’t even begun, and might mean your death (you could be stoned for having sex outside of marriage in those days). So, you, Mary, have no idea how to tell Elizabeth or what she will say. Maybe she will think you’re losing your mind and hallucinating. Maybe she will shun you like your religion says she should. Maybe however she responds will be a signal of how the rest of the world will respond.
So Mary gets there, and she doesn’t say anything to Elizabeth about being pregnant. She simply says hello. As soon as she says hello, Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth, without knowing that an angel has visited, without knowing any of the details, echoes the words the angel has spoken.
Only now, only after Elizabeth has given affirmation to the angel’s words, does Mary rejoice. She proclaims what she has only dared hope up to this point: that God is actually going to do something beautiful and merciful and just and right and true in and through her, through the birth of this unexpected baby.
So what does it take for Mary to have hope? It takes God’s word, sure. But it also takes Elizabeth. It takes another person to affirm God’s work in Mary’s life. Hope depends upon God’s promises, but the way we have access to hope is as we speak the truth of those promises into one another’s lives.
This Christmas season, let us be Elizabeth to one another. Let us see what God has promised through Jesus and name that. Let’s call it forth. Let’s remind each other of what is true. That the God who is just and right and good hates injustice. That the God who is grace and mercy and light loves all people. That the God who spoke creation into being can handle our sins and sorrows. That the God who came to us as a baby helpless in a manger can handle our helplessness.
Once Elizabeth speaks that affirmation, Mary rejoices. And then she goes on to fulfill the purpose for which she has been chosen. She gives birth to a little boy, the light who shines hope for all the world to see.