Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
19 December 2021
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
It has been no easier for churches to plan for Christmas than for anybody else. Virus mutations, public observance of health restrictions, vaccination rates, and in turn the issue of new health guidelines have guided our lives for the last 22 months. We’re now used to it, but we’re not happier for it. While the last 22 months haven’t been a complete waste as we have come to contemplate the most important things in life and seen the kindness of many, we are tired of the pandemic.
As for me, I have stopped listening to the 24 hour news cycle in the early part of the Trump candidacy as almost none of the many outrages things reported actually qualified as news and yet filled the airwaves. And so during this pandemic, I keep an eye on numbers, regions, pertinent medical developments, and on restrictions but I keep my TV and radio off for most of the time.
Having had time to reflect on the things that matter, I do not wish all my anxiety to be used up for Covid. I would rather be concerned and grateful for the church, for my family and friends, for my life, for the beauty of creation, for music and the arts, for those who make this world a better place.
This does not mean that I am unconcerned about the pandemic, only that have have chosen not to let it consume me. And truth be told, I think that I am not the only one responding in this way. There is a fatigue among us that is making public health announcements and guidelines less effective, including among those who continue to be in agreement and compliance.
I listen to the radio on my way to the church each morning, and it seems to me that on each day of the last week I heard about nothing but Omicron, even though most 24 hours do not add that much new information. And so I switched to the music on my USB drive or turned of the radio altogether.
You see, one of the things we have learned in the past two years is how important we are to each other, how important community is to a meaningful life, and most of us are not ready to trade that in for a momentary sense of safety from Covid. You know, I think, that I am not arguing against health guidelines, against the protection of the most vulnerable, nor against the measures we have taken individually and collectively. What I am saying is nothing else than what I told the nurse when at my second shot she gave me the known risks of vaccination, “Go ahead,’ I said, “There is a risk to everything.”
And so this is not about a false dichotomy of Covid safety measures and personal freedom, this is about how we view life at the end of this second pandemic year. Do we live in fear, or do we live in trust? And if trust, then what or who do we trust?
In our reading from Luke we learn that it was with haste that Mary set out to visit her relative Elizabeth where upon her arrival her child was greeted by Elizabeth’s child through a non-verbal leap of joy. Both women were pregnant with promise. This sounds pretty good from a distance but I cannot imagine what it was like for them. Neither had expected a child, one because she was too old, the other because she was very young. And while the news was likely good news for Elizabeth, her husband had been struck mute, which is a bit of a problem for a priest who is to offer prayers on behalf of the people. Besides, being pregnant was never easy, and the older you are the harder it can be; and, this was in the time for cesareans when many women died in childbirth.
For Mary it was difficult because of the stigma attached to being pregnant out of wedlock, as they used to say, and because Joseph, her fiancé, at first did not believe her story.
Our Gospel reading tells us that Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months.
Why did Mary set out with haste? We do not know, except that in Luke’s account her travel follows immediately upon the annunciation, upon the announcement by the angel Gabriel, an announcement which she had answered with, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.
Can you imagine? Well, I can’t.
What I can imagine, maybe, is the holy fear that must have overcome Mary. Fear of how this would play out. Mostly probably about whether Joseph would expose her, whether she could bear the stigma, and who else may reject her. And we may remember that after Jesus’ circumcision Simeon tells her that her child is destined for the falling and the rising of many…, and to be a sign that will be opposed, … and that a sword will pierce her own soul too.’ Indeed both children not only serve God but also die a violent death at the hands of the authorities. The evangelist John tells us that Mary stood under the cross when Jesus died.
I am glad that Mary and Elizabeth had each other. I am glad that they could lean on each other, encourage one another, and remind each other that that what the world regarded as shameful was in fact sign of God’s grace. For how could they remember it if they did not have each other?
As we see Mary’s life unfold, and we do not see much of it, we see that she continues to believe in the promise and that she always holds to the song she sung upon the announcement by Gabriel. Her initial response is not only one of ascent, but also one of faith. Mary sings about the redemption that God is bringing about through her son Jesus.
Not only could Mary have said, “no” to Gabriel and thus “no” to God, but she also could have given up hope and lived in fear, yet we see in Mary the first disciple of Jesus, the first believer, and the first one to speak of the Good News.
Mary lived in serious times, under occupation by a foreign empire. She acted in great faith with great sacrifice. And yet, she chose to believe in God’s promises. She chose to sing the song of God’s salvation, and not a song of fear.
As we give thanks for public health care, for vaccines, and health measures, may our song, like Mary’s, be a song of hope, not of fear.
Mary could sing a song of hope because she knew that God was her greatest good and she needed to fear nothing except losing God. May we know the same.
Thanks be to God.