A sermon preached by Hilary Pearson at St Mary’s on 21st December 2022
This is the story of two women. Two women who lived in a culture where the only role open to a female was to be a dutiful daughter, marry the man chosen for her by her father, remain faithful to her husband however badly he treats her, be a careful and hardworking housewife – and to bear as many live children as possible, preferably sons. A failure to produce children could result in her husband divorcing her and sending her back to her parents with no prospect except misery for the rest of her life. If her husband was a kind man, perhaps had even come to love her, he might instead take a second wife. Infidelity, even if just suspected, would result in divorce or, if there was some proof of her adultery, she could be dragged before the local elders and would probably be stoned to death. Of course, if it was her husband who committed adultery, he didn’t get any stones thrown at him and she couldn’t divorce him. And the housekeeping – well, a leading religious expert had said that a husband could divorce his wife if she was a bad cook.
The first woman in our story had been married for a long time. Her husband was a hereditary priest. This meant he went away every few months for a week when it was his turn to officiate at services. They had no children. He was a good man and had not divorced her or taken another wife, but she felt his disappointment and it grieved her. It hurt when she went to the market and saw the other women with their babies, whispering about her or giving her sympathetic looks. She was having the symptoms of the start of the menopause, so it looked as if her fervent prayers for a son were not going to be answered. But then her husband returned from his latest tour of duty in a terrible state. He had obviously had a great shock, there were white hairs in his beard and he was unable to speak. At first he refused to communicate, but then he found a writing tablet and wrote down what had happened. The story was so fantastic that his wife feared he might be going mad. He wrote that, as he was offering incense in the holy place while worshippers were praying outside, a strange and terrifying apparition appeared, the form of a man glowing with light. The apparition announced that it was an angel and had been sent to tell him his prayers for a son had been heard and that his wife would bear a son to be named John. The angel also gave instructions as to how they were to rear the boy, who would be a great prophet. This seemed to be too good to be true to the priest, given his age and that of his wife and their long years of childlessness; he said so and was told that, because he doubted the angel’s message, he would be dumb and unable to speak until after the child was born. Soon after his return, the woman became pregnant; so perhaps her husband was not going mad. However, there was a lot of gossip in the town once her pregnancy started showing; perhaps she had been getting up to no good while her husband was away. She certainly did not want to tell them her husband’s incredible story, that would likely mean even more hurtful gossip and mockery.
We now turn to the other woman. She is a pregnant, unmarried teenager. By now I’m sure that you have guessed who these two women are – Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, and Mary. Mary has also had a disturbing visit from an angelic messenger, greeting her and telling her that she was to conceive and bear an important son. She was in late stages of puberty, betrothed while still a child to a man chosen by her father. Betrothal was as binding as actual marriage, and infidelity to the betrothed by the girl was the same as adultery – with the same penalties. Mary was from a religiously observant family and had been taught the main aspects of the Jewish faith. So she immediately understood that to be chosen as the mother of the longed for Messiah was the greatest honour that a Jewish woman could hope for. But she also expected that the Messiah would be born in the normal way – so how could she, a virgin, have a son? Perhaps she was expecting the angel to say that this would happen as soon as she married her fiancé, who was from the line of David and therefore a suitable father. It must have been a real shock to be told that she would conceive as a virgin by the power of God’s spirit. She must also have realised the danger of what she was being asked to do – if she was found to be pregnant before she was married and Joseph knew the child was not his, he could even have her stoned to death. So her ‘yes’ was an act of real courage and real faith in God. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a good man and did not want her killed, but it took another angelic messenger in a dream to persuade him to protect her by quickly marrying her. Even so, there must have been gossip!
The angel also tells Mary that her relative Elizabeth is more than five months pregnant. Mary decides to go to visit Elizabeth. Perhaps she wanted to get away from the Nazareth gossip, perhaps her family were sceptical of her story of the angel. Anyway, Luke seems to indicate that Mary leaves on the journey soon after she knows she is pregnant.
As Zechariah had priestly duties at the Temple, he and Elizabeth lived fairly close to Jerusalem, in the Judean hill country. Tradition puts them in a place now called Ein Karem, which is about five miles southwest of Jerusalem. That is about 90 miles from Nazareth by the road usually taken by pilgrims to Jerusalem. So, although Luke makes it sound as if Mary was just popping around the corner to visit Elizabeth, it was a journey that would take the best part of a week on foot. Mary clearly was a very determined girl. She may have travelled with a group going to Jerusalem on pilgrimage.
Now we come to the meeting of these two women, both pregnant in unusual circumstances. They both must have had times of doubt, wondering what was really going on. Elizabeth, an older woman and now nearly six months pregnant, felt tired much of the time, her back ached and her feet and ankles kept swelling. But at least the awful morning sickness was over. Mary was young and fit, and in the early stages of her pregnancy, but the long journey must have been tiring. Mary called out her greeting – and as soon as Elizabeth heard her voice the baby started kicking like mad. Elizabeth felt she was being filled with insight and power from on high, and spoke words that came out of her mouth but which she had not formed in her mind. At that moment she was filled with a deep certainty that everything that had happened was from God and was central to the salvation of Israel that she, like all Jews, longed for.
The same power came over Mary, through which she spoke the poem praising God we now call the Magnificat. The fatigue of the long journey made in early pregnancy was gone. As were the doubts she must have been fighting during that journey – had she just imagined the visit from the angel Gabriel? No question now that it was real. Mary stayed for about three months, so Elizabeth was near term when she left. The two women were a great support and encouragement to each other, their lives as lovingly intertwined as were the destinies of their two sons.
For the women here, I hope that all of you, like Elizabeth and Mary, have found the help and support of other women at critical points in your life. It can be practical; I remember that when I was expecting my first child and we were living on a graduate student grant, a friend who was married to a banker donated me her beautiful maternity wardrobe. More often, it is emotional and spiritual. It can be shared experiences of difficulties of raising a child, or of a failing marriage, or of becoming a widow. But for all of us, men and women alike, God provides encouragement through other people when we are uncertain of our calling or struggling with our spiritual life. We first have to find the courage to say ‘yes’.
Let’s give ourselves a break from all the Christmas busyness and pause to remember that we are still in Advent, a time of waiting for God to act. As a Christian community, we the community in this church dedicated to Mary are facing a time of waiting and change. Some of us will be called to new roles and responsibilities. For example, three of us, myself, Alice and Roger, have been called to be lay preachers. Is God waiting for you to say ‘yes’ to his calling?
I would like to end with the prayer St Francis prayed in the Assisi church of San Damiano before the crucifix that spoke to him, calling him to rebuild the church:
Most high and glorious God
Come and enlighten the darkness of my heart
Give me honest faith, true hope and perfect love
May I feel and know your holy will
That I may do it and not go astray