From the Rev. Deacon Carey Chirico, Director of Outreach, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Advent 4 Year C, Dec. 20, 2015.
Arms thrown wide in welcome. Joy shining from her face, welcome in every fiber of her being.
This is how I picture Elizabeth on that Judean morning. Mary, face flushed from the walk to her cousin’s home, is shy and streaked with tears. Surely this is not the greeting she expected. Pregnancy as an unmarried woman opened her the gossip, criticism and censure of her community. Once again God’s grace and mercy abound. She is to be welcomed when all social conventions say she should be turned away. She is to be welcomed with blessing and song and dancing: Once again, God’s grace is at work and shame is reversed and the shameful is welcomed.
I have deep, deep respect for Joy and the healing power of Joy in our lives—The kind of Joy that comes from an opening ourselves to God, the kind of joy which opened Elizabeth to knowing the truth of Mary’s encounter with God.
This scene became so very real to me during my sabbatical in eastern Africa. I had been asked to lead a conference on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with the Mother’s Union in the mountains of Matana in Burundi. We had arrived the night before as had some of the participants. The women took their responsibilities to as church leadership very seriously and they came from their farms and their businesses in their most serious dress and decorum. Now the mountains of Burundi are remote and beautiful. People work hard, many subsistence farmers. Families are large. Childbirth frequent. Maternal and infant mortality is high. Women’s lives are difficult and full of responsibility for all generations. Women’s friendships bring a moment of respite and happiness that is evident from most meetings. Yet even with the difficulties and stress of life, the joy that accompanies each birth is profound. Each child is treasured and welcomed joyously.
In fact the word often used for ‘grandson’ means “grandmother’s finance”. There is a wonderful celebration when a child is old enough to be carried on a mother’s back at which they are named – the timing heralds the child’s passing through a time when many newborns die.
At this particular meeting, I was very formally introduced and welcomed with gifts and speeches. The women then began to go around the room to introduce themselves. As we arrived at one modestly dressed woman, she stood and said in her best French, her name and then added that she was about to become a grandmother. Well the room erupted into cheers. Everyone got up and sang and danced and celebrated as only a group of women can do for at least five long minutes before order returned and we proceeded with our meeting.
This is how I picture Elizabeth, standing on top of a hillside ready to welcome her cousin.
Elizabeth, herself elderly and without children yet. She above all others knows the shame and social stigma of a woman who is barren or who is pregnant and unmarried in a culture which one’s status is based on patriarchy and assigned roles. Suddenly expecting a child when it was least expected, she above all knows that God’s grace is actively working, reversing, reordering.
So here she stands, arms out stretched and begins to prophecy and to bless. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Eulegemenos in Greek, is a word which invites blessing onto someone. But Elizabeth’s use of this word conveys more, she recognizes that this blessing has happened and in the choice of her words conveys that indeed – Mary, herself, is a blessing to God.
Elizabeth, older and childless, is the first to proclaim the great news of the incarnation. Indeed she says, when I heard your greeting the child within me leapt – John the Baptist, the child growing within her is already filled with the Holy Spirit and has leapt with gladness.
Joy, laughter and delight are so powerful because they abolish conventional divisions- boundaries are crossed and proper roles abandoned, say the Christian mystics.
And Joy and laughter pervade this short story. Joy is about what it means to live well, self-giving and other centered.
Benedictine and theologian, Joan Chittester says that it is precisely the journey into joy that the liturgical year is about. Good news of great joy: “It is how and where we are searching for happiness that matters.” Discriminating between what is real and what is fleeting requires intention and choice.
At this moment, God has entered our world so that we might come face to face with the Divine. Soon in Jesus we will come to know the unknowable. Everything about Jesus’ life to come speaks to the wisdom lived out in this little tale of joyful welcome.
Jesus who will see beyond status, education and rank. Jesus who will teach us that it is in living lives of committed purpose, to honoring the Other in our community that brings joy to God. “I seek not do my own will but the will of the One who sent me.” (John 5:30)
In this moment, a path appears and one that will lead us to see that it is not what happens to us, not where we are born, not what we are given that brings happiness but a life lived out in joyful surrender to God’s will in our lives.
By asking ourselves how the life of the Christ child affects our own.
Here at the beginning of the year, we are shown a model of welcoming God into our lives, of being a community in which God is known to be always at work and always looking to the hope of that time when there will be no division between God’s world and this one, when God will be all in all.
I recently made a friend. A woman who has been extremely successful in all earthly measures – friends, family and financial wealth. Over dinner one night she shared with me a story – her family story of why her family of observant Jews came to give Christmas gifts each year. Her grandmother arrived in this country in the early part of the last century from Russia. Her husband had come to the United States to escape the pogroms of Russia and to make a home for his family. When he brought his wife and children from the shetel, it was to a poor neighborhood in a foreign country. Her husband worked night and day to support his young family and this young Russian mother struggled mightily to find her way, to navigate shopping, cooking and clothing children in this new world where she spoke not a word of the language. She felt isolated and shamed by her simple habits and lack of understanding and her inability to communicate.
One day and man from her shetel in Russia arrived in the neighborhood who spoke some English. Finally she was able to communicate and ask questions about this new country, to express her fears and concerns to someone who would understand. One day she asked him, why it was that in the time following the feast of Thanksgiving people who normally pretended not to see her on the street would smile at her and greet her. Shopkeepers were more helpful, people much kinder. Used to feeling Invisible to her surrounding community, she was puzzled by this change in their behavior. “I don’t know,” he said. “I have seen it too. I think it has something to do with the birth of this little child.” “Are you joking,” she said. “The birth of that little child is why there are pogroms. That cannot be right. This doesn’t make any sense.”
So the man pointed out to her that across the street from her apartment was a church, happened to be a Baptist church, and suggested that maybe they could answer her question. So she gathered her courage – so great was her curiosity, and went across the street and in broken and halting English asked the minister there if he could explain why suddenly she was treated with such kindness. Now he had been watching this young family, knew they were struggling and from a very different culture and he too was very curious about them. He answered her as best he could. He told her that the birth of Christ marks a time for Christians of remembering the great news of life stripped down to its purest sense – that God came among us to teach us to love, to teach us to care for the most vulnerable, to show us peace for all.
As she walked back across the street, she came to the conclusion that this she would support. That if the birth of this child could make us see each other and bring peace to our world, she too would support this. So each Christmas the strong Jewish mother would gather her children and eventually her grandchildren and great grandchildren and tell them this story and give them each a small token to remind them of deep joy and profound consequences that comes from caring for each other. Just as another Jewish mother held out arms to Mary, seeing past her shame to the wonder of God’s work in the world.
To this day her observant Jewish granddaughter honors her memory and this message by sharing the story personally with her family, a strong, observant Jewish family through handwritten poems and small gifts.
Her action blesses us all.
May we all live lives of joyful witness to love so profound our God would assume the face of one born into this world, may we all live trusting that God comes among us to show us the path, blessing us by taking away all shame by welcoming all our broken places.
And we may we become a community worth of such an amazing gift.
God among us.
God beside us.
God within us.