“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
We jump around a bit in Luke during Advent. Last week John the Baptist was an adult standing in the Jordan river calling the people to repentance, today he is an embryo. We are back in chapter 1 and Elizabeth his mother is somewhere between 5 and 9 months pregnant with him. Her cousin Mary, who is also pregnant with Jesus comes to pay a visit. At the sound of Mary’s voice, John “leaps for joy” in Elizabeth’s womb. John recognized the presence of Jesus, and who he was before either of them was born. Those of you who are mothers will remember what it is like to have your child start kicking or punching within you. Elizabeth interprets John’s sudden movement as acknowledgement of the uniqueness of Mary’s child. Elizabeth is suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
She is acknowledging that Mary has been blessed above all woman for being offered the task of bearing the Messiah. Elizabeth considers herself blessed also first, because she is honored that Mary would come visit her and share her incredible secret. It appears, in Luke’s telling, that Mary makes this trip the minute she is told by the angel that she will bear the Son of God. That angel had told her also of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and special child and she makes haste to share her secret with Elizabeth, possibly without telling either her parents or Joseph what has happened. The other blessing Elizabeth believes she has received is the faith that God would keep his promise of rescuing God’s people. Elizabeth sees the beginning of that process standing before her.
When Elizabeth acknowledges that she is aware of the Messiah within Mary, Mary burst into a song that echoes the song of Hannah when God blessed her with the child Samuel. Mary’s song acknowledges the great gift she has received, but her song is not just about her. Her song is about what Jesus will do for the people. Her song is both one of mercy and judgement. “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” (Luke 1:50) “He has… lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1: 52-53). He has kept the promises he made to their ancestor Abraham, and has expanded this promise. But on the other hand, “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones…and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1: 51-53) Mary saw this child of hers as the one who would turn everything upside down, righting the wrongs, and executing the consequences of bad behavior. God in the Old Testament was often seen as the righteous judge. A judge that one could appeal to when one had been wronged not just someone who was going to punish you.
As Episcopalians, we believe that the Real Presence of Christ is present in the bread and wine of Eucharist. I am aware that we are only taking Eucharist in one kind, the bread, because of COVID. I know some people are only participating in Spiritual Communion, but the result is the same however we partake. We are taking Christ into us physically, in much the same way that Mary had Jesus physically within her. If Mary burst forth in song because of Jesus’ indwelling, Elizabeth burst into prophecy just being in the near presence of the beginnings of the child that would be Jesus, and John, not yet born “leaped for joy” how should we expect to behave and to respond to one another when we each have taking Christ into ourselves at the Eucharist?
I recently listened to a podcast between Jordon Peterson a professor of psychology and Bp Barron, a Roman Catholic bishop from California. This question came up about the Christian belief concerning the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And as happens in theological conversations, it headed down a bit of a rabbit hole that I found fascinating and profoundly relevant. If you look in the scriptures, it is before the altar that humans often sin. Cain kills Abel because he is jealous that God accepted Abel’s offering and not his. Peterson suggested that Cain was punishing God, killing that which God loved. I began to reflect back on the scriptures and one of the first places the children of Israel sinned was by building and worshiping the golden calf. They lost patience with God who took too long in sending Moses back to them and they punished God by giving their devotion to something else. In the New Testament, in Acts, we read that the first place Christian charity breaks down is at the table. People became greedy, they ate more than their share before everyone arrived, they drank to the point of drunkenness, and they discriminated against the Greek speakers. First deacons had to be established to keep order and then the meal itself was reduced to a symbolic meal. Over and over again, God has offered himself to his most beloved creatures and we have profaned it in our response. Another point that came up in this podcast that I was listening to concerned God’s response to our bad behavior. Bishop Barron commented that God came taking on our flesh in all its brokenness to walk among us. We responded by killing God, crucifying Jesus on the cross. And God’s response was heard as Jesus said “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing ” while hanging on the cross and then after the resurrection, he said “Peace” to those that had betrayed him. Bp Barron commented that when Paul says he believes that nothing can separate us from the love of God he is speaking logically, seeing that we as humanity did our worst, tortured and crucified Jesus, God incarnate, an innocent victim of our hate, and God continued to love us.
In a few minutes we will come together at the altar to receive the physical presence of Christ into ourselves in much the same way that Mary received the seed of God into her womb. We have a choice in how we respond to this gift. We can rejoice filled with the Holy Spirit like Mary, Elizabeth and John acknowledging that our salvation is at hand and God is present bringing about the kingdom of heaven through us and in the midst of us. Or, we can respond like so many others in the past. In jealousy and anger at the blessings of others, with impatience and disloyalty, with greed and selfishness killing the Christ within us and refusing to see the Christ in each other. The choice is ours.