by Sara Olson-Smith
I know it’s not Christmas, but let’s talk about Mary. Her story begins when the angel Gabriel stopped to see Mary as she was doing the dishes. (I know there are not dishes in Luke’s gospel, but this is how I imagine it.) Gabriel tells her not to be afraid, that she has found favor with God. Then the Holy Messenger passes on this seemingly crazy news that Mary is going to have a baby. And he’s not just any baby– this baby of hers will save the world. Gabriel goes on to say that nothing is impossible with God. And without even breaking a glass, Mary gives her own seemingly crazy response to this, “Here I am. Let it happen as you say.”
Maybe, as you think about Mary, you think about the song of praise that Mary sings. It’s become known as the “Magnificat” because of how it begins: “My soul magnifies the Lord!” Mary sings this song about God’s faithfulness to God’s people and to her. She sings of God’s mercy and justice.
Mary and Elizabeth
But Mary didn’t sing this song all by herself. She wasn’t alone. She was with her relative, her friend, Elizabeth, another woman with a surprising pregnancy, who was “getting on in years” (Luke 1:7).
Just after Gabriel’s visit to Mary, we read that Mary went “with haste” to Elizabeth’s house. This trip wasn’t just down the block. It’s about 80 miles from Mary’s hometown of Nazareth in Galilee to a Judean town in the hill country. Mary probably took nine to 10 days of walking to get there.
It seems like a ridiculous journey for a young pregnant woman. But Mary had just heard life-changing news. People would’ve never believed her. They’d have seen her simply as a young, unwed mother. But Elizabeth had her own unexpected pregnancy; Gabriel had told Mary about her. Maybe Mary took off to find confirmation that this situation really was the handiwork of God. Maybe she just needed a woman to help her make sense of what was going on with her body. Maybe Mary wanted to be around someone who had walked a similarly strange and sacred and surprising journey.
We don’t know these details. All we know is that Mary went as quickly as she could to see Elizabeth. She was an unexpected guest, but the minute Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, Elizabeth’s own baby leapt in her womb. And she exclaimed those beautiful words of friendship and faith, “Blessed are you! Blessed is your baby! Blessed am I that you are here! What a gift it was, Mary, that you believed that God would fulfill God’s promises to you.”
Rejoicing in God’s goodness
In response to those words of affirmation and hope, after hearing the confirmation of all she knew in her heart, Mary broke into song. With Elizabeth helping to hold up the eye-glass, she magnified God. With Elizabeth’s help, she rejoiced in God’s goodness to her, to all generations, to this whole world. Mary sang, but I imagine that Elizabeth joined in to sing along. And I think they kept singing during the following three months Mary stayed with Elizabeth.
In what has become known as “The Visitation” a young woman and an older woman came together to make sense of all that God was doing in their lives. The young Mary sought out the older Elizabeth and together they were able to recognize God’s saving ways in and through them. They learned how to live into those seemingly impossible and terrifying but life-giving promises.
The same can be true for us, too. We can seek out other older women who help us make sense of what God is up to in our lives. Over and over again in my own life, I’ve met with friends who are “getting on in years” as I try to make sense of what God is bringing to life in me. I don’t turn to them with stories of angels talking to me while I did the dishes, but I do ask a lot of questions. Could this be work that I could possibly do? Do you think that I might have it in me to try that? How can I get unstuck? I’m sad and lost–where’s the hope?
And like Elizabeth they’ve said things like, “Oh yes! You can do that!” Or, “I’ve seen you with these gifts.” Or, “Do not be afraid.” Or “I don’t know, what do you think?” And always, even if not in exactly these words, they say: “Blessed are you.”
Like Mary, when trying to make sense of what God is stirring up in me, I often go to visit older women friends. Like Elizabeth, they give me perspective, helpful feedback, affirmation, the right questions and courage. They help me to see and recognize what God is doing in my life. And hopefully, through those conversations something in them leapt with hope and perspective, too. These are contemporary visitations of sorts, where both women are blessed.
1. Read Luke 1:26-56. What may have motivated Mary to go “with haste” all the way to Elizabeth’s house? What was Mary looking for?
2. How does thinking about the context of Mary’s song shift or deepen its meaning? What if it was sung as a duet?
3. Think of your own visitation experience(s). Who has been an Elizabeth for you? What did she say? How did she help you see God at work in your life? Who might you go to with haste now?
Gracious God, we know that you continue to bring to birth new things in our lives. Sometimes they seem impossible. Thank you for those older women friends who help us see the possibility. Give us courage to find and reach out to others as we speak of those things you are making new in us. May our lives and our friendships magnify you. Amen.
The Rev. Sara Olson-Smith is an associate pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, in Davenport, Iowa. She lives in Davenport with her spouse, Clark and daughter, Susannah.
I am an elderly member of Memorial Lutheran in Nevada,Iowa and how timely your article on Mary and Elizabeth.We have very few young women in our Circles and are concerned about the future of our Circles as we are already down to 2 circles with 1 evening group with average age reaching retirement or retired and an afternoon circle all retired(I`m 83)I enjoy Café and getting the younger view.I also have a sister-in-law who attends St. Paul in Davenport(Evelyn Andresen)
This is the first time I have ever read and article or a comment on this site. It is inspirational to me that I also know both a woman from a church in Nevada, Iowa and St. Paul’s in Davenport! I met them through the Cluster meetings and the Gathering last summer! It makes me realize what a connection we do have. Our church has only two Circles now, and we are always looking for ways to involve our younger women. I’ll continue to suggest reading the on-line magazine to them! Perhaps they will also discover the connection we have!