Pregnant with Promise
Before she was ever given her sky blue dress. . .
Before her face ever graced the ceilings of cathedrals, basilicas, and altar pieces. . .
Before prayers were uttered in her name and her likeness was pressed into medallions and carved from marble. . .
Before she was blessed among women, she was just a girl.
Her clothes were not elegant or colorful. Her face, I’m sure was lovely, but it probably didn’t glow like a da Vinci painting. Clearly, the heavens recognized her as a special girl, but the world probably looked on Mary as quite ordinary. I’m sure there were as many Marys or Miriams then as there are in Catholic schools today.
And before she was the mother of John the Baptist, Elizabeth was a preacher’s wife and old woman who had long ago given up on motherhood. She did everything right, kept the commandments, but her body betrayed her – or the Lord had forgotten her. I imagine she went about her days like most anyone else, making herself busy with the details, a smile on her face but longing in her heart.
And, yes, though the little village of Bethlehem was favored enough to be the birthplace of Israel’s great King David and then the site of God’s birth into the world, it was also an ordinary town – one that had known famine and war and ultimately the slaughter of all of its baby sons. Yep, angels once sang over Bethlehem skies, but it was also a land watered with tears, a place of both pilgrims and pain.
An old woman who has finally conceived after decades of disgrace finds herself secluded for the first five months of her pregnancy with a husband who has been struck mute for doubting the claims of an angelic messenger. Into her home comes a pregnant teenaged cousin shouting songs of liberation and freedom. Who needs reality television? We have the Gospel of Luke – or the whole Bible for that matter.
Two thousand years of setting this story to song and memorializing it with delicate brush strokes makes it easy for us to forget that Elizabeth, who gave birth to a prophet, lived a life of whispered pity and judgment for years before John leapt in her womb. Our sweet songs saved for the most special night of the year cover up the checkered history of the little Judean town where Mary and Joseph found shelter in a stable to give birth to their son. And though she is worthy of every bit of honor we give her, we forget that Mary was a feisty young girl who couldn’t have possibly known what she was saying yes to when she encountered Gabriel that fateful day. The people we meet in the pages of Luke’s Gospel aren’t larger than life. They are people we know. They are priests who aren’t sure about an encounter with the holy. They are women who shoulder disappointment but try to do the best they can with what life has given them. They are strong-willed teenagers for whom life takes an unexpected turn. When the angel Gabriel shows up with his terrifying invitation or annunciation or proclamation, the details of their lives look very much like our own.
Gritty – not gilded.
Simple – not spectacular.
And this is how God is born.
Move with me to a story from the other end of life. Years ago, I attended a funeral for a man who had been far more to many others than I had known him to be because I had only known him for a few years late in his life. Though he and his wife had quickly become dear to me and to my family, we knew we had missed most of the good stuff. His son delivered the eulogy for his father to a crowded sanctuary. I will never forget what he said. “They say you are what you eat. I don’t know how that is true. My father bore the Gospel in his bones, though he never bore it in his mouth.”
No one wrote down how it happened, but I suspect Gabriel visited my friend Peter like he visited Mary and like he visited Zachariah and Elizabeth. Somewhere, in the midst of his everyday life of going to work, taking care of his family, growing his prize-winning chrysanthemums, Peter was met with a moment – probably more than one – in which he had the opportunity to bear God into the world around him, and to do it, he let the promise of justice, and love, and peace take root deep in his being so that it began to animate his steps, give strength and shape to his actions.
Maybe he learned how from Mary – who when she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” made space not just in her soul but in her physical body for the Gospel to grow. For months, Mary offered blood and proteins, oxygen and hormones to become the stuff of incarnation. Before Jesus inhabited his own skin, he inhabited hers. Before he took on a life of his own – a life of healing, forgiving, loving, and redeeming – he grew in the uterus of vulnerable, oppressed, Middle Eastern girl. Mary allowed the power of the Holy Spirit to come upon her – to stretch her and grow her, exhaust her and reshape her – that God’s promise might take flesh and blood in the world around her.
If I had been in Mary’s sandals, I would have required a bit more explanation from dear, sweet Gabriel before I surrendered my body to a pregnancy I couldn’t explain to my parents or my fiancée. I would have asked a few more questions about how all of this was going to play out, and you can bet that I would have required some assurances that no bodily harm would come to me before I said, “Ok, go!” In the Message version of the story, Eugene Peterson imagines Mary said something like, “Yes, I see it all now: I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.” That sounds like a teenager to me. “Sure. I get it. I understand everything. I know it all. We’ve got this.” While I don’t for a minute think young Mary could see 30 years down the road where her son would hang on a Roman cross, I feel quite certain that she understood what being pregnant (and not married) and child birth meant. She knew for sure that the next few months were going to be hell – really, really hard stuff – that would test the very fiber of her being – take everything she could muster and then some.
And she said yes.
I think she said yes because she knew the world needed an in-breaking of the Divine.
She said yes because she knew injustice when she saw it, and she saw it everywhere she looked.
She said yes because there were hurting people right in her own village who desperately needed healing and hope.
She said yes because she believed this God had done mighty things in the past, and she trusted God would do them again.
So when a messenger from the Lord said, “I don’t want you to be afraid (meaning, “What I’m about to tell you is really scary stuff!”), but God needs you to do something. . . she could say, “I’m here.”
Our world is a lot like Mary’s world.
We don’t live far from Bethlehem.
It’s a world running short on justice and mercy where the rich still eat their fill and the poor still go away empty. I
t’s a world of shattered hopes and broken promises.
But there is good news.
We are Elizabeths. . . and Zachariahs. . . and Peters. . . and Marys.
And if we are paying attention, we will see that angelic messengers visit us too and ask us to give our very bodies over to growing grace,
to birthing hope,
to nurturing the Gospel until it reaches its full maturity in our world.
I am hoping – and praying – that we will say yes.