If we have learned anything in the past 20 months of pandemic it is that human beings need community. Isolation may be okay for a little while, but soon we are longing for contact with other people, to be with friends and family.
I’ve often thought these last months how lucky we are to have technology that keeps us connected. Emails, texts, social media. Facetime, Zoom calls, live streams. Imagine how much more difficult this time would be without them.
I was amused recently to find an article in The New York Times, written long before the pandemic, about the phenomenon of on-line churches — churches with no physical structure, no face-to-face contact with fellow parishioners, no person connection with a pastor or priest.
“Is this where American Christianity is headed?” Laura Turners asks. “Your living room, your phone, your television. No longer will you have to leave your house to interact with fellow worshipers. You can do it all from the comfort, and isolation, of your own home.”
Five or six years ago such a thing sounded ridiculous. But in the pandemic cyber church has been a blessing. Real friendships and communties develop online between people who may never meet face-to-face.
But we have also seen that virtual church has its limitations.
“The truth is that (physical) community is good for us,” Turner writes. “We need one another.”
We need to see each other. We need to pass the peace and come to the altar together. We need to talk to each other at coffee hour.
We need to share our lives with one another — the joys and the sorrows.
An old saying puts it this way – haring news with someone else halves sorrow and doubles joy.
That old truth is at work in the Gospel story we hear this morning, the pregnant Mary visiting her older cousin, the also pregnant Elizabeth.
The angel Gabriel has just appeared to Mary with the shocking announcement that God has chosen her to give birth to the savior of the world. The angel also gives Mary the news that her kinswoman Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age.
We don’t really know much about what Mary was feeling about this unexpected turn of events. From Matthew’s gospel we know that there was at least a hint of scandal about Mary’s pregnancy – that Joseph considered breaking the engagement. Even though he didn’t, there were probably rumors and whispers and raised eyebrows.
It must have all been terribly confusing and frightening to a young girl, just a teen-ager. So Gabriel’s news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy was truly a gift.
As Luke tells the story, as soon as the angel departs, Mary “arose and went with haste” into the hill country to visit Elizabeth.
How relieved Mary must have been at Elizabeth’s reaction to seeing her. Elizabeth has no questions for Mary, no reprimands, no dismay.
The scene of the two pregnant women greeting one another is one of my favorite in scripture. We have no indication that Elizabeth has known ahead of time of Mary’s pregnancy; certainly there was no way for Mary to have told her the news.
But as soon as she sees her young cousin, Elizabeth explodes with joy. Scripture says she is filled with the Holy Spirit, which means that the words she says are God’s words, too.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” Elizabeth exclaims. “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 believes.”
That child, of course, is John the Baptist, the last in the line of Old Testament prophets who will call the people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Even in the womb, John joyfully recognizes that the Messiah is before him.
Elizabeth, too, recognizes the significance of the child in Mary’s womb. But Elizabeth’s blessing goes to Mary, the young girl who dared to believe what God has said to her.
“Blessed is she who believes,” Elizabeth cries out with joy.
That scene 2,000 years ago was both mundane and extraordinary. Two pregnant peasant women in a humble dwelling in a rural hillside town. Two cousins getting together to talk about their respective unlikely pregnancies.
But in this ordinary, mundane moment God is at work in extraordinary ways.
Elizabeth is the first to voice this extraordinary thing that God is doing through her and her young cousin, and the sons they bear.
That is why she cries out to Mary, “Blessed are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
In biblical times, “bless you” was not just an offhanded comment, not something you said after a sneeze. This wasn’t even the Southern “bless her heart.” A blessing was a dynamic force, words that created power and actual blessing in one’s life.
When Mary hears these words from Elizabeth, she suddenly realizes that she is blessed, that this unexpected pregnancy is not a dilemma or a scandal, but is truly God at work in her and through her.
Suddenly whatever fears and concerns she may have had are gone. Suddenly she understands that what God is doing through her, and through her cousin Elizabeth is much bigger than the two of them, that this blessing will be for all people, for all time.
Her sense of joy and wonder is almost too great to contain, and she bursts into song praising God.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she sings. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
Mary’s song is one of pure joy at the wonders God has done.
This Friday we will gather here again to celebrate the fruit of Mary’s womb. After today, Elizabeth will disappear from scripture all together, and Mary will be mentioned only in passing.
Attention will shift to their sons, to John the Baptist, who proclaims the Lord is near, and to John’s cousin Jesus, who comes to redeem the world.
But for today, let’s stay focused on these two women, Mary and Elizabeth, the first to know and understand what God is about to do through the seemingly ordinary events of two births.
Let’s rejoice in the community they share, in the love and support and understanding they give one another.
Let’s give thanks for their radical faithfulness, a faith that they pass on to their sons.
Blessed is the fruit of their wombs. But blessed, too, are Mary and Elizabeth, faithful women who believed.