Sunday, December 11, 2022

Anchor of Hope

I want to explore something I haven’t had time to research or think about; a topic I may blunder a bit. I also want to be cognizant of the women (and men) who reading these thoughts may be triggered by current or former pain. You are seen and loved.

In her chapter on Mary, Kelly Nikondeha makes a brief comment about the gospel writer’s contrast between Mary’s virginity with Elizabeth’s barrenness (p.46). I don’t know if I have ever picked up on that comparison before. Both circumstances bring to mind a sense of longing, and buried pain. We may immediately feel more empathy for Elizabeth who had dealt with unexplainable infertility for her whole married life. Possibly Mary’s longing was rooted in her desire for the protection of a husband in the tough and wild landscape of Roman-run Galilee. Only, before her marriage could be finalized, she was “found to be with child”—a scandalous offense, and the very opposite of security in the home of a husband. Scripture doesn’t tell us much about how Mary was treated when her family and community found out she was expecting a baby outside of marriage (I wonder if they would have even wrapped their minds around the idea at her still being a virgin—that wasn’t how biology worked), but we don’t have to look far to understand the cultural expectations of the time.

For both women, virginity (though pregnant) and barrenness were huge burdens to bear.

We aren’t given a glimpse at Elizabeth’s mind and heart prior to hearing Zechariah’s message from the Angel Gabriel, but during her confinement she remarks, “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (Luke 1:25). Being the wife of a priest, she held some regard in her own rite. But in a culture so centered on the blessing of children, surely her childlessness was a topic of shameful gossip among her neighbors.

Even after receiving news of such a miraculous promise and beginning to feel the quivering of a baby in her womb, a lesser woman would have held doubt and pessimism. Thoughts like, “this is too good to be true,” or “I don’t deserve this” could have swum through her mind.

Yet, when Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, we are told in Luke’s gospel that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:41-45)

Her joy is doubled. And it is infectious. (The Holy Spirit was definitely helping a lot.) Mary’s next words (according to the writing of Luke’s gospel) are what we call the Magnificat—from the Latin, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Instead of laying out a litany of her woes: scary visit from an angel, pregnant before being with Joseph, Joseph wanting to divorce her (though graciously quietly), any and all scorn from her community, Mary only has praise for her Lord.

In her Advent devotional, The Season of Waiting (and waiting, and waiting . . .) writer, professor, and speaker Kate Bowler explains longing as “the experience of feeling the lack, the recognition, that things are not as they should be” (p. 18). She describes this as the quintessential feeling of Advent. “Advent recognizes the absence of peace, yet the exquisite certainty of its coming” (p. 19).

On this eve before the third week of Advent, I wonder at the ways God prepared Mary and Elizabeth for their separate “comings.” We aren’t privy to their inner thoughts, their hopes and dreams; only the way they choose to respond.

In this case, their actions speak louder than their words (and their words are glorious!)

The virginity of Mary and the barrenness of Elizabeth aren’t perfect opposites, but their contrast can help us see God’s response to all of our waitings, especially those rooted in “groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

I’ll end with this from Kate Bowler’s devotional:
“Sometimes in the darkness, we dare not hope because it feels too expensive.
There is no energy available for that, humanly speaking.
But hope isn’t wishful thinking.
It’s an anchor into the future.
Because of this, we can bless even our darkening days,
knowing that the earth will once again tilt toward the light.
And it will be a glory that blazes everywhere,
though now we catch only glimpses.
In the meantime, and that’s what we have—the meantime—
let’s come into the light and bless the waiting, because it will not be in vain”
Mary and Elizabeth’s pain was redeemed in miraculous ways. We can’t expect anything less for women in Jesus’ family tree (look at Ruth and Rahab!). Yet on this side of eternity, many of us won’t see the newness God promises as an Earthly blessing. His blessings are both miraculous and mysterious. And because of that, we can both rejoice with these Advent women, and be Advent women ourselves, longing in hope.

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