As we journey through the Advent season together this year, we’ll be taking a look at the songs that lead up to Jesus’ birth in the Scriptures: Elizabeth’s song, Mary’s song, Zechariah’s song, the Servant Song, and the angels’ song. Each Scripture reading is paired with a hymn from our the New Century Hymnal.
This week, we start with Elizabeth’s song in Luke 1:39-45 and the hymn “O How Shall I Receive You?” (#102).
It was a pleasant surprise if ever there was one. Certainly, Elizabeth had been expecting Mary’s arrival. She had also known that Mary was pregnant. That was the whole point of the visit – for the two cousins to spend some time together in the midst of their pregnancies. After all, neither one of them was exactly what society would call a “normal pregnancy.” Mary wasn’t married yet. As her belly swelled and she began to show, disapproving glances and whispered remarks followed her everywhere she went.
“Poor Joseph … I heard the baby isn’t his.”
“Poor Joseph … we thought she was such a nice girl.”
“Poor Joseph … and he’s still marrying her?”
Whispered though they might have been, Mary still heard them. And if she was being honest, the words stung. But Mary had a secret … an absurd, mystifying, wonderful secret.
And Elizabeth … well, Elizabeth certainly wasn’t getting any younger. She had long since given up on having children by now. As her belly swelled and Elizabeth began to show, baffled glances and whispered remarks that followed her through the streets, too.
“How is it possible?”
“But Elizabeth and Zechariah are so old.”
“It’s a blessing … but too bad it didn’t happen sooner.”
Like Mary, Elizabeth heard them. She may not have been young anymore, but her ears still worked just fine. But also like Mary, Elizabeth had an absurd, mystifying, wonderful secret.
And so Elizabeth was thrilled when her cousin, Mary, sent word that she was coming to visit. She was a little bit worried about Mary trekking all the way out to the hill country while she was pregnant. After all, these hills were large and steep, and sometimes, it could be tough going, especially in the rainy season. But in her correspondence, Mary had been insistent. She had to come see Elizabeth and speak with her.
So when she knocked on the door that day, Elizabeth was expecting it. But she wasn’t expecting what happened when she went to answer the door.
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”
I can’t help but wonder what that must have been like for Elizabeth. She opens the door, and there stands Mary, and as soon as Mary says “hello,” the miracle baby that Elizabeth is carrying jumps for joy inside her, and she’s filled with the Holy Spirit.
- What did it feel like? (Physically? Emotionally?)
- What did she think? Did she even have time to think?
- Did the expression on her face reveal to Mary everything that was going on inside her body and her heart?
And really, what a truly absurd place for God to show up! Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in the hill country in Judea. To this day, this is rough, rocky country. The hills are steep. The majority of the vegetation is small, scrubby-looking, and tough. It doesn’t exactly scream ‘hospitable.’ And during Elizabeth and Mary’s time, the whole area bordered the Wilderness of Judah, a desert that, because of its lack of water and decent travel routes has been mostly uninhabited throughout history … even up through today. And yet it’s in this remote part of the country that God decided to make such a grand, absurd, and astonishing appearance.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, “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 just couldn’t hold it in! In that moment, there were so many wonderful things revealed to her. Elizabeth knew in her heart that the baby Mary carried was beyond special. That baby was blessed. That baby was holy. Somehow … in some incredible way … that baby was God. And Elizabeth also knew that Mary had had some sort of amazing experience not unlike her husband, Zechariah’s. There was a glow about Mary and something in her eyes – a tenderness and a spark that only came from an encounter with one of God’s highest messengers. In the face of such sacredness, Elizabeth couldn’t help but cry out in wonder and joy and amazement.
Another absurd place for God to show up – in two women who were at the same time ordinary and extraordinary. You see, while Luke doesn’t tell us exactly how old Elizabeth is, he does tell us earlier in chapter one that she was “barren, and … well along in years.” She wasn’t the daughter of kings or priests or even an official. As far as we know, she wasn’t descended from some historically powerful or blessed ancient lineage. And yet God showed up in Elizabeth’s life. God gave her a child and not just any child. The boy Elizabeth carried would be John the Baptist – the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. The angel Gabriel appeared to her husband, Zechariah, in the temple and told him all about this miraculous son that he and Elizabeth would have and the pivotal role he would play: “And he will go before the Lord … to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
And then we have Mary. She’s poor. She’s young. So young, in fact, that she’s not even married to Joseph yet. Like Elizabeth, she is ordinary – not the daughter of kings, priests, or officials, not the progeny of some sacred line. And yet, she has been visited by the angel Gabriel, and told that the child she is going to bear will be the Son of God. The Son of God! “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
One scholar points out that “Elizabeth becomes the first human witness to the good news the angel brought Mary in the annunciation. Both women are pregnant with significance, for between them they bear the messenger and the message. … The meeting between these two women is about the confirmation of hope, the fulfillment of a promise.” Doesn’t get much more bafflingly extraordinary than that.
And so Elizabeth quickly ushered Mary inside. They had barely gotten through the door when Mary began to speak. She told Elizabeth that she had been visited by the angel Gabriel and about his proclamation about her pregnancy. In fact, it was even Gabriel who had told Mary of Elizabeth’s own pregnancy. At first, as she spoke of the angel’s visit, Mary was a little hesitant. Elizabeth could tell she believed what she was saying with all her heart, but she could also tell Mary didn’t want Elizabeth to think she was a fool.
But when Elizabeth told Mary about Zechariah’s own visit from the very same angel and about all that Gabriel had foretold for their own son – that he would be named John, that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, that he would be like Elijah, and that he would ultimately prepare the way for the Lord … When Elizabeth told Mary all of this, she could see first relief, then wonder, then a deep peace spread across the young woman’s face. Not only did Elizabeth believe Mary’s story, but her own husband had been visited by Gabriel as well! What a joy! What a blessing! What a profound experience to share with another.
Scholar: “The joy of Mary and Elizabeth is the joy of all who look forward with wonder and thankfulness to the birth of a child. The joining of this wonder with God’s saving work invites us to consider how the experience of expectancy teaches us the ways of God’s gracious work in human experience.”
Both Mary and Elizabeth were expecting miracles – the miracle of a tiny baby, and the miracle of the greatness of God bursting into their lives. And unbelievable though their circumstances may have been, these two women took an incredible leap of faith, placing their trust in God’s gracious hands. Somehow, we have lost the inclination to believe like this. We have come to expect anything but a miracle today. In fact, we swing pretty far in the opposite direction. Anything that is perceived as a miracle is analyzed – scientifically, psychologically, socially, and from every other imaginable angle – until we analyze any ounce of the miraculous right out of it. We explain away those baffling encounters that we have with God because we’re unsure of what it might mean if we call it a God-moment, if we declare it our own miracle.
And so instead of singing a song of uncontainable praise like Elizabeth’s – a song of faith, a song of wonder, a song that gives voice to God’s bafflingly heartfelt nature – we find ourselves wondering how it is that we should look toward the birth of our Savior. Our song begins with questions: O how shall I receive you? How meet you on your way? Surely these could be questions Elizabeth asked herself. They could be questions Mary asked herself. They’re certainly questions we ask ourselves. How are we to receive God – to welcome and make a place for God in our hearts and minds and lives? Where does God fit into it all? Instead of focusing on the questions, we should take our cue from Elizabeth and Mary, raising our voices in a hymn of praise. That’s what today’s hymn does. It speaks of Jesus’ guidance. It speaks of God’s saving love. And it speaks of dedication and faith.
This year, we take the first steps of our Advent journey knowing that there are questions in our hearts but also trusting in the existence of baffling encounters because it is in the midst of the wondrous, the mystical, the inexplicable – in the midst of a meeting between two miraculously pregnant women in the hill country of Judea, in the midst of the small miracles that get us through the day … it is in these baffling encounters that we catch a glimpse of the Christ-child, that tiny and vulnerable Savior of us all. Amen.
 Lk 1:41.
 Lk 1:42-45.
 Lk 1:7.
 Lk 1:17.
 Lk 1:32-33.
 Stephen A. Cooper. “Fourth Sunday of Advent – Luke 1:39-45 (46-55) – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 93.
 R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 56.
 Paul Gerhardt, “O How Shall I Receive You,” verse 1. © 1653. In New Century Hymnal, 1995, #102.