Fred Craddock, a teacher of preachers, has this to say about the story of Mary and Elizabeth:
“The two women, [Elizabeth and Mary] not only kin but drawn by a common experience, meet in an unnamed village in the Judean hills. The one is old and her son will close an age; the other is young and her son will usher in the new. Even the unborn John knows the difference and leaps in the womb when Mary enters.”**
Elizabeth’s baby, John the Baptist, has the honour and responsibility of closing out the old age. Mary’s baby, Jesus, the Christ, has the scary and ground-breaking task of inaugurating the new age. It is not a gradual change, the birth of one child ends the old age, the birth of the other child begins the new age. For both Elizabeth and Mary, the news of their epoch-shaking pregnancies was delivered by an angel visitant, but the responses to those visits were as different as the children they would bear.
The announcement and birth of John the Baptist was delivered to John’s father, Zechariah, a priest. As a trained, professional religious guy he fell into the trap that a lot of us trained, professional religious types fall into: he figured that his own experience and intellect trumped what God was trying to tell him. When Zechariah was visited by an angel while performing his duties at the Temple, who announced that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a child who would “go ahead of the Lord” (1:17) and “bring back many of the people of Israel to their Lord their God” (1:16), Zechariah could barely suppress a scoffing laugh. To the angel, Zechariah “mansplained” that the news was nonsense: Elizabeth had been barren all her child-bearing years and now was well beyond the capacity to become pregnant. Lesson alert!! Don’t try to mansplain to an angel!! The angel did not waver from the original message, but did take away Zechariah’s ability to speak until the child was born – if Zechariah could not respond to a visiting angel bringing amazing news with words of faith, he would not speak at all.
The Gospel of Luke also has the story of the angel arriving to announce to Mary God’s invitation to be the woman to shelter and grow God’s beloved child in her womb and to bear the chosen One into the world. Once she got over the initial shock of an angel visiting her, Mary uttered these unforgettable words (1:38) as recorded in the King James Version: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word”. Unlike the response of Zechariah, who put reason before proclamation, the young, frightened Mary was able to literally open herself to God’s possibilities, whatever that would entail.
Mary and Elizabeth: too young and too old, both women who were too unlikely to be God’s choice in bearing the child who would end an age, the other who would bear the child who would being the next age. Once again, our God is a God who chooses the last and least: the most unlikely of candidates to bear the Word into the world.
Mary and Elizabeth, our mothers of the faith, model for us the way to respond to the Good News that we, who are also the last the least, continue to be bearers of Jesus Christ into the world. We are always on the cusp of the old age passing away and a new age about to begin. The Good News of Christ is that we are continuously invited to let go of the things in our past that are no longer life-giving, but carry those things from our history that enhance our lives, and the lives of others into the new age that is forever opening before us.
As we approach the old/new story of Jesus’ birth, consider what God is bringing to birth in you, today.
** Luke: Interpretation; A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, ©1990