If you have the technology, go to your computer, or pick up your phone or tablet get onto Google Images and enter Mary and Elizabeth; not forgetting to add visitation or Magnificat otherwise you will find pictures of Elizabeth I and Mary Tudor, which is not what you want at all. What you need are all those pictures of two women, one very young and one quite old, doing something that many of us have longed to do in recent times – hugging!
Personally, I like a hug, but I realise that not everybody does. However, even those who are not really into such close contact understand that sometimes only a hug will do. So, how far would you go for that hug? I am talking about distance here and not doing something ridiculous or illegal, just distance. For most of us it is probably not that far. We could measure it in inches, feet, yards (feel free to go metric if you prefer). Although, considering Covid as we must, we might go a few miles in the car.
But what about on foot? 80 miles on foot probably alone. 80 miles on foot over rough or non-existent roads. That’s 80 miles including the risk of bandits and wild animals. And, oh yes, 80 miles on foot when you are pregnant. It must have been a very, very special hug indeed. It would have taken Mary 4 or 5 days at least to make that journey to see her cousin, Elizabeth. A woman of a different generation and someone Mary would rarely have met. Yet, it seems, that only Elizabeth can provide whatever it is that Mary needs.
How strange it is
Luke, and it is only he that tells story, doesn’t explain why she went but the suggestion is that she went very quickly. Gabriel has scarcely revealed to Mary that she is God’s chosen one, the most favoured, filled with the Holy Spirit plus now, the Son of God. We know that part of the story so well that we don’t really stop to think just how strange it is, but mayber it was strangeness which prompted Mary to look at her confused parents and the gossiping neighbours, not to mention poor Joseph and think “I can’t be dealing with this” and set off.
Luke writes: Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country. Well, she went, and she stayed, for 3 months which is a pretty long visit by anyone’s standards. And we are left to wonder what did they do? Did they spend the time praying or making baby clothes? Did they meet other people or sit with the still silent Zechariah (who, you will remember had been struck dumb for doubting the Angel’s words). We will never know, although I can’t help but think that if a woman had written the gospel we would…
For Luke though, the only thing that does matter is ‘The Greeting’ which takes place when the two women meet. This is the moment which artists throughout the centuries have portrayed, you may well be able to picture in your head, this is what you will see if you do that Google search. It is a wonderful image and even allowing for the many styles and varying degrees of artistic skill something beyond any ordinary greeting almost always comes from those images; just as it does from Luke’s words.
There is Elizabeth who was barren and now, by the grace of God, is pregnant. There is Mary young and a virgin but also by God’s grace she too is pregnant. Through these two women comes the approaching salvation. Elizabeth will give birth to the one who will cry out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Mary will give birth to the Word made flesh; salvation for humanity in human form. And, at the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth too, is filled with the Holy Spirit. She hails not just her cousin; she embraces the divinity carried inside her. Elizabeth accepts Mary as the Mother of The Saviour and as she does so her unborn child leaps for joy in her womb. Obviously, this is more than a hug, even the best and most longed for hug; this is far beyond that. This is the embodiment of Welcome.
Well, we talk about Welcome a lot in churches. It is trotted out at meetings, in mission statements, in plans and prayers. Even now it runs through the pages, the hopes, and ambitions for Mission Communities. We all know that we should (and do) welcome people into not just our but ‘their church’. Generally, we are sincere in these desires; well, most of us – most of the time. However, we also know that often our welcome doesn’t seem to be working, so that sometimes, let’s be honest, we wonder why bother? We need help.
The good news is that the Welcome which was given, received and felt by Mary and Elizabeth in our reading today can help us. Because this welcome was more than a ‘come in it’s nice to see you’ kind of thing. This welcome was more than a ‘come in because there is nowhere else for you to go’ kind of thing too. This welcome was about acceptance. The acceptance of a young, pregnant and unmarried girl. This welcome was about affirmation. The affirmation of Mary’s decision to say yes to God. This welcome was also a prayer entrusting Mary to God. A prayer that would be with her throughout her life. With her as she re-unites with Joseph. With her as the child is born. And with her as she hears the words of Simeon at the temple. With her at the foot of the cross and, with her still, as her son is victorious over death.
This really is a welcome. It is a welcome for all those reasons, and it is a welcome because of its absolute sincerity. This should be the template for the welcome we, both as a church and as individual members of the body of Christ provide. Our welcome must enable us to be accepting of ourselves and of others. It has to be more than nice words, more than enthusiasm, more than a cup of tea (although I would not want to devalue what those things can achieve), still, it has to be more.
Reality and presence of God
If our welcome is to work, if our welcome is to change things for people and yes, bring them back again, it has to be accepting and affirming of all, even those who may not live or be as we do. It has to remind us of the reality and presence of God in our lives. Our welcome needs to have within that leap for joy as we recognise our saviour exactly as the unborn John did. Because if it doesn’t, how can we make anyone else understand the love of our Lord Jesus.
Perhaps you think this is too hard? That it seems like too great an investment? But we can do this, we can do this because there have been times in all our lives when we too have set out in haste looking for something of someone to be with us. These are the times when we needed someone to accept us, someone to understand. The times when our world was suddenly strange. The times when we needed not judgement but guidance. And the times when we need to the support of someone else’s hope, faith and love because ours was all but exhausted. These were the times when we needed a real welcome, the times when we, by God’s Grace, found ‘our Elizabeth’. And we found our Elizabeth so that, we in our turn, can be an Elizabeth for someone else. Amen.
‘Welcome’ was proclaimed by Elizabeth Binns at Christ Church Walmersley, on Sunday 19th December 2021. It was based on Luke 1:39-55. Beryl Cook’s picture of Madonna and Child is Elizabeth’s favourite picture and is shown here with grateful thanks. Copyright © John Cook 2021. www.ourberylcook.com.