A Contemplative Christmas: Finding Sanctuary

By Jan Richardson

This is the sixth in a series of Advent reflections by Jan Richardson at the Mainline Protestant Portal at Patheos in the coming weeks.

The Sanctuary Between Us, by Jan RichardsonReading from the Gospels, Advent 4, Year C: Luke 1.39-45

Here's one way that I imagine it: having received her courageous yes, Gabriel turns and takes his angelic leave of Mary. A shimmering rush of wind, and he is gone. The light returns to normal, the objects in the room resume their familiar shapes. And Mary -- young Mary, unmarried Mary, pregnant Mary -- looks around. Finds herself quite alone. Places her head in her two hands and thinks, "It seemed like a good idea at the time..."

Luke tells us that after Gabriel's departure, Mary goes "with haste" to visit Elizabeth. She knows, for Gabriel has told her, that her kinswoman is experiencing an unusual pregnancy of her own. Mary arrives at Elizabeth's home, enters, and a scene unfolds that is among my favorites in all of scripture. Elizabeth no more than hears Mary's words of greeting, and she knows what has happened. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she cries out,

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.

I love how artists have depicted this scene, known as the Visitation, for hundreds of years: Elizabeth reaches out to Mary, places her hands on Mary's belly, speaks her words of welcome and blessing. Mary reaches out in turn, her hands on Elizabeth's arms or on her kinswoman's belly that is swollen with the miracle child she has carried for six months now: the child, Elizabeth says, that leaps for joy in her womb. It is a dramatic scene, intense with the intimacy of the reaching out of these two women toward one another, holding on to one another for dear life.

Jane Schaberg writes of how Elizabeth, in this moment, appears as a prophet, though that title is not given to her. Filled, as Luke tells us, with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognizes the One whom Mary carries, much as Anna the prophet will do in the temple in a few months' time. Yet Elizabeth is not only a prophet here; she engages also in a priestly act as she speaks her words of blessing and places her hands upon the vessel that contains the Christ.

I have often pondered this scene in terms of the way in which Elizabeth extends her hospitality to Mary, how her welcome is wondrous not merely for its complete absence of judgment of the pregnant, unmarried Mary but especially for her deep delight in what her cousin has done. Yet what strikes me, too, as this season spirals me around this passage once again, is not only how Mary found a refuge in Elizabeth, but also how Elizabeth must have found something of a refuge in her young cousin. There are few things more powerful than finding ourselves in a situation beyond our imagining, and encountering someone who knows, from the inside of it, something of what it is to be in that place. Someone who can meet us there.

Pregnant in strange and wondrous circumstances, Mary and Elizabeth each find perhaps the only other person who could possibly understand what's happening to them. With one another, they find not just understanding (though that would be gift enough), not just hospitality (though that would be mercy enough); in one another, they find a shelter; in their meeting, they make a sanctuary.

In moments, Mary will raise her voice in an ancient song. Singing, after all, is part of what a sanctuary is for. In the relief and release she finds in Elizabeth's welcome, Mary is freed to let loose with her words about the Word that is within her, and to pour forth her poetic proclamation of what God has wrought in her and in the world.

Ah, but that's another reflection for another day. Soon, because it's this song, the Magnificat, that the lectionary gives us for next Sunday's canticle.

For now, we linger in the sanctuary, this sacred space that Mary and Elizabeth have made with their meeting, their embrace, their welcome, their knowing. And here, in this holy place, I am come to ask you: where are you finding sanctuary in this season? Are you Mary, needing to make a journey -- literal or otherwise -- to find the refuge you need? Are you Elizabeth, extending hospitality to another and finding there a shelter you needed for yourself? Are you longing for a sacred space that hasn't yet appeared? What might it take to begin to find it, to fashion it? Who can help?

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