Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 2:39, 56
In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country and greeted Elizabeth . . . and Mary remained with her for about three months and returned to her home."
"The Lord is with you," the angel says when he appears to Mary.
Every Sunday, Christians around the world echo this salutation at the opening of the liturgy when a priest opens worship with the words, "The Lord be with you." The congregation replies automatically with the words, "And also with you." There is a comfort in its rhythm and familiarity, so much so that many liturgical Christians open prayers over meals with this call-and-response, believing it to be a grace.
In reality, though, it is almost more of a curse.
When the angel offers Mary this greeting, she is anything but pleased or comforted. Instead, she is profoundly disturbed and confused. This announcement might be good news, eventually, for someone, but in the terrifying immediacy of the moment, the idea of the Lord-with-us, of Immanuel, was anything but. The details of the angel's message do not make things much better for Mary. She has been chosen, she learns, to carry God's child, to have her genetic code spliced with the Almighty's, to have her body and blood feed the fetus of God.
It is quite possibly the worst news the angel could have given an unmarried woman, that she would become pregnant with a child that did not belong to her fiancé Joseph. If she were to quickly add up her circumstances, she would see nothing but subtraction: the loss of a promised marriage to a craftsman and the inevitable loss of her reputation. If word got out—and in a small town like this, word always gets out—she might very well be known forever as a whore. No one would believe the truth of things, that she was God's harlot, made so in order to save humanity and bring in the shalom society of God.
Not only that, but the Annunciation marks a break with her cultural history. Throughout the Jewish tradition, miraculous births were typically given to the barren not the virginal. Her pregnancy bore more similarities to the Greco-Roman myths that gave rise to the divinity of caesars. Further, if the circumstances of her coming child were made known, it would be seen as a fundamental affront to the Roman Empire and her unborn baby, a subversive rival king from a lesser, contentious people.
And, it's not like the angel gives her any choice in the matter. Rather, she has been chosen for this "favor." So, she accepts in the most unenthusiastic manner possible, passively offering herself as a servant, saying "let it be with me according to your word." Finally, the angel, having secured her acquiescence, disappears.
And then Mary flees. As fast as she can.
Nothing captures the terror, confusion, and normalcy of an unmarried teenage girl's response to an unplanned, unbelievable pregnancy so much as this running away. And where did she go? To a Judean hill country town to visit her relative Elizabeth, the only other person who could understand what she is going through, the only person who could possibly wait with her as she sorted out the troubling news that she would bear God in her womb. Like Mary, Elizabeth was pregnant with a miraculous child, and like Mary, she was all alone, having gone into seclusion for the first two trimesters of her pregnancy.
So the two meet, both bearing the scandalous news of their pregnancies in isolation, in loneliness: one unconscionably old with a husband recently made mute and, the other, scandalously young and engaged to a fiancé who did not even join her on this hasty trip to the hillside. And there is a relief upon their meeting, like a cleansing exhale that comes when a burden lightens.