All Saints’, Dorval
December 19, 2021
You may have heard of the “Bechdel Test” – a test of the representation of women in movies, books and the like, popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who credited the idea to her friend Liz Wallace. The test asks “In this work, are there two female characters, with names, who talk to each other about something other than a man?”
The first chapter of Luke is one of relatively few passages in the Bible that passes the Bechdel-Wallace test. Mary and Elizabeth speak to each other, and while yes, they do refer to their male offspring, they are otherwise concerned not with men but with God. As Sojourner Truth said of the Incarnation, “It was God and a woman – man had nothing to do with it!”
Mary must have been so relieved just to arrive at Elizabeth’s home and be welcomed rather than reviled for her untimely pregnancy. But there is so much more going on here. (Once more, I am relying here on the wise insights of those attending Wednesday Bible study.) Elizabeth not only celebrates the event that has knocked Mary’s life off course, she does so loudly and decisively. (We don’t know how Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, feels about it, because he was struck dumb six months ago for disbelieving the message of the angel who told him Elizabeth would conceive.) She does not feel obliged to hide her pregnant young cousin’s presence from the nosy neighbours (and we know, thanks to the account of John the Baptist’s birth a few verses later, that the neighbours were indeed very nosy!). She is filled with the Holy Spirit, and that is the only standard she is paying attention to in this moment.
As my wise colleague Naomi Miller wrote this week, “Elizabeth knows her [stuff]. She has such an immediate grasp of what is happening. She knows what’s happening in her own body. She’s been able to communicate with her silenced husband enough to know what the angel promised him. She knows all the scripture and prophecy. And she takes all of it, and just wraps Mary in it like a blanket.”
It occurred to me as we discussed this passage at Bible Study that while the gospel depicts Mary immediately responding to Elizabeth’s Spirit-inspired cry of joy, in actual fact it may have taken some time. I think Mary might have needed a snack, and a nap, perhaps wrapped in an actual blanket, and maybe some time to cry on Elizabeth’s shoulder. But after she did, she stood up and sang this astonishing and subversive hymn, echoing the words of her ancestor Hannah but putting her own spin on it, showing that she has indeed taken the cue that Elizabeth offered her, and is conscious of how God is working in her life, despite all appearances.
It takes an extraordinary person – and the prompting of the Holy Spirit – to be able to see God at work in a situation like this. Frequently, it takes everything in us (and then some) just to meet the moment and cope with it as it’s happening, let alone being able to perceive the action of the divine. But Elizabeth sees it, and brings it into the present, and by her generous welcome, her uncomplicated rejoicing, enables Mary to do the same.
When I teach meditation, one of the things that the course covers is how the vast majority of the time, our minds are either “rehashing” or “rehearsing”. Rehashing – harking back in time, to past embarrassments and painful moments, or to the “good old days”. And rehearsing – jumping ahead, planning, hoping, or worrying. The meditation practice invites us to accustom the mind to exist not in the past or the future, but in the present moment, which is, after all, the only thing we actually have.
Heaven knows both Mary and Elizabeth had plenty both to rehash and to rehearse (and the Magnificat is not free of the language of both the past and the future). But by the grace of God, they are able, for this joyous moment of reunion, to dwell in the moment, to notice and appreciate what is happening right now.
In a way, our other readings today do kind of fall into the rehashing/ rehearsing trap. Micah is a prophecy from hundreds of years before Christ, usually interpreted by Christians as pointing to him; and Hebrews is a theological reflection upon Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, created after the fact. These elements of anticipation and reflection do help us to make sense of the kind of intense, overwhelming experience that Mary and Elizabeth are going through – but we would also do well to pay attention, to be present in the moment, to ensure that we don’t miss it when it’s actually happening.
Right now, though, we might feel like we wouldn’t mind missing some moments, thank you very much. After almost two years of pandemic, after ups and downs and plenty of unpleasant surprises, we thought that maybe, finally, we had reached a fragile balance where we could safely do most of the things we wanted, with a few modifications. And then came omicron, and restrictions are ramping back up, and once again risk calculations are at the forefront of all our minds.
Thankfully, All Saints had remained quite cautious within the overall framework of what we were allowed to do this autumn, so going back to universal masking, half capacity, and 2-meter distance is not too much of a shock. But still, this is not the Christmas we had expected or planned for. We might be having to cut down a gathering of 20 to 10, or thing about cancelling a long-planned and much-anticipated holiday trip.
Like Elizabeth and Mary, we are caught short and could hardly be blamed for shaking our fists at God for throwing a wrench into all our plans. We could hardly be blamed for getting caught up in rehashing everything that has gone wrong in the last almost-two years, or rehearsing all the doom that we are afraid will unfold over the next weeks and months.
But if we do so, we will miss the times when, even amid the undeniably awful parts of our present situation, God still shows up. Last week, we gathered here for Lessons & Carols – the first time our choir had performed together, live, since lockdown began in March 2020. I couldn’t help recalling that occasion, and how along with all the anxiety about the pandemic, on tht Sunday morning we were also desperately praying for Chris’ sister Rebecca and her baby William, who was about to have to be delivered three months early. And there, at our Lessons & Carols last Sunday, was that very baby, now a healthy 21-month-old, running around and driving his trucks in the side aisle, he and his mother both alive and well.
New life – God’s life – insists on coming into even the darkest of circumstances, in first-century Palestine, today, and always. We must be paying attention, even when the present moment is a hard one to stay in, or else we will miss it. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “This is no time for a child to be born … but Love still takes the risk of birth.”
So this Christmas, let us be Elizabeth for each other. Let us be the one who knows, bone-deep, who she is and what is happening, what the prophets have said and what God is doing; who is calmly, without panicking and without denial, paying attention to the events that are unfolding and seeing the joy hidden in the crisis. And let us take that joy, and that knowing, and wrap each other in it like a blanket – like the blanket that swaddles a wholly inconvenient, wholly unexpected, but nevertheless wholly holy, child.