by Liz Young
(Based on Luke 1:26-56)
Today’s gospel reading is the message from God to Mary, given by the angel Gabriel. Gabriel tells Mary that she will get pregnant and give birth to the Son of God! She wonders, how?, as she is a virgin: and she is troubled: but her next emotional reaction is humility. She is humbled by the honour bestowed on her by God, and then full of joy. Not all unmarried mothers feel joy when they discover they are pregnant, so let us remember Mary, if this situation arises within our own families.
In the Magnificat, Mary’s song of joy, she praises God and describes how great He is, and how bountiful His Grace. She sings of God asking the lowly to fulfil His plans, which reminds us that we too can help him fulfil his ideas for the world.
Mary echoes the words used by Hannah (1 Samuel 1), as she rejoiced when she found she was pregnant with Samuel. In many cultures a woman must prove her fertility before she is acceptable for marriage, a different concept from our own. Today women can control their fertility pharmaceutically when they don’t want to get pregnant; while young men have to worry about their dropping sperm counts, and many couples take more than the expected four months before they get pregnant: use your reflection time to think of, and pray for those childless couples that you know. Some of them have adopted Russian babies and may be unhappy if that child has foetal alcohol syndrome. On the other hand, there are many single mothers who are struggling to look after a child they hadn’t planned to have: conceived when they were disinhibited by alcohol.
So let us enjoy the Advent story of two holy women (Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth) rejoicing in their pregnancies. Times were hard, Mary and Joseph had to make their way to Bethlehem. I tried to imagine riding 100km on a donkey at term, but came across Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of travelling with a donkey in France. You travel behind a donkey with a stick at the donkey’s pace, usually slower than walking. Mary had travelled first 180 km to see her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, who lived in the hill country near Jerusalem and who had had a son, John the Baptist: John’s birth had been foreseen in a vision by his father, Zechariah.
Mary then travelled with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, this time knowing that her baby was to be called, Jesus, ‘the Son of the Most High God’. Beth-lehem, the House of Bread, is a little town built on a spur of rock with deep valleys to the north-east and south: this year, Covid year, the people there are suffering from the loss of income from the tourist trade. Nowadays we can get there by train but we can picture Mary coping with the dusty hilly roads as she walked there, then.
We will be reflecting on this story with millions of other Christians all over the world. Some, like us, living in peaceful countries, where we can trust our leaders; others in danger because their beliefs threaten the leaders, or extremists, in their countries. In other places like Fiji, 16,000 people are homeless from a cyclone. Let us pray for them, and respond to their need and, while being grateful that we live in peace and prosperity, there are those who still need some of the basic requirements for living. Perhaps we should search harder for ways we can encourage the growth of social justice in our country. Here in Tairua we could think of encouraging the local building of affordable social housing for the elderly.
To return to Mary’s combination of humility and joy, I have two books that I cherish, one given to my grandfather, The Practice of the Presence of God: the letters and conversations of Brother Lawrence, a 16th century Carmelite kitchen lay-brother, a humble man always prepared to speak of his beliefs with others. The other book describes the visions of Dame Julian of Norwich, an English visionary who was educated by Benedictine nuns. She meditated for 20 years on her visions, while living in a small cell attached to a church in Norwich. Her words still resonate today: “Wouldst thou know the Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was His meaning.”
Both were visited by the powerful and mighty of their time, because of the joy that they radiated and shared. Let us pray that our lives radiate such joy that we offer peace and happiness to those around us at this time: the joy that comes from knowing that Christ was born to redeem us. Amen