The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C, St. Mark’s Church, Antioch

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk. 1:42).

I heard the other day that one result of the 2018 election is that a majority of those who will serve as legislators in the State of Nevada in the coming year will be women. This is the first time this has happened in any of the fifty states; it certainly is a sign of the times. These results mirror other developments in the life of our nation and of others; they reflect social changes that have been in play for some time and are now bearing fruit.

Yet there is more to be said here; other facts that we cannot ignore. The #Me Too movement of the last year or so is a reminder of very troubling truths about the way in which power continues to be exercised and abused, between women and men, not only here at home but other places as well. Then again, if we look globally we will see that women and children remain the most vulnerable inhabitants of the earth. Look to the refugee crises; look to the places plagued by war; look to all the waste places of the earth. There’s plenty of trouble to go around and share, for everybody, but women and children so often occupy the rawest of raw places, with the least ability to affect their future and most often at the mercy of men and nations.

Our Gospel today constitutes a case of reversal, where God’s wisdom turns the wisdom of this world on its head. God’s characteristic move under the old covenant was to use the weak and vulnerable to work out his purposes on earth. God typically works from the margins toward the center. He starts with slaves, as he did in Egypt in Moses’ time. Or again, he chooses an obscure shepherd named Abram to be the father of a multitude of nations, and another shepherd, David, to be king of Israel. This is God’s wisdom, ancient and true, that runs directly contrary to the way in which the wise of this world exercise power.

In our Gospel today we see two women, two pregnant women mind you, one too old to bear children and the other not yet joined to her husband, celebrating the turning of the whole course of human history toward salvation, toward healing and reconciliation. Here God is using women and children, people who are the most powerless, both in that world and ours, to overturn the powerful.

It’s an astonishing moment, taking place between two people who hardly constitute a power center in Israel or in the political calculus of the Roman Empire. On the threat board of Caesar Augustus, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth don’t even figure. If the Romans were assessing where the danger to their power was likely to come, they would have been looking over the Rhine to Germany or to Persia in the East, not to two pregnant women in an obscure province of the Roman Empire.

The two women are celebrating the coming birth of the Messiah, even now growing in Mary’s womb. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk. 1:42): these are Elizabeth’s words to Mary. In fulfillment of prophecy, the promised king of Israel is to be born; as Simeon says later in the Temple when Jesus is presented by his parents, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed” (Lk. 2:34): in other words, things are going to be shaken up and rearranged. Mary herself spells it out in Gospel today: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Lk. 1:52-53). Jesus the Messiah has transformed everything; it is because of his coming that Mary is blessed.

This is a persistent strain in the story of God’s dealing with humanity. In fact, Elizabeth’s salutation to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk. 1:42), is the echo of an earlier greeting shared between two other women who have shaken things up. It’s not a well-known story, so I’ll remind you: in the time of the Judges, before the kings of Israel began to reign, Jael slew Sisera, the leader of the enemy armies. In response, Deborah the prophetess announced that Jael was “the most blessed of women” (Jud. 5:24): God using this woman to destroy the powerful. Now this greeting is echoed in Elizabeth’s salutation, herself celebrating the coming of the One who will overturn everything.

How is God shaking things up for you this Advent? Jesus Christ has come into the world, an event whose repercussions continue to shake the universe. Where are the hungry being filled in your life; where are the lowly being lifted up? How are you being called to cooperate with God’s work from the margins? Rejoice, because God has chosen you, in your humility and lowliness of spirit, to be the means by which he works his perfect will.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee