May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
At present, if we look at the state of the world today, you could say that joy is in short supply. So many disasters; the terrible rail crash in India, the death of 800 people at sea, the implosion of the Titan sub that led to the deaths of its five passengers who wanted to plumb the depths of the ocean to explore the wreck of the famous ship, Titanic, that sank in 1912. Then there was the random murder of the two students in Nottingham who had been enjoying a night out.
These are just samples of the tragedies that go on time after time. Now accompanied by climate change, the after effect of the pandemic, which has left many people grieving, and the cost-of-living crisis causing anxiety and despair.
You could say, then, that we are in a joyless world. Yet all is not lost. We, as Christians can, despite all the horrors, keep joy in our hearts. We can keep singing praises to God for offering us his son, Jesus, as our hope of eternal life and salvation for us all. Our joy rests not only in any happy present moments that continue to exist in our troubled times but also in this message of eternal salvation. This does not mean that we do not feel devastated when tragedy occurs, but we have faith, when we feel we are in the dark, that nothing can separate us from the Divine plan that God has for all of us to share in his eternal kingdom. It is a plan rooted in love that will always triumph in the end over fear.
For an affirmation of this joy in God’s purpose for us we can find it expressed loud and clear in today’s Gospel reading which describes the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, she is filled with the Holy Spirit and blesses Mary and the fruit of her womb.
Elizabeth’s unborn child, to be known as John the Baptist, leaps in her womb for joy. Mary then gives us her Song of Praise in which her spirit rejoices in God. The role of the Holy Spirit is evident here. Mary’s spirit is the source of her joy and Elizabeth’s blessing upon Mary is prompted by the Holy Spirit. Joy all around then, brought about by the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can do this because it is the messenger from God, offering us the love of God. If we look at St Paul’s letter to the Romans, in his Chapter 12 he urges true Christians to be ‘ardent in spirit’. In verse 15 he says ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’. If we allow the Holy Spirit to be our inspiration and guide then we too can find joy in a troubled world.
The Holy Spirit was active in Mary and Elizabeth as they were both women of faith in God. Elizabeth ‘believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’. Belief, despite being barren and in old age, that she would conceive a son. Mary, having been told by the angel Gabriel that despite being a virgin she would conceive also, submits herself to God’s will. Initially perplexed she then says: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
Such is the huge significance of this rejoicing that it is expressed whilst Jesus and John are still in the womb. In the old age of Elizabeth and the virginity of Mary, the circumstances of these two impending births are unique and the narrative that describes these two women coming together to rejoice is also unique in that it only features in Luke, nowhere else in the New Testament. You could say that Elizabeth and Mary were able to rejoice because of their unique status as the mothers-to-be of John the Baptist and Jesus the Son of God. That may be so, but we can all rejoice in pregnancy and birth. We can also find in today’s Gospel reading a value put upon unborn life. When reading articles on the Visitation on the internet, I came across an article by the Bethlehem Lutheran church which says that in Luke’s text ‘we learn to care for unborn life’. The circumstances in which Elizabeth and Mary find themselves is unique in one sense but their meeting each other as two pregnant women is an everyday happening that might apply to any woman living in any age. What is happening is that Elizabeth is helping us to recognise salvation and Mary, whilst standing for continuity and history, inaugurates a new era. Nevertheless, as given in the Commentary on Luke by James Woodward, Paula Gooder and Mark Price: ‘salvation is also expressed in everyday life’.
Another characteristic of both Elizabeth and Mary is that they are both humble. In this manner they find favour with God. They are both the mothers-to-be of two men, Jesus, and John, who will also live a life of humility and service to God.
I would like to conclude my sermon by reflecting upon images of the Visitation in art. Many of the images I looked at depict Elizabeth as an old woman, but I found it interesting that in the ancient icons of the Orthodox church both Mary and Elizabeth look of the same age. Was there a religious motive for not portraying Elizabeth in old age? I do not know but we do know from the Bible that Elizabeth was in old age and her husband Zechariah loses his speech temporarily for not believing it possible for his wife to conceive at her age. He did not, at that moment, see that ‘nothing is impossible with God’.
That sentence is very uplifting, and we can keep it in mind when we are going through hard times. So let us take heart and continue to rejoice, as Elizabeth and Mary did, in the love of God.