Fourth Wednesday in Advent

2015-05-13-15-41-30-1When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.”–Luke 1:57-60

Mary is a variant of Miriam. Miriam was one of the three primary leaders of the exodus, along with Aaron and her brother Moses. She was a prophet. Both Mary and Miriam’s names carry the echoes of the word “bitter” (see Ruth 1:20) for the bitterness that was pressed down on the people in the time of Pharaoh and in the time of the Roman occupation of Israel and destruction of the Temple. In some translations Mary or Maryam’s name is “sea of bitterness.”

The story of Maryam, in Luke’s narrative, mirrors the crisis that caused Moses to flee Egypt. In Exodus 2:12, Moses murders an Egyptian soldier. It’s premeditated, and it’s an act of treason against Pharaoh. He “flees” (2:15) from his death sentence to the land of Midian.

Maryam also “flees” (Luke 1:39). Not because she has committed murder but because she is “untimely pregnant,” as Richard W. Swanson notes in his excellent article “Magnificat and Crucifixion.” Not only is she pregnant outside the clan arrangement, but it’s very possible that she belongs to a priestly family. This pregnancy, an affront to the social and religious order, is a crime that may be punished by death—either by stoning, strangling, or burning (according to the ancient legal tractates).

Maryam doesn’t wait to be dragged into the streets as part of an honor killing, as Swanson frames it. Instead, she heads for the hills of Judah—perhaps to the “castles and towers” (2 Chronicles 27:4) built there by King Jotham—where her kinswoman Elizabeth (or “Elisheva”) would offer her protection. Elisheva was a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5) and thus a powerful priestly leader in her own right, as well as with her husband, Zechariah.

What happens when Maryam approaches Elisheva’s gates? The baby in Elisheva’s womb leaps and dances in response to Maryam’s greeting—as David did before the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:16). And Elisheva leads the gathered community in a loud song of rejoicing. She pours out her blessing on Maryam and on her baby—a sign of Maryam’s bravery and radical prophetic hope. Who am I, asks Elisheva—she of the priestly lineage whose family business it was to study the prophecies of God and believe they would be fulfilled—that I should welcome the one who truly believed that the promises of God would be kept?

What promises of God do you believe will be kept?

Ad……vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Sojourners where this reflection first appeared in print.

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