Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 19 December, 2021.
Texts for this Sunday: Mic 5:2-5a; Canticle: Luke 1:47-55; Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-55.
41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. (Luke 1.41-42)
I love how the meeting between Mary and her relative (an aunt or cousin, possibly) Elizabeth brings together the very ordinary and the utterly extraordinary. On the one hand, it’s a simple visit, two expectant mothers getting together to catch up and compare notes on their pregnancies. Somewhere in that “Judean town in the hill country” is Elizabeth’s house. In the cinema of my mind’s eye I can imagine Elizabeth bustling around a very ordinary kitchen, perhaps with a cat curled up near the window, and something fragrant simmering in a kettle on the fire. Maybe Elizabeth drops something and clutches her swelling belly in joy and surprise as she hears Mary’s voice and the child “leaped in her womb”. And that’s the point when we realize that there is really nothing ordinary about this scene.
Strange and miraculous events have brought these two women together. In fact, God is everywhere in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, with its long (eighty verses!) prologue to the birth of Christ. God is everywhere in this first chapter, doing impossible things, beginning the work of salvation. Our clue to this presence of God is in Luke’s many references to the Holy Spirit, the agency or force by which God sets things in motion. Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit” when she hears Mary, as if to underline not only the miraculous nature of these two women’s pregnancies, but also, in Elizabeth’s enwombed child’s activity, the relationship of these two sons yet to be born, the one, John, who will be the herald of the Messiah, Jesus. Such is this strange and wonderful first chapter of Luke, chock a block with miracles.
It’s not that we’re not used to miracles (we hear about one or more in pretty much every Sunday’s readings) but I’m not convinced that as Anglicans we think enough about the Holy Spirit. We think about the Holy Spirit mostly at Pentecost, or sometimes on Trinity Sunday if we actually listen to the preacher trying (and mostly failing) to explain the Trinity, but for most of the rest of the year we’re content to think about God, or Jesus. And yet, something I’d never really thought much about before this week is how prominent the Holy Spirit is in Luke’s gospel, being mentioned four times just in the first chapter. It’s like Pentecost takes over the Christmas story!
First, the angel tells Zechariah that his son John “will be filled with the Holy Spirit” and “will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (Lk 1.15-16). Then, the same angel, Gabriel, tells Mary that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” (Lk 1:35) and she will conceive Jesus. Next, as we have seen, when Mary visits her, Elizabeth “was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry” (Lk 1.41). Then, after his son John is born, Zechariah is “filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy”, which we know as the Benedictus (Lk 1.67), in which Zechariah describes how these two boys, John and Jesus, will respectively be messenger and bringer of salvation. Finally, though it’s a bit of a stretch (the word “holy” isn’t used), Luke ends his first chapter by telling us that John grew up “and became strong in the spirit” (1.80). Thus, four (five if we count the last) mentions of the Holy Spirit in this opening chapter.
So what does all this mean and how is it relevant to us as we approach Christmas. Here are three things that seem worth noting.
The first thing we can say is that God chooses ordinary people to save, to bless, and to work as part of God’s plan. Considering that Luke 1 begins with a mention of “King Herod” and Luke 2 begins by naming a whole list of VIPs starting with “Emperor Augustus”, God is wholly concerned with humble people going about their business. At the heart of today’s gospel is an aging, infertile woman, a clergy wife, and her relative, a young girl from a little town in the sticks (Jerusalemites regarded Galileans as country folk with funny accents). God chooses precisely these two to be the mothers, one of the man who will bring knowledge of salvation, the other to the man who brings salvation. As Mary says, God has “looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant” (Lk 1.48).
The second and related thing we can say about the Holy Spirit in Luke is that it shows how God’s kingdom works by who it chooses to work with. We see this most clearly in Mary’s song of praise that we know (and indeed, will sing today) as the Magnificat. Mary’s song tells us that God is not that interested in “the powerful” and indeed has toppled them from their thrones. God’s salvation, God’s love and concern, are for the “lowly”, for the poor, for those who have little food, no power, and scant future. Mary’s song tells us that this Christmas, God’s heart and care is for those on the streets, for those priced out of the housing market, for those struggling to feed their children, for those on reserves without decent drinking water. Mary’s song tells us that God is with those who benefit from the work of agencies like FaithWorks or some other worthy cause, and if you gave to FaithWorks this year, then thank you and bless you.
The third thing we can say about the Holy Spriit is that it is not just something we wait for and hope for. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit is here, is with us, and has already acted. Look at the verbs Mary uses in her song of praise. They are in the past tense (there’s a longer Greek explanation for this). God “has done great things”, God “has shown strength”, God has “lifted the lowly” , God “has filled the hungry” and has “sent the rich away”, God has “helped his servant” and has “remembered” his promises (Lk 1.49-55). All of this gets back to what I said a few Sundays ago about how Christmas, in a very real sense, has already happened. I think this insight can give us assurance and hope as we nervously watch the progress of the Omicron Covid variant and wonder if Christmas will happen this year. No, Christmas will not be cancelled or robbed if its magic. Christmas has happened. The child was born. He lived, died, and rose again. We are saved. The Holy Spirit is given to God’s church. We are the body of Christ. Christ is in the midst of us. All of these things are predicted in Mary’s song.
For we the faithful, isn’t the true magic of Christmas is that, perhaps more than at any other time of year, we sense the miraculous and the ordinary mixed together. Here in Elizabeth’s little house in the hills, in this meeting of two women touched by God, we see something of the pattern of our own lives. We realize that we too have been chosen by God to fulfil God’s purposes, and equipped to do so by the same Holy Spirit. In Mary’s song of praise, we hear our own calling to God’s justice and kingdom. In the joy of these two women, we see our own freedom as disciples and followers of Mary’s son, our Saviour.