By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
December 16, 2018
Luke 1: 39-56
Two of the most fulfilling and meaningful events in my life were the births of my children, Sara Caitlin and Bennie. A lot of what made the experiences so meaningful was the fact that even though Margaret was quite clearly doing most of the work, we were very much partners in the process. We modified our diets. I supervised her exercises. We went to the birthing classes together. We read the books together. And on the day of the blessed event, there we were in the birthing room together with me cheering her on. And there I was, when each wondrous child was born and first entered the world, there with Margaret so we could share this joyful event together. I don’t think any other events in my entire life compare to those two amazing moments.
Childbirth matters a lot in Scripture, as well. We certainly see it in our Gospel lesson today. In this story, two women meet who have each discovered that they are pregnant, but in the most awkward ways and at the most awkward of times. Elizabeth is Mary’s cousin, the wife of a priest, Zechariah. They are probably a prominent family; they live near Jerusalem. Elizabeth and Zechariah are advanced in age, but they have never had children, which in that place and at that time would be a source of shame for them both, but especially for Elizabeth.
And then, miracle of miracles! An angel announces that Elizabeth in her old age is pregnant with the child who will become John the Baptist. You can imagine her joy, but also perhaps as well her fear: pregnancies at advanced age bring a lot of problems an d risks; and then of course there is the way people talk, as if somehow you’ve done something wrong. And the announcement itself—made by the angel Gabriel, who then struck her husband Zechariah dumb because he didn’t believe him!—and then this prediction that their son would be a great prophet—you can imagine the confusion, the combination of joy and uncertainty that she must feel—all of which leads her to decide to keep her pregnancy hidden for as long as possible.
Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her old age has a Biblical precedent, of course—Sarah, the wife of Abraham, also became pregnant in her old age, also after her pregnancy was predicted by an angel. The birth of their son made them the progenitors of the entire Jewish race. Certainly something awesome and auspicious awaited her son, born in similar circumstances. But what could it be?
And then we have Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her own pregnancy is really without precedent in the Bible. It is once in history, it is unique. She is an unmarried woman, a virgin, whose pregnancy is the work of God. She is bearing up with faith, but that doesn’t ease the awareness of potential risk. We don’t know if at this point Joseph even knows she’s pregnant. She would properly wonder what he will do when he finds out. Would he “dismiss her,” as it is quaintly put in the Gospel of Matthew? And how will other people feel? How will her well-off and respectable and deeply religious cousin, the wife of the priest near Jerusalem, react when she sees her pregnant younger cousin and hears the news that this unmarried teenager is pregnant?
If she went to see Elizabeth fearful that Elizabeth would condemn her, she was basing it on good precedent. Throughout the Old Testament, pregnancy is also closely tied to conflict between two women. When Sara, the wife of Abraham, gives birth to Isaac, she can no longer abide that her slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael, also the son of Abraham, live in the same house with them. She orders Hagar and Ishmael into exile. Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel, were deeply competitive, and though Jacob loved Rachel more she was ashamed that Leah had many children, while Rachel struggled with childbirth. Hannah, who ultimately gives birth to the prophet Samuel, seemed unable to have a child, and was constantly the victim of scorn and teasing by her husband’s other wife, Peninah.
Based on all this history, Mary would do well to be ready for Elizabeth to tease her, to shame her, to reject her. But something quite different happens. Elizabeth rejoices. And Mary rejoices. They tell one another their secret—each of them is pregnant, and somehow both the pregnancies and the sons they will bear are divine in nature!
So throughout the Biblical history, there have been significant pregnancies that have been turning points—the birth of new life, if you will. Many of these pregnancies are to women who are shamed, often to women who have been marked as “barren” and therefore as insignificant and unimportant by the misogynistic societies in which they live. To these women, the lowly, the outcast come these amazing, transformative pregnancies. One commentary I read points out that it is common in the OT to “compare God’s concern for the barren woman with God’s corresponding concerns for the poor and weak in society.” Likewise, the alienated, marginalized woman who is blessed with a child who will play a pivotal role in history is someone who as Mary herself says, considers herself especially blessed. And she should. God has actually promoted her to a divine position—she is being like God. God compares Godself to a woman giving birth in multiple places throughout the Bible. One of my favorite is in Isaiah, where God uses a clever pun to compare God’s redemptive work to save God’s people to a pregnancy: “Shall I open the womb and not deliver? Shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?”
We often call God a deliverer, but we rarely make the same connection that God makes in Isaiah: to deliver God’s people is like delivering a baby. Deliverance in the spiritual sense then is new life—it is a new birth. God the deliverer gives birth to a new us.
And now, in Jesus Christ, God gives birth to—God delivers—a new world. The ultimate deliverance of humankind comes in the delivery of Mary’s baby.
And this deliverance happens in a spirit of cooperation and a spirit of joy. As Mary sings her song of praise, she celebrates the Great Reversal, when the way the world has always operated is turned upside down, and the ways of God become the new reality. And she and Elizabeth are living it in their joyous meeting. Unlike other biblical mothers, they meet not in a spirit of competition but of cooperation, of shared joy. They will support each other and work together as each of them plays their part in delivering the salvation of God to the whole world. These two women will be the deliverers of the salvation of humankind. In order to fulfill this Godlike responsibility, they cannot operate alone. They need one another. The age of competition has passed. The age of cooperation is the age of the Kingdom of God.
We know the age of competition quite well. Even if we don’t think of ourselves as competitive, competition drives us from cradle to grave. I don’t mean just sports, though sure that is a part of it. My school’s team or my city’s team has to be better than yours! But competition is everywhere. My life must be better than someone else’s, my paycheck better than someone else’s; my country or my race or my religion must be better than someone else’s.
But that spirit of competition is the spirit of the old age. What gives birth to the new age, what is essential to bring the age of the Kingdom of God into concrete reality, is cooperation—working together. Shared joy, shared suffering, shared work, shared rest. Shared faith and shared hope. If we want to deliver the new world, the Kingdom of God, the world Jesus calls us to live in, we need to do like parents in a Lamaze class or using the Bradley Birthing Method—we have to cooperate. We need to do like Elizabeth and Mary and cooperate—support one another—share each other’s joys and sorrows and support each other through the labor pains of the new world that is surely coming. And that new world is surely coming, that peace on earth and good will to all that the angels sang is surely going to be born, because Elizabeth already delivered John and Mary already delivered Jesus. Because in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus a new world was born. Our deliverance has come. And because after all, it is God who delivers; and will the God who gives birth not deliver?