I love the story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth. It is, without doubt, one of my favourite gospel narratives. The meeting of these two cousins, the young virgin who is mysteriously pregnant and her older cousin only slightly less mysteriously pregnant, provides the basis for the Hail Mary, that prayer so beloved by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and by some Anglicans (me included). The meeting, the encounter, also speaks directly to what we refer to in the Eucharistic Prayer, as the greatness of the ‘mystery of faith.’
We live in an age where mystery is sometimes looked down on; treated with suspicion. We live in an age that, yes, prizes experience, but which also suggests that only that which can be empirically proved is to be prized. But as a person of faith I want to promote and celebrate the characteristics that animate the story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth – joy, fruitfulness, friendship, openness, hospitality; the very characteristics which make the story so human, humane even.
But, the story isn’t just a human story, its also a divine drama; a drama in which the Holy Spirit plays the most significant role as the animator par excellence. One of our advent challenges, it strikes me, is to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in us and amongst us. If we are truly to enter into the mystery of Christmas we must like Mary and her cousin Elizabeth to be first open to the work of the Spirit of God within us; the Spirit who renders the improbable probable, the impossible possible, the mystery credible. One of the great impossibilities, or mysteries, in the Christmas story is God’s casting. To effect His purposes, to create His drama, God didn’t choose the rich, the famous and the accomplished. He chose ordinary people; Zechariah a jobbing priest, Elizabeth his pretty ordinary wife, Joseph a carpenter and, of course, Mary a young virgin. We should take great confidence from the fact that God chose, and continues to choose, ordinary people, people like you and me, through which to effect his story.
Like Mary we need to learn the art of submitting to God, allowing Him to cast us in the Divine Drama. One of our greatest, most urgent, Advent challenges is to recapture the humility and integrity to stand in solidarity with a humble peasant girl – Mary- and pray: ‘Here am I the servant of the Lord let me with me according to your word.’ Like Mary, if we can do this, we will become the sort of people who render the ‘mystery of faith’ truly credible. We will become the sort of people whose very lives become a Magnificat, pointing away from ourselves and towards God. We will become the sort of people who sing, for others, salvation's song.
Our final, pre-Christmas, Advent challenge is to let the Holy Spirit so penetrate our very lives, that like Mary, we become ‘full of grace,’ exemplars of what it means to live transformed and godly lives within the ‘mystery of faith.’
Can I invite you to spend a little bit of time between now and Christmas day thinking about Mary, about her part in the Divine Drama and about what it might mean for you to open your heart to the life changing, life-giving, work of the Holy Spirit?