Luke’s story of Mary visiting Elizabeth (Luke1:39-56) is so charming, so human, isn’t it!
Mary was probably quite a young girl - a teenager even – when the angel came to tell her that she is to be the mother of God incarnate. When Mary says, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’, the angel offers her a sign: her relative Elizabeth is already 6 months pregnant, though she is old and supposedly barren. Is Elizabeth a cousin or an aunt? We’re not told.
So Mary hot-foots it from Nazareth to the Judean hill-country to visit Elizabeth and see for herself. It must have been a tough journey, over 100 km on foot or perhaps on a donkey, over bad roads and steep rocky hills. But Mary gets there safely and knocks on Elizabeth’s door.
When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting her unborn child – who we know as John the Baptist - does an in utero backflip in recognition of the presence of the Son of God, freshly conceived in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth exclaims, in the words we know from the “Hail Mary”, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’
And then Mary breaks into song, the song of joy that we call the Magnificat, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’
I know I’m treading on somewhat dangerous ground here!
I’m part of that 50% of the human race which is less qualified to say anything about pregnancy and childbirth than the other 50%. But because I’ve been closely associated with two pregnancies and three births I know that pregnancy is a time of great expectation. So much so that in our culture to say a woman is ‘expecting’ is a euphemism for pregnancy – ‘a baby’ is simply understood.
Elizabeth and Mary are both ‘expecting’ in this euphemistic sense. But they both also bring another dimension of expectation to their meeting on Elizabeth’s doorstep. Elizabeth has conceived late in life. She is carrying a miracle baby, and she has been told that he will be a great prophet who will prepare the way of the Lord. Mary is carrying even more of a miracle baby, conceived through the Holy Spirit, and she has been told that he will be called the Son of the Most High, and will reign over Israel as the heir of the great King David. Both of them have great expectations for the children they are carrying.
Mary said to the angel who announced her pregnancy, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. In doing so she accepted the unimaginable privilege of forming her son Jesus in her body - as all women who are glad to be pregnant do. The Son of the Most High, the eternal Word of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, took human flesh in and from Mary. Jesus the Christ was, quite literally, formed in her while she was ‘expecting’.
Our vocation as Christian disciples is to be ‘expecting’ just as Elizabeth and Mary were.
As Christian disciples, we are called to be pregnant! Whether we are young or old, male or female, single or married, we are called to let Christ be formed in us, just as he was formed in the womb of Mary.
What is it like to be a pregnant disciple, one in whom Christ is being formed? We will be ‘expectant’, always expecting something new, something growing and stirring in us, looking to the future not some unchanging past. As Christ grows in us we will form a deepening relationship with him. We will notice changes for the good in ourselves. We will cultivate habits of worship, prayer and study through which we will discern the different gifts he gives each of us. And he will enable us to use these gifts in his service, whether in ministry within the church or in mission outside it.
All pregnancies end in the fullness of time - in due course Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist, and Mary to Jesus the Christ. Their pregnancies lasted around 9 months, but ours as disciples in whom Christ is being formed will last a lifetime. Stretching the analogy to the limit, it is on our deathbed that we as disciples are finally delivered of the Christ we have nurtured. We may pray that the life we deliver will be an example to others of a Christian life, well lived, in the hope of resurrection to eternal life.
And what of the Church? The church too is called to be pregnant!
It is in the nature of the Church to grow disciples. A healthy, fertile church is a pregnant church which nurtures disciples in whom Christ is constantly growing. Remember, Jesus commanded the apostles, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’. And that can only start with ourselves.
As we mature as disciples – as Christ grows in us – we should expect to see changes in our church communities, changes for the good. We do not know what they will be, but new things will sprout inexorably, organically, in the belly of the church, just as Christ grows in his disciples. Perhaps new forms of vibrant worship will spring up alongside the older traditions so many of us still value. Perhaps groups of disciples will come together, to explore and share different kinds of prayer, or to study how God reveals himself both in scripture and in creation, and report their discoveries back to the rest of us. Perhaps we will together find new ways to nurture one another in faith, to care for one another in love, to welcome the stranger, and to reach out in service to people in need, whoever and wherever they may be.
Those outside the church - family, friends, neighbours and strangers - will see the changes in us, in the way we live our lives, in how we treat others. Some may be annoyed - because our way challenges the way they live their lives. But others will feel compelled to take a closer look, to investigate further, because they see in us something that they hunger and thirst for.
This is how a church community grows, first spiritually as its members grow as disciples, and then numerically as others are attracted to it, become disciples themselves, and in turn grow as disciples as Christ grows in them.
So to finish,
This Feast Day of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a time for us all to be ‘expecting’ - to be pregnant disciples as Christ takes form within us.
Let us pray that the Christ-seed the Holy Spirit has planted within us will grow to full term and be delivered, perfectly formed in every way.
And as disciples in this Union of Parishes, let us pray that our church community will grow spiritually and numerically, attracting new disciples who themselves will grow as Christ grows in them.