Scripture: Luke 1:39-45
A little more than thirty-two years ago, I asked my then-girlfriend Mary if she would like to get married. Unlike most people, who think ahead and plan such things, mine was a totally spur-of-the-moment proposal. No ring. No ballpark Jumbotron or perfectly choreographed involvement of the server at a restaurant. No, Mary and I were sitting together one evening, and I was suddenly overcome by a powerful feeling of something like intense butterflies. It was an overwhelming sensation and I sat there for some minutes wondering what in the world was going on. Gradually it came over me: I think I’m supposed to ask Mary to marry me. So I did. Right there on the spot. And she immediately said yes.
Which was all great. Except that, right after she said yes, I suddenly thought to myself, “What if I totally misinterpreted that feeling in my body? What if that feeling was just indigestion? Maybe I should have thought about this just a tad more!” And what was so great was that, for some unknown reason, I told Mary this. Probably not exactly the sort of thing someone wants to hear just after they’ve received a proposal! But what was so fabulous was that Mary knew enough to just let me to express this; she knew that I needed to process it, and to find reassurance. So she listened to me, and I found words for what I was feeling, and I came to a deep sense that this was precisely the right thing to do, that that sensation was indeed an invitation to propose.
I had a sudden flashback to those long-ago pronounced bodily sensations of mine as I was reading this morning’s account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Mary, of course, has just been told she is going to give birth to the Messiah. Immediately she sets out for the home of her older cousin Elizabeth, and we may well wonder why? She knows from the angel who has visited her that, against all odds, the much older Elizabeth is also pregnant. Maybe Mary goes to her cousin for reassurance, maybe she goes for company on this momentous journey they’re both taking to motherhood.
And the thing that so intrigues me is that, as Mary walks in the door of Elizabeth’s house, the child whom Elizabeth is expecting suddenly “leap[s] in [Elizabeth’s] womb” (Luke 1:41). As a non-child-bearing human myself, I find it almost impossible to imagine what you who are birth-mothers have experienced, that sensation of a baby “leaping” in your womb—or kicking, or turning over or throwing an errant elbow. You receive messages from the child, not with your mind, but with your body. Such communication happens in a way that is not related to thinking or reason. It’s communication that happens in its own unique way. And in this story, there’s more. Not only does Elizabeth’s baby leap, but he also conveys—soundlessly, wordlessly—that Mary’s baby is uniquely, remarkable special.
In many ways, this sort of soundless, wordless communication is foreign to me. I have known others, though, for whom it is perfectly natural. I first met Mary at a party where we were set up as a blind date. At that same party, I also met a friend of Mary’s named Sue. Sue lived in Maine, and she had an identical twin sister who lived in Connecticut. And I vividly remember Sue telling me that when her sister was sick, she would know it without ever having a conversation with her. The same thing would happen when her sister became pregnant: Sue would know it without her sister having told her. I was astounded at this.
This party was set up as a Trivial Pursuit party, so we then split into various tables scattered around the hosts’ home. I was playing in the same game as Sue, and at one point, someone pulled a card from the box, ready to ask the next question about some matter of trivia. Before this person could ask the question, Sue said quietly, “Lake Titicaca.” I thought, “Well, that’s a pretty strange thing to say in the middle of a game!” Then the question on the Trivial Pursuit card was asked: “What is the highest navigable lake in the world?” To my astonishment, Sue had given the answer before the question was asked. And I would have thought this was a rigged game, if I hadn’t heard Sue talking earlier about her inexplicable sensing of her twin’s illnesses and pregnancies. This was a kind of knowing that I had no inkling about, a kind of sensing that was a total mystery to me. This whole notion of a kind of bodily knowing seemed completely foreign to me. How can we possibly know when thinking and minds and words aren’t involved?
We do, though, don’t we. Sometimes, for example, we know discomfort around another person, or immediate trust. We know beauty through a work of art or Handel’s “Messiah” or the “Nutcracker” or a Pentatonix Christmas. We know sorrow through a friend’s eyes. We know joy through a gentle breeze or the smell of a favorite childhood Christmas cookie or the glint in a lover’s eye. When Elizabeth’s baby, the baby who will grow into John the Baptist, leaps in her womb because the Messiah has come into the room, it’s a reminder that God’s love can show up in our lives in intuition and what we call a sixth sense. We know God’s love in physical, wordless, embodied ways.
Some of you will know exactly what I’m talking about. Your dreams and your intuition speak to you, and you understand this distinctive mode of communication. Others of us, though, may have to be reminded that we, too, have this facility, that our bodies sometimes know what our minds seem not to grasp. The philosopher Pascal long ago said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” And he went on to say, “We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” Elizabeth and Mary remind us to pay attention to bodily truth. They remind us that God’s language is so often a physical, incarnate language.
When my family and I moved to Chagrin in the fall of 2004, some of you will remember that I arrived here with a middle ear infection that left me so dizzy I couldn’t walk or even open my eyes. We had driven to Ohio from Rhode Island with me reclined in the front passenger seat, my eyes closed the whole way. One of the consequences of that extreme vertigo was that I had to miss the last weekend of my pastorate in the church I had served in Barrington. I missed a big Saturday night party the church threw for us, and I was unable to lead my last Sunday service the next morning. Not being able to say good-bye was an excruciating loss for me.
So after I had been here in Chagrin for several months, with that missed opportunity to say good-bye still gnawing at me, I had a conversation one day with my staff colleague Judy Bagley-Bonner, whom many of you will remember. I was agonizing about whether I should take a weekend to return to Rhode Island to say good-bye. And having turned it around over and over again in my head, I couldn’t decide whether it was a good idea.
So Judy said to me, “Why don’t you make a list of the pros and cons of each possibility. Then sit with each scenario and pay attention to this: what makes your body sigh with relief—going back or not going back?” As much as I had thought about it, I couldn’t gain any real clarity. As soon as I made that list, though, a clear and obvious sigh told me what I needed to do. The truth was: it was too late to say good-bye. I was already settled here. The Barrington church and I had both moved on. What was I going to do, show up some Sunday afternoon, and stand in a kind of receiving line to talk to people? My sigh told me what my mind couldn’t discern, that, sadly, I had missed my chance to say good-bye, but that there was no going back, and that it was time to move on.
Over the years, I have many times suggested to people, when they are struggling with decisions, that they do precisely this: that they pay attention to that sigh in them. Make a list of the alternatives, I tell them. Imagine yourself in each scenario. And then listen to what makes you sigh with relief. Just as Elizabeth recognizes the Messiah through her body, so also with us: our bodies often know what our minds may not be able to figure out.
God’s love comes to us not as a concept, not as a principle, not as an idea, but as bodies that not only intuit, but that also relate and care. This physical love comes to us in all sorts of ways. Maybe it’s a hug when we’re mired in grief. Maybe it’s a song that reduces us to a blubbering mess. Maybe it’s a puppy thrilled to death that we’re finally home and lying on its back for some serious stomach-scratching.
The context for the grace of today’s story is that of an encounter between these two women, and it’s characterized by a stunningly beautiful mutual greeting. Mary comes into Elizabeth’s house, and these two unlikely mothers essentially receive and salute each other. The Greek word Luke uses for Mary’s greeting of Elizabeth is so much more than a bland and distracted, “How ya doin?” It conveys enormous fondness, a kind of cherishing. It sends a message of radiant warmth and respect. Mary adores Elizabeth.
And when Elizabeth speaks to Mary, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exuberant praise of another person. Who of us wouldn’t want to hear these words ourselves? “God has blessed you more than any other woman” (CEV), says Elizabeth. Her words to Mary are so momentous, in fact, that they form the beginning of what Roman Catholics call the “Hail Mary.” Maybe you who grew up Catholic would like to say it with me now: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Elizabeth knows how marvelous Mary is. She sings her praises. What a greeting!
The way we greet each other matters. Sometimes it’s the words, of course. But often it’s a wordless, embodied way in which we convey grace to each other. The other day, Mary and I were doing some Christmas shopping—I wanted to say “finishing up” our Christmas shopping, but alas, that was not to be. In the first store we went into the clerk was absolutely stony. Her manner was ice-cold. She looked as though we had interrupted her life. And I remember feeling a distinct let-down.
But then, in the next three stores we went into, the clerks brightened when we came in, and their faces shined. They asked how they could help us. They graced us with their warmth. They volunteered information that enriched us and made the whole experience an absolute delight. It was pretty remarkable what the effect of their greetings had on Mary on me. We were so taken with it that, when we left those stores, Mary or I said to all three of them, “You’re really good at this, and you make shopping fun. Thank you.” And in all three cases, they looked shocked, but they beamed, and essentially thanked us for thanking them. There was a kind of synergy in these encounters that gave Mary and me joy on a tremendously busy and full day.
As we await the coming of the Messiah, there are countless ways in which we can welcome that coming. We can receive the simple blessings that come to us with gratitude and praise: “Thank you, God, for a spectacular full moon this morning, for a moment of peace, for a warm exchange.” By grace, we can take in and sense the richness of God’s affection and delight right in the depths of our bodies. And we can return the infinite blessings we receive, self to self, in embodied ways. Just to see ourselves as candles radiating God’s light, and to seek to impart some of God’s joy into the lives of others, is a rich and holy way to impart grace. Each smile, each welcome of a stranger, each kind embrace of another person, is a way of saying, “Blessed are you” (Luke 1:42). “The Lord is with you” (1:28). You matter. You are loved beyond belief. This is God’s way. And it’s to be ours, as well, as we both await and convey the coming of the radiant Christ.