Being pregnant is a mixed blessing. If you have ever been pregnant, or your
spouse has been pregnant, or you’ve had close friends who were pregnant, you
know that truth. Several years ago, my son texted me a picture of my 2 ½ yr old
granddaughter in a T-shirt that read “ I’m the Big Sister”. I called them to
congratulate them on the birth of my grandson, Evan. After my initial
“Congratulations!” the next words out of my mouth were these:
“How is Lindsay feeling?” I knew what came next. When my first son was born, I
had morning sickness for the obligatory 3 months. For the second, I had heartburn
for nine months. For the third, I was tired all the time ! Being pregnant is an
exciting time, full of hope and expectation, but it is also a time that includes some
anxiety, fear, and discomfort. Will the baby be healthy? Will it have ten fingers
and ten toes? If the baby has a medical issue, will I be able to handle it well? My
younger sister was a blue baby and sustained some brain damage. It has been a life
long adjustment for all of us in helping her have a good quality of life.
Recently I read a poem about pregnancy by a mother named Kathleen Frazer.
She began it with this:
“ we’re connecting,
foot under my rib.
I’m sore with life.”
When John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb, she knew he was healthy and alive, and
responding to the life in Mary’s womb. The presence of the Holy Spirit was
palpable… But what Luke leaves out is that the pain from the kick in the ribs
probably made Elizabeth jump a little, too !
Luke’s story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is a story full of hope and expectation.
It is full of miracle and wonder. Elizabeth’s pregnancy was extraordinary because
of her advanced age. Although we are used to women becoming pregnant at older
ages, say 35 or 40, in Elizabeth’s day, many women did not even live beyond 40.
To be old was a miracle in itself. To be pregnant and old was double-ly amazing.
Mary’s pregnancy was extraordinary because of the circumstances, a visitation
from an angel brought an invitation from God to carry a child—a child conceived,
not from man, but from the Holy Spirit, from the Holy One, from the Creator of the
When Mary entered Zechariah’s house, she called to Elizabeth and was greeted
in return. The room filled with expectant life as they came together. And in their
greeting and praises to God, they reflected a search for meaning to it all. Why did
God choose them? Why did God choose the present moment? What lay in store
for these babies yet to come?
We hear snippets of their praise for the wonderful miracle. What else might
they have talked about, said to one another in the time they were together? Mary
had been told her baby would be a son who would be given the throne of David.
What about Elizabeth’s son ? Would her child follow in his father’s footsteps and
be a respected priest ? Is that what his predicted “greatness” meant? I wonder if
Elizabeth even dreamed about the possibility that her son would grow up to be an
itinerant prophet who lived in the wild and ate locusts and wild honey. If she ever
imagined that he would be so faithful in preaching repentence and laying the
groundwork for the One to Come that he would lose his life because of the
pettiness of a woman whose husband represented the oppressiveness of the
And Mary? Mary and Elizabeth knew the prophecies of the One to Come, the
Messiah, the Saviour. Is that what the angel had truly meant in his announcement?
Was this to be the long-awaited Saviour? Would he restore the fortunes of his
people as David had done, conquering armies and uniting his people ? Would
Mary have wondered or worried about the dangers inherent in such an endeavor?
Would she even come close to imagining that her son’s work would first look like
failure and end up with him crucified by the Roman authorities? Could she ever
have imagined resurrection?
We know that the hope and expectation expressed by Mary and Elizabeth were
fulfilled in so much more completeness than they ever imagined, but the
fulfillment was mixed with disappointment and grief. In a short essay on hope,
Curtiss Ulmquist, the superior for the Society of St. John the Evangelist, states that
“hope is not optimism”…hope is fueled by the presence of God, who gives us
breath…”. While we breathe, we hope. “Hope is also fueled by the future of God
in our lives: a small seed which perhaps we cannot even see right now, planted by
God in the ground of our being.” Mary is a symbol for us of that hope, a small
seed of God planted not only in her belly as a child of promise, but in her soul
enabling her to persevere in supporting Jesus, even in the bleakest moments of his
life. She is there not only to celebrate the miracle at Cana, the miracles of healing,
the miracles of loaves and fishes, but she is there on the way to the cross, and at the
foot of the cross. She bears his body there in her arms, as well as having borne him
in the womb. She is there at the tomb. And she is there in that Upper Room when
Hope is fueled in us by the presence of God, who gives us breath. Hope is
fueled by the future of God in our lives; a small seed which perhaps we cannot
even see right now, planted by God in the ground of our being. Like Mary, this
presence of God planted in us at our baptism is the presence that is with us in times
of joy and expectation, and times of betrayal, grief, death, and resurrection. The
hope God gives us through God’s presence with us is not optimism, it is not seeing
clearly into the future. It is the grace given to help us to put one foot in front of
another, to carry on in the darkness, in the expectation that someday, somehow, the
powers of this world will not have the last say and that the prophecies of God will
be fulfilled, that God will triumph. Some days, that hope is hard to hold on to.
Some days that presence of God is hard to recognize. Challenges to that hope
come in many different ways, sometimes large, sometimes small, sometimes
bombarding us. Challenges to our hope come when we are struggling with
unemployment, or illness and death, especially at the holiday times. Challenges
come when we continue to hear the news about Syrian refuges, when we hear that
the climate conference might not come through with all the world had hoped it
would, when we aren’t sure when and where the next terrorist will strike, or when
or where revenge will be taken on innocent Muslims among us. And all this when
we approach Christmas, the season in which we hope and pray for peace.
Into all this comes Mary’s testimony, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my
spirit rejoices in God my savior”. Her trip to Elizabeth’s has been long and tiring.
She probably went away for a while just to escape the everyday awkwardness of
people whispering and staring– because I’m sure not everyone believed her
incredible story. Her freedom is limited, since the Roman authorities control
everyone’s comings and goings. Taxes are high and will probably get higher after
the census. And yet, Mary witnesses to her hope and faith in the power of God to
work in and through the times of darkness.
In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti several years ago, there was an
interview on NPR that has stuck with me ever since. The reporter had seen a
woman sitting on a mat under a tree, her few possessions scattered around her. He
also noted that she was singing hymns. The reporter went over to her and asked
how it was she could sing in the midst of having lost everything, in the midst of the
rubble and chaos. Her reply was simply, “Singing to God gives me hope.” God
calls us to that same hope, that same focus on light in the darkness, that hope of
Mary and the woman in Haiti. God calls us to that same testimony in the midst of
the difficult circumstances of our lives, whatever they may be. Hope is not
optimism. Hope is fueled by the presence of God, granting us the grace to believe
in the future of God’s kingdom, which we cannot yet see in its fullness.