By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
Reflection written up from a homily given at St. Peter’s Episcopal Detroit on December 20, 2015.
Luke 1: 39-56
I wonder about the beginning of this reading. “Mary went with haste….” It seems like there are three possibilities for this. First is that she was so excited and filled with anticipation that she fled to a friend she loved. I think this is our most common interpretation. But I think it more likely the second or third possibility. Either she was sent away out of shame and embarrassment for three months. Or as I did more reading, it seems likely that being pregnant and not married with her status was actually cause for being stoned to death. She may have been fleeing for her life.
So, it is perhaps in that place or urgency and fear that this reading begins, but, after that it is nothing but delight. The reading is beautiful.
As I was sitting with this story, I realized how much I WISH that this was the Christmas story. That this was the birthing scene that we read together Christmas Eve. It is filled with the intimacy of friendship, the wisdom of women, longing, rejoicing, honoring one another, singing, and just a good long chunk of time to be with one another.
I love how it ends with “Mary stayed for 3 months before she went home.” Though that is cut from the lectionary. You can just imagine how they spent that time. Both pregnant. Two women- one old and one young. Resting, imagining, praying, cooking for another, massaging their bodies, and in the midst of it all talking about God and a radical new social order. Speaking dangerous politics. With those two women for mothers, no wonder Jesus and John turned out to be badasses.
It is just a beautiful scene. As I reflect at thirty-six weeks pregnancy today, this is what I hope for- circles of women, children leaping for joy, feeling that birth can be a shift in the status quo, and feeling honored and blessed by love and by God.
But that is not the scene we get this Christmas. While in so many ways, we have romanticized the Nativity story, it really is not a great birth story. It begins with them being ordered to leave their homes. Deported. To be counted. I imagine the relationships Mary had to leave behind. She would have known the midwives that would be at her birth. Perhaps she would have given birth the same place her mother did. Perhaps her mother and sisters would have been there. But instead, she is forced to leave, alone.
Then they have a long journey…on a donkey! This year, we have a strict NO Christmas travel policy in our family. Travel is hard work on these pregnant weary bodies. I remember how painful it was to be in labor traveling in a car on bumpy pavement. The idea of traveling by donkey on dirt roads while close or starting labor, sounds pretty horrible.
Then, she feels the contractions and is ready to have this kid and they have to try to find a bed! There is no room in the inn. I think I have always felt like “I cant believe they wouldn’t let her in! All would have been fine.” But an inn is no place to have a baby either. Alone. With no midwife. And instead she ends up in a barn. On the cold ground. With the smell of animals. Did she catch the baby by herself? Did Joseph catch the baby? I imagine that would have been culturally unusual. Was it a scary labor?
Then, after all that, according to the stories we hear, she is surrounded by NO ONE but MEN! Joseph, an Inn Keeper, shepherds, kings. Maybe there are some women angels? But even those that are named are men! I ache for Mary. I think of the reading of Mary and Elizabeth and the time they shared together. How different that feeling is. Intimate, sacred space for women is so important. In a time when women were not given space or honored, birth would have been one of those few places women had space together. It was systemically taken away from her.
Things don’t get much better after that either. An order is given to kill all boys under two. She births a son right into a world that wants to swallow up her son. It is similar to the other birthing stories we know in the bible. Moses who escapes death multiple times after Egypt demands all Hebrew baby boys killed. And the women in Revelation who birth right in the face of a dragon who plans to eat her son. Birth is not beautiful in the bible. It does not feel like Advent pregnant hope, but rather pregnancies filled with fear and the slim hopes for the chance of survival for their children.
So, knowing all that is to come, I delight in today’s reading. I give thanks that those friendships and spaces find their ways into Mary’s life despite all the barriers. I give thanks that it was powerful enough that amidst all the other stuff left out about women in the Gospels, this makes it in. It is certainly a story that models discipleship for me. That calls in us to be human, to rest, to sing, to hope, to speak justice, to find intimacy, and to leap for joy in the face of all that is happening and all that is to come.
The other thing that strikes me in Luke and Hebrews is the reality of bodies. So often in our faith we separate mind and bodies. We intellectualize the readings and our spiritualties. But here, God is choosing to be incarnate in a body. “You have prepared a body for me.” We feel Jesus and John jumping in the womb. Pregnancy and birth are real physical, bodily things. It isn’t pretty or neat. It is painful and bloody and earthly. In fact, I’ve never felt so much like an animal than when I was giving birth. It wasn’t my mind or my heart that birthed that child, it was the instincts in my body.
I remember a friend saying to me, “It wasn’t until I gave birth and I was breast feeding, that I really understood, “This is my body, broken, and given for you.”
I remember so clearly the moments before I started pushing Isaac out, when he is coming down between my hips, and it literally feels like my body is being split in two. And in a lot of ways it is. My hips come apart. And something that is flesh of my flesh is given into this world.
As we take communion today, my mind and heart will be preparing to break again. As we count down the days til he arrives, I offer my body again as gift- giving life to another human being.
Indeed, “this is my body, broken and given for you.”
I invite you to close your eyes
To be still.
We give thanks for the stories
That encourage our hearts
May we too be like Mary and Elizabeth
Who in the midst of darkness
Delight in their friendship
Feel the movements in their bodies
Speak of a radical hope for the future
May we carve out those spaces
Of sacred, intimacy
Despite the powers that be
Trying to swallow them up
Oh God, you call us into our bodies
Honoring the earthly, ordinary, and miraculous beings that we are
To feel their heaviness on the ground
And to let the earth carry us
We pray that our lives embody the Gospels
Giving them to the work of creation, love, and resistance.
For all of this and so much more on our hearts,
We lift it to you
Who holds us like a mother’s womb,
who became embodied in Mary’s womb,
and was birthed from the womb into this world.