detail from The Visitation
Note: March 25 was the church’s celebration of the Annunciation to Mary of the coming birth of her son Jesus. My focus this week, however, is not on Mary, but rather on Elizabeth, Mary’s older relative whom Mary visited right after the angel’s announcement to her. Elizabeth was 5 months pregnant with John the Baptist at the time of “the visitation.” The following passage tells us that during those first five months Elizabeth had remained in seclusion. I found myself wondering why.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:24-25
Five long months. The longest five months of my life. I know. I expect you assume that I was very excited and very happy during those first five months of my late-in-life pregnancy.
But there was so much more to it than simple happy excitement. Part of me was happy, to be sure. Part of me really did believe that God had looked favourably upon me, and I did feel a deep gratitude to God. But a part of me was pretty skeptical too. Was God really at work in my life, in my body? We had tried for so many years to have a child, and now, at my age, was it possible that I was to birth a very special child who was to prepare the way for the Messiah? I found it difficult to let myself really, really believe that it was all true.
Where was my faith, you ask. Quite honestly, it was buried under years of disappointment. There had been a few hopeful times when I had been “late,” and we had let ourselves get excited. Back in those long-gone days, I had even dared to whisper once to a few of my women friends that maybe, just maybe, I might be pregnant. Only to be disappointed one more time.
This time, I was simply going to keep to myself at home, busy myself with my daily household routines, and avoid, as much as possible, the ever-present grin that haloed my dear husband’s trusting face. I decided not to go out to the market or the town well (let my husband take over those chores), as I simply couldn’t face the questions I knew would await me there. Why was my usually rather dour husband so happy, even after he had lost his ability to speak? And what was he trying to tell them in his silly pantomimes?
Yes, I did watch my waist-line give way to a bit of a bulge, but wasn’t that what happened to all women who were my age? And yes, my breasts did become a little fuller, but there, too, maybe I was just putting on a little extra weight, without my usual exercise of daily walks to get our water and food. I remained skeptical.
And, to be quite honest, I was just a little bit angry with God as well. I mean, why couldn’t God have given us this child when we were young and energetic and so eager to be parents? Would that have been too much to ask? Why did I have to bear years of scorn from my neighbors because I had never been able to bear a child? It all seemed so unfair.
So for those five long months I sat in my house and simply waited. Alone. Dubious. Anxious. Angry.
And then that moment of spiritual transport in the early days of my sixth month. It happened on the day my relative Mary came to visit me with her news of the angel’s promise that she was to give birth to the “Son of the Most High,” a child who was to sit on the throne of David in a kingdom with no end. Clearly our Messiah! I had always been devout, but never before had I experienced a time when I simply felt overwhelmed by God’s Spirit and felt God’s Spirit actually speaking through me. But I did feel a certain ecstasy as I cried out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
I was genuinely happy that day. Happy for Mary with all of her good news. And happy for myself also, for when I felt my baby give me a swift kick that day, I finally knew it all was so very real.
At the same time, if I’m really honest, I have to confess that along with all that happiness, I did feel just a bit of jealousy. I mean, why was this young teen-age girl called to be the mother of our Messiah, when I, with all my maturity and wisdom of age, had been called only to be the mother of our Messiah’s forerunner? Ghirlandaio captured some of my ambivalence, I think. Mary is gently looking right at me, but my eyes are just a bit averted. Trying to take it all in–the enormity of what was happening, as well as the weight of all my emotions. Oh well, my jealousy was pretty fleeting, and overall I really did feel blessed.
But with all my lack of faith, my anger at God, my short-lived jealousy, I certainly want to confess that I was no saint. I know. I was declared a saint by the early church, and my feast day is still celebrated 2100 years later on either November 5 (Roman Catholic Church) or September 8 (Greek Orthodox Church).
But the reality is that I was simply an ordinary woman with lots of doubts, questions, jealousies, angers, and fears. A saint? I hardly think so!
Or was I? I’ve been talking to the apostle Paul through these centuries since my life on earth, and I think he has me almost convinced that all Christ-followers really are saints. He spoke of this so often in his letters to the churches back in the first century, and he’s still hammering away at that idea all these centuries later. Trying to convince me that, even though I certainly didn’t wear a halo, even though I was far from perfect, I was, in God’s eyes, a saint because God was at work in my life.
He does agree with me that I was a pretty muddy saint, to be sure. All of us are, he tells me, as he ticks off his own failings. Lots of clay feet and dirty toes. Lots of mistakes in all our lives. But I think he has convinced me that we are all saints simply because God truly is at work in each of our lives. He likes to quote for me what he said in his letter to the Ephesians. “We are [God ’s] workmanship (the Greek word here is “poiēma,” which can also be translated as “poem” or “masterpiece”), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” I quite like that image. God sculpting the soiled clay of our lives into a lovely vase or chalice. God taking the alphabets of our lives to write the rhythms of a lyrical poem. “Masterpieces” that carry the ancient, ongoing silhouette and song of God’s love for all of God’s creation.
So call me a saint, if you will. And celebrate my special day, if you will. But please be sure to call yourself a saint too. And please celebrate each day of your muddy life, believing, in every moment, that God is carefully and lovingly at work in you, molding and writing beauty in all the messy contours, all the soiled nouns and verbs and adverbs of your not-so-saintly, saintly life.