This Fall I wrote my first academic paper in over 12 years. 12 years! As as a result, I was slightly nervous to write an academic paper for my graduate school. I’m good at blogging, but that’s a completely different form of writing compared to academic papers. So I scheduled an appointment with my Professor, and with tears in my eyes I shared with her how unsure and inadequate I felt in my ability to write an academic paper. She was gracious and encouraging and spoke some powerful truths over me. I was still pretty insecure leaving her office but excited to try to tackle the task at hand.
I had been assigned to write an expositional paper on Luke 1:39-56 – the story of Mary receiving the news of her miraculous pregnancy and her running off to be with her cousin Elizabeth shortly after. As I studied that passage, I noticed a footnote in the NRSV that some ancient authorities believe Elizabeth, not Mary, sang the Magnificat. I was immediately pulled in! This made so much sense to me! I had never understood how Mary could be so submissive and even joyful about her predicament – an unwed, pregnant young girl in a society that deeply and seriously shamed sexual immorality, to where women could be stoned for having an affair and/or getting pregnant outside of marriage. This is terrifying stuff! And I loved that Elizabeth the elder had a stronger role to play in this story if she indeed sang the magnificat – that as an elder she would have the life experience and wisdom that a young person just wouldn’t have, and Elizabeth would have a chance to encourage and comfort her younger cousin as she processed the news of her unexpected, impossible pregnancy. As they both processed their impossible pregnancies! So out of this academic paper was born a midrash of sorts. I wanted to personalize an interpretation of Luke 1:39-56 in a way that made sense to me. And so here it is: a story of two women and their impossible pregnancies.
And just like that, the angel disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. Vanished. Gone. With no evidence to prove to others that an angel had indeed visited the frightened and dazed Mary. No evidence for Mary herself to force her to realize it wasn’t a dream but a reality that was taking shape quite literally within her. She was miraculously, unexpectedly, impossibly pregnant.
Her eyes were still adjusting to normal daylight after encountering the angel’s bright light and her ears were still ringing with the loaded and perplexing news he had shared with her. As her mind scrambled to make sense of what was just announced and done to her, she kept returning to the thought of her cousin Elizabeth. She had heard from the village that Elizabeth had become some sort of recluse, where she refused to leave her house, and even turned guests away when family and friends tried to visit her. People were wondering if she was becoming mentally ill. If the weight and shame of her barrenness and old age were finally overtaking her, and that maybe this was the beginning of the end for Elizabeth.
But now Mary knew. She knew why her cousin Elizabeth had been in seclusion all these months. She was pregnant! Miraculously, unbelievably pregnant just like Mary, and she was waiting for the right time to announce it to the world – not with her words but with the growing evidence of her six month pregnant belly. Oh, Mary was so grateful that there was one person who would understand her predicament.
But how would she prove to Elizabeth that an angel, indeed, had visited her? How will she prove the radical news of her own miraculous pregnancy without any physical proof? There was no baby belly or morning sickness, just her ringing ears and slight headache from the brilliant light of the angel. How will Elizabeth believe her?
Well, Mary couldn’t give it too much thought, for she was too anxious to run and be with her cousin and hope to find some form of comfort, some understanding of this bizarre and scary predicament she found herself in.
As Mary packed for her trip, she couldn’t help but think of her parents. How will her own parents believe her? They’ll think she’s become mentally ill just like her cousin Elizabeth when Mary tries to explain to them she had been visited by an angel. A poor peasant girl visited by an angel? That’s such nonsense. That’s child’s play. Yes, the people in her village believed God cared for and looked out for the lowly, but to visit and speak such radical news over a young peasant girl? That was over the top. No one would believe her. Once the village members started seeing her growing belly, they would only see the results of a promiscuous girl. There is no way they would believe in her miraculous conception. What blasphemy, in fact, they would tell Mary, for using God’s name as an excuse to be unfaithful to Joseph. This thought terrified Mary.
Oh, and what of Joseph? How on earth will she explain to her husband-to-be that she truly has been faithful to him when her belly starts to show? How will she explain it all to him?
Before Mary could panic even more, she hastily grabbed her packed bags and hurried off to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the countryside. In her haste, Mary told her neighbor to let her parents know where she went and that she didn’t know when she’d be back but that she’ll be okay. Everything will be okay. At least that’s what Mary kept telling herself, trying to convince herself, while she walked as quickly as she could to Elizabeth’s village.
Upon arrival, Mary didn’t know what she was going to say to Elizabeth. She rehearsed her story a hundred different ways on her journey but none of them seemed to do her story and the angel’s visit any justice. Before Mary could finalize on a story to tell Elizabeth, she came upon Elizabeth’s house, and before her fear could make her turn and run away in panic, Mary burst through the front door and cried out, “Elizabeth!” It came across as more of a desperate cry than an actual greeting, but, at this point, it was all Mary could do to keep herself from bursting into tears. As Mary choked back tears and wondered what words to follow her greeting, Elizabeth thankfully filled the void with her own voice, and instead of a formal greeting, Elizabeth too cried out, but into a song of joy! She knew! Somehow Elizabeth knew! Mary, relieved from not having to explain herself to Elizabeth, ran to her older cousin and collapsed into her arms. Elizabeth pulled her in close and Mary, exhausted and afraid, bursted into tears.
Elizabeth, wiser and older than Mary by many years and many life experiences, held onto Mary and gently rocked their bodies back and forth. Elizabeth, too, had been afraid of the news of her own impossible, unexpected pregnancy. But she had the benefit of being married and had the past five months to digest the news, to feel the baby start kicking in her womb, and to watch her belly grow. As she prepared to tell her village of her pregnancy, she didn’t realize she was also being prepared to be a source of strength for her own little cousin from across the way. Sweet little Mary. How frightened she must be. Elizabeth felt a deep gratitude towards their God, for not only blessing them both with miraculous pregnancies that were going to change the world, but for blessing them with pregnancies at the same time. The journey ahead of them was lonely enough; Elizabeth was grateful that, at least for a few months, they could be each other’s companions on this mystical, mystery road of motherhood.
As Mary wept into her arms, Elizabeth felt a song forming in her heart, and she couldn’t keep it within. She felt all the promises of God she had memorized as a child were literally coming to fruition within her own womb and the womb of her little cousin, and she wanted to remind Mary that while there is much to fear, there is also much to celebrate. That their pregnancies were not just for them, but for the salvation of the world. The fact that God would use two lowly women like themselves was almost too much to take in. Elizabeth wanted to chuckle with the ridiculousness of it all, but didn’t want Mary to think she was laughing at her in any way, so Elizabeth chuckled silently in her heart.
As she stroke the side of Mary’s tear-stained face, Elizabeth smiled and started humming the song in her heart and, before she knew it, the words started tumbling out of her mouth as though Elizabeth had been waiting her whole life to sing this song. This song of praise:
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, at us, Mary, and look what happened—
We are the most fortunate women on earth!
What God has done for us will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
As she finished her song, Elizabeth noticed that Mary wasn’t weeping anymore. In fact, Mary was sitting up almost straight with her hands still holding Elizabeth’s, and Mary almost seemed to be lost in thought.
And Elizabeth was right, Mary, indeed, was deep in thought.
Those words that Elizabeth just sang over her somehow washed over Mary in a way she desperately needed. Just a few moments ago, Mary had been almost consumed with panic and fear. But now, somehow, almost as miraculous as her pregnancy, was this new peace Mary felt deep within her. She felt as though through the words of Elizabeth’s song, Mary had been able to draw strength from the body and faith and wisdom of her older cousin.
Nothing externally had changed.
Mary was still somehow pregnant. Mary still had to tell her parents and Joseph. Mary’s village was going to see her pregnant belly no matter how hard she might try to hide it. There was still going to be judgment, shame, and possibly even punishment by her parents and ostracization by her community. But something shifted inside of her.
In her state of panic, Mary couldn’t see beyond the tears in her eyes. But now it’s almost like God gave her eyes for the future. She saw the bigger picture. She saw the coming of her Savior entering the world for the salvation of all people, for the healing of the broken, the liberation of the oppressed, the toppling of the empire, and she, of all people, was going to play a key role in that. She and her cousin Elizabeth. A barren elder and a young virgin girl. Mary could almost sense God’s humor in it all… that God would choose to use the two most unlikely candidates to bring his Kingdom on earth made her almost want to laugh. It seemed absurd and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time!
And, somehow, without any communication between the two, or maybe it was the communication between their two spirits, Mary and Elizabeth started to chuckle at the same time. And when they say the other chuckling, they both couldn’t help but burst into gut-wrenching laughter! Tears streamed down their faces as they hugged and laughed and cried some more. These two women were about to change history, and nobody knew it. Not yet at least. So the two of them soaked it in, basked in the absurdity of it all, and found a strength and joy they didn’t know they had. For a moment, they felt ready, as ready as they could be, whether or not the world was ready for them.