The following is an excerpt from Sanctuary: Being Christian in the Wake of Trump by Heidi Neumark (Eerdmans 2020). It is reprinted by permission of the publisher.
I come again after nearly four decades of pastoral ministry to the story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. When my younger self chose it as my ordination text, I identified with Mary’s youthful revolutionary fire notable in the song she sings.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . .
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46–47, 52–53)
I still resonate with these words. But as I age, I’ve begun to see myself in the older Elizabeth, and I’m noticing some new components in the story as well.
According to Luke, as soon as the angel Gabriel appears and astonishes Mary with news of her impending pregnancy, Mary hurries off to visit Elizabeth and we’re given a detail that only now has begun to intrigue me: the visit lasted three months. Why does Luke mention three months? If Luke was a physician, he would surely know that the first three months are the most vulnerable time of pregnancy. A large percentage of miscarriages happen in the first trimester and many women choose not to share news of their pregnancy until those tender months have passed.
Luke would also know about morning sickness. While every body is different, morning sickness is most common during the first three months. For the majority of women, the body adjusts to the rush of hormonal changes by the end of the first trimester and morning sickness goes away. It seems that Mary hastened to reach Elizabeth before morning sickness had a chance to seriously hinder her travels. I wonder if she ended up staying three months because it took that long before she felt well enough to make the return trip. For many women, and it was certainly my experience, morning sickness during the first trimester is constant. In Spanish, the term is malabarriga, or evil belly.
It seems that Mary hastened to reach Elizabeth before morning sickness had a chance to seriously hinder her travels.
Mary’s revolutionary song—called the Magnificat—comes to us out of these three months of malabarriga, a time of churning upheaval in her body and in the social body she was part of. We can imagine her anxiety and uncertainty, the gossip swirling around her, leaving her vulnerable to the miscarriage of justice, the threat of community rejection, and possible death. All this is taking place in Judea, a Roman colony under the rule of Herod, whose brutal and capricious reign was itself a sort of malabarriga that’s felt by many in Washington these days.
Just as Mary’s body needed to adjust to the way it was changing, so must the Church. Generational changes affect church attendance and provoke questions around worship styles, leadership styles, and what meaningful and authentic mission looks like. It’s also a time of changing racial demographics that shock the system of white supremacy, both outside and inside many churches. There is fear, despair, and avoidance of environmental catastrophe. Increasing numbers of young people reject rigid binaries around gender and sexuality that were once accepted norms. Many people get queasy while absorbing Mary’s words of some being brought down from positions of privilege while others are lifted up so that a true, beloved community can form.
Just as Mary’s body needed to adjust to the way it was changing, so must the Church.
Most of the time, feeling sick indicates that something is wrong, and we want to do everything possible to get rid of whatever is causing us to feel ill. I know quite a few churches that have closed or that are about to close because they would rather die than live through uncomfortable changes. Many people make similar choices when they cast their vote, stomaching bitter capsules of misogyny and racism if those are the price of being spared even greater, imagined discomforts. But the body’s churning is not always a sign of illness. It is sometimes—as with pregnancy’s morning sickness—a sign of new life. Instead of demeaning the wisdom of women’s bodies, our church and our nation could learn from them.
The three months Mary spent with Elizabeth surely incorporated discomfort, but it was also a shared liminal space of pregnancy. Being a sanctuary church is like that. It’s not always comfortable to live and worship in a shelter. If a gay Jamaican refugee is in the shower on Sunday morning a couple of minutes beyond his allotted time, what is the toddler arriving for Wee Worship to do when she needs the toilet? When volunteers need the undercroft on Wednesday night to set up for the following day’s Thanksgiving meal that will serve nearly one thousand people, where will those who are sheltered in the same room each night stay? The answers are that we have a second bathroom, which may or may not be occupied, and the Wednesday volunteers will carry all the beds upstairs into the sanctuary for that one night. Sanctuary is not without stresses, exactly because sanctuary is an embodied way for dreams to grow in a protected space so that a different future can be born.
Sanctuary is not without stresses, exactly because sanctuary is an embodied way for dreams to grow in a protected space so that a different future can be born.
For Luke, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, three months is always such a generative time. In Acts, Luke tells us that Paul stayed in Ephesus for three months and “spoke boldly” to the people there. Then Paul stayed in Greece for three months of sanctuary, a safe place in the face of violent plots against him. Later, after the ship that was carrying him to Rome to stand trial was wrecked in a storm, Paul and his companions stayed on the island of Malta for three months, another season of sanctuary and preparation for next steps.
And so, the very young Mary seeks out the elder Elizabeth, who is in her sixth month, for a protected space, for comfort, wisdom, and support at a time when many are against her. We understand that Mary needs Elizabeth, but Elizabeth also needs Mary. Elizabeth is closer to the age of many in our pews. Elizabeth’s generation is aging and their church is not birthing the new children they hoped for. According to the numbers, their church is barren. But this story sees things differently. Mary and Elizabeth carry the future together. In God’s mercy, one generation needs the other.
The little one that has taken flesh in Elizabeth’s aging body is intimately connected to the new life in Mary’s body, and Elizabeth feels it in her belly: “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” (Luke 1:44–45). I know this feeling. I know the joyful quickening in my soul when I see the many seminarians I’ve mentored graduating and getting ordained to live out their own magnificent visions. I know the flutter in my stomach as I hear their sermons and podcasts, read their writings, and witness the transformative communities they are forming. I know the leap of joy when our young congregational president greets the church, leads council meetings, organizes in the street, and mentors fellow DACA recipients.
As an older woman, I now notice this: both Mary and Elizabeth bear new life, but the older Elizabeth privileges the younger Mary’s pregnancy. Elizabeth prioritizes Mary’s need for hospitality and sanctuary and perhaps, most importantly, Elizabeth shows a preferential option for Mary’s voice and vision over her own. I want to learn how to pattern myself after Elizabeth. She utters a word of affirmation and blessing and steps aside so that the voice of Mary may sing out. Elizabeth models a way forward for older generations in the church: sometimes we must stand down, sit down, and be quiet, so that the voices and visions of another generation can be heard.
Elizabeth shows a preferential option for Mary’s voice and vision over her own. … She utters a word of affirmation and blessing and steps aside so that the voice of Mary may sing out.
In Advent Wee Worship, I handed out magnifying glasses to help us think about what it means when Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). It’s easy to magnify all the other things that loom large and claim our full attention while the promises and words of God recede to the peripheral edges of our awareness, but Mary and Elizabeth model a different way. Elizabeth allows the tiny, kicking feet of John the Baptist to become a prophetic witness heralding the presence of Christ in Mary. Mary can’t yet feel any elbows or feet, perhaps just a faint flutter. She sings of a future too small to see, taking shape in her womb. Mary lifts up truth in a world that magnifies so many lies. Advent reminds us to look for the small flutters.