The Rev. Leigh Mackintosh, Associate Rector of St. Michael’s Church
With last week’s amazing Christmas pageant, the church fully decked in finest greenery, and the choir’s beautiful singing at Lessons and Carols, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. But before we get to the virgin birth and singing O little town of Bethlehem tomorrow, the liturgical calendar calls for one more day of Advent. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, it seems odd to begin with Mary at the very beginning.
Quick recap: Mary has just said “yes” to God’s desire to be our Emmanuel, God with us. Mary’s “yes” forges a new way of being blessed in the world, a new way of living with God each day. Mary chooses to embark on a road like no other – a path that welcomes God to share our humanity, and a path that later challenges God to share in our joys, sorrows, struggles and suffering.
Today’s story begins with Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth – a visit that comprises two of the most popular prayers in all Christianity: the Ave Maria or Hail Mary and the Magnificat.
Given the power, joy and beauty of their words, we quickly gloss over Luke’s opening line and miss that Mary’s trip from Nazareth to the Judean hill country was a journey between 80 and 100 miles!
If we fill in the gaps here, the opening line of Luke’s story makes this story even more amazing:
“In those days, Mary set out, alone on foot walking a dangerous 80 miles to a town in the Judean mountains. The newly pregnant Mary went with haste uphill on a rough narrow path while also wrestling with morning sickness. After five days, she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (Luke 1:39)
80 miles, five days, uphill. I wonder what that journey was like for Mary? Did she walk with a sense of purpose or was it more like wandering? What did she experience on the road? How did she feel when the angel departed? Did that joy and curiosity and closeness with God linger on? Or did her own fears and doubts begin to settle in about what was to come? What words or prayers brought her comfort and courage along the way…what did Mary say to God? What did God say to Mary?
I’ve never walked 80 miles through the Judean hill country, but I have walked 96 miles through Scotland on the West Highland Way. And let me tell you…a lot can happen in 96 miles!
The West Highland Way was my first long distance hike ever. When I started out I was in over-achiever mode – walk every mile, don’t skip anything especially the hard parts.
After a couple days of rocky paths, steep hills…more rocks, steeper hills and of course the rain, the glorious rain…after all that, you start to realize that you don’t have to walk every step of the way to make the journey your own. Sometimes the simpler way, the detour, the injury that takes you on a modified route can yield the most spectacular revelations of what it means to be blessed in our humanity. The goal is not to live for the destination or to prove yourself to someone else on the trail. The goal is to live the journey.
Every journey in life reveals three things:
1) Where we’ve been and where we are going.
2) Who we are.
3) How ought to live.
For me, 96 miles in Scotland taught me that it’s not me who makes the way; it’s walking the way that made and molded me. For every traveler, the path is the same, but each journey is unique. Wisdom comes not at the beginning or the end, the wisdom comes in walking the miles, in making the journey one’s own.
Spanish poet Antonio Machado sums it up with the following words:
“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no path, the way is made by walking.”
There’s nothing like a good long walk over several days to make you feel infinitely more grateful, infinitely more alive.
Whatever joy, curiosity, doubts, or fears were swirling around in Mary, her journey through the Judean hill country, walking those 80 miles made the way for her words to become flesh, for Mary’s “yes” to become embodied making Mary Godbearer. Mary’s “yes” becomes the pathway for God to be born anew as savior of the world.
We hear the incarnation of Mary’s “yes” echoed in the words of welcome, affirmation and blessing she receives from Elizabeth, we hear Mary’s “yes” in the leap of joy from Elizabeth’s womb, and of course in Mary’s courageous song:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked upon the lowliness of his servant, surely all generations will call me blessed for the Mighty one has done great things in me.
And Holy is his Name.” (Luke 1:46-49)
The first leg of Mary’s journey is embracing and embodying her “yes” to God on a deeper level. The second leg of her journey is walking with Elizabeth. Over the next three months, Mary stays with Elizabeth through the birth of John the Baptist. In many ways, these women model how we can live in community together as fellow companions on the way – here to guide, affirm, and challenge one another as we make our own way and live the journey of “yes” to God.
Wherever you are on your journey of faith, whatever your age or background, whatever your gifts, struggles or limitations, each one of us has unique gifts and experiences that equip us to become pathways for God’s compassion, joy, and service.
The path that lies before us is the same, love God and love your neighbor. How we live the journey is what makes all the difference.
As we continue our journey from Advent into Christmas, may we be like Mary and Elizabeth, companions on the way; messengers and bearers of Christ’s love and service in the world. Amen.