Readings: Psalm 28, Luke 1:39-45, Secrets of Heaven #545 (see below)
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This week we will take some time to center the character of Elizabeth. Elizabeth is introduced within the first five verses of the book of Luke and is the mother of John the Baptist, who we focused on last week.
We learn that she is the wife of a priest named Zechariah; they are childless and quite old. But Elizabeth will soon enter into the biblical tradition of miraculous pregnancies. An angel appears to Zechariah to tell him that Elizabeth will conceive and bear a son, and they are to call him John. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to make ready people for the Lord.” (v17)
And soon, just as the angel said, Elizabeth falls pregnant. After a few months, Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, comes to her with her own miraculous story. Mary is pregnant too, the miracle being not her age, but that her womb will grow the earthly body of the living God. The beauty of this story is in its mystery. All Mary needed to do was say an initial greeting: “Hello, Elizabeth….!?” as we all might do at the door of a trusted friend. And the baby John, growing, developing, in his quiet and dark space, was shocked awake by the sound. Something about the call of Mary’s voice activated the Holy Spirit within John, and we are told the baby “leaped for joy.” It is hyperbole, of course. But it serves to illustrate the mystical connection between Jesus and John, one that will be so beautifully illustrated when John baptizes Jesus at the Jordan river some thirty years later.
In this moment though, despite the baby’s leaping, it is Elizabeth who gives voice to the movement of the spirit with what are sometimes called her “four oracles.”
First, she declares the blessedness of Mary. This blessedness, which seems so clear to us now, was patently ridiculous then. Mary was unmarried, and we can imagine what kind of tumult her pregnancy was going to cause her family, and her betrothed, Joseph. Mary was insignificant in the scheme of things; a teenager of no particular family or reputation, an oppressed minority under the thumb of a brutal empire. From an earthly perspective, her life was about to fall apart. But Elizabeth declares her blessed.
Second, she affirms the identity of Mary’s child. Mary is about to sing her Magificat, her hymn about what God is going to do with her, how Jesus will affect a mighty change in the power structures of the world. But even before that, Elizabeth affirms that Mary is, that someone like Mary could be, the vessel for that kind of change. And, she affirms the identity of Jesus but though Mary, using the term Mother of my Lord, lifting up the fact that God chose to work through women in a patriarchal society.
Third, she interprets the leap of her baby within her. With all that we have already said, that in earthly terms Mary’s pregnancy of not a good thing, that it is ridiculous to think that someone like Mary could be so pivotal, into circumstances under which we would all be aghast and overwhelmed and unbelieving, Elizabeth speaks of joy. And in a much more elemental way than “this good news for you makes me happy.” She speaks of what God is doing in electric terms, of life’s deep knowledge that God always reaches out to us and that this is good. She gives words to the fact that in the quantum space between sound and cell there was a communication, there was a missive of love that we call spirit. And it caused a reaction that Elizabeth called joy. The animation of still-developing life recognizing life.
And fourth, she declares another beatitude upon Mary for her faith. We don’t actually know the wholeness of Mary’s mental state at this time. She utters her sacred yes in the previous verses: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” And soon she will sing of the possibilities in the future, but in the in-between, we can imagine she might have felt some worry. But Elizabeth lifts up Mary’s faith in God’s promises. We can read this as the promises that the angel fortold, of Jesus birth, but also Mary will soon sing of greater promises, of a just society, of full bellies, of the ascent of the humble rather than the arrogant. Mary has a faith around God’s intention for the world, and is willing to play her part in bringing this into being. This opportunity brings her joy and so she sings: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46)
Elizabeth becomes the conduit through which the joy in Mary and the joy in John are connected. It is amazing to think that this is the same rough and ready John the Baptist from our text last week, the one hurling epithets about vipers and warning about the winnowing fork and the fire. Today we find that the urgency of his call was born out of joy, was born out of an electric leaping in utero at the sound of Mary’s voice, and the promise that she represented. And Mary, born into a dangerous world of empire that we can hardly fathom now (but many in this world still can), accepting a mission that might well ostracize her, or impoverish her, and that would later require her family to flee as political refugees, into this reality she speaks of joy as well. If joy is possible for Mary, it is possible anywhere, and this is a radical hope.
It communicates to us that we are made for joy. That the very existence of joy is a simple declaration of God’s original intention for us, for a good God would not make beloved children for any other purpose.
But of course, if we are not feeling joy, that is not an indictment of us, that we are somehow defective, or defensive, or unfeeling. There are many reasonable and understandable reasons to not feel joyful. The challenge of the spiritual journey is to acknowledge the fact that we are made for joy, without also making the experience of joy an imperative in every moment. We must hold very gently the potential unhelpfulness of the question: If joy is a natural preordained state, then what am I doing or not doing that is getting in the way of it? There are times that this question is a useful one. Sometimes our ambition, or our distraction, or our selfishness gets in the way of the simple joy that is available to us when we quiet ourselves down, or when we open our eyes to what is already present, or when we serve someone other than ourselves. Sometimes we are looking for joy in the wrong places, and once we recognize that, we are freer to seek joy where it will actually find us.
But other times, joy does not feel accessible at all, and this is not our fault. There is trauma and brokenness and loss in this world, and the appropriate and unavoidable reaction is often sadness, grief and lament. We need to recall that Elizabeth said: blessed is she, not joyful is she. Just as the beatitudes declare “blessed are those who are poor, who weep or hunger” as a way of expressing love, care and concern for those who are normally forgotten and marginalized, so too does Elizabeth’s beatitudes upon Mary pronounce a blessedness that is counter to her circumstances. The beatitudes of the gospels declare a state of inherent worthiness of each of our beings that does not depend upon our emotional state or our productiveness, and so too we hear a beatitude upon Mary that is anchored in a larger trust in God’s promises, a larger trust in God’s ultimate intentions, and not in her feeling in any given moment.
It can be difficult to hold lament in one hand and trust in the other. Even now we might be feeling a mounting tension and uncertainty around rising covid cases, around the state of the world, or other events in our lives. But what we do know from our Swedenborg reading today, is that heavenly joy resides in our inmost recesses, in the deepest and most secret parts of our being. This capacity for joy is always with us. It is a part of God’s order of heaven and of life, part of the web of experience to which we are always connected. We won’t always feel it, and that is okay. Lament is the price of love, the price of moral concern for those around us. But we may also know that, even when it is quiescent, the capacity for joy is our baseline, an integral part of our operating instructions. At times, perhaps this capacity will come alive with a leap that we weren’t expecting. At times, this capacity will rest within us, softly waiting for a time it can be born. And so, we learn in Advent that we can trust in God’s promises, not even so much what God will do but what God has done already. Amen.
1 To you, LORD, I call; you are my Rock, do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who go down to the pit. 2 Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place. 3 Do not drag me away with the wicked, with those who do evil, who speak cordially with their neighbors but harbor malice in their hearts. 4 Repay them for their deeds and for their evil work; repay them for what their hands have done and bring back on them what they deserve. 5 Because they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD and what his hands have done, he will tear them down and never build them up again. 6 Praise be to the LORD, for he has heard my cry for mercy. 7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him. 8 The LORD is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation for his anointed one. 9 Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever.
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Secrets of Heaven #545
In order to teach me about the existence and nature of heaven and heavenly joy, the Lord has given me the opportunity to perceive the pleasures of heavenly joy frequently and for extended periods. Because I have learned these things by actually experiencing them, I possess the knowledge but cannot possibly put it into words.
To offer just an idea of it: The countless pleasures and joys there, which come together to create a single experience shared by all, carry with them a certain emotion. Within that common experience, or that common emotion, are points of harmony among a boundless number of feelings. These individual points of harmony do not come clearly but only vaguely to our awareness, because our perception is extremely generalized. Even so, I was allowed to perceive that there were countless parts, organized in a way that can never be described. Those countless parts flow from the order that exists in heaven, which determines their nature.
 The smallest individual elements of an emotion are organized in such a way that they are presented and sensed only as a collective whole, according to the capacities of the person who feels the emotion. In a word, every whole has an unlimited number of parts, organized in the most perfect way; every one of the parts is alive; and every one of them affects us, all the way to our inmost recesses. For the inmost recesses are where heavenly joy comes from