In the hill country
There was a time when I used to travel to Cuba a lot, on business. My Cuban counterpart in those days was the director of the government department with which we were doing business. He was also a general in the Cuban military, which wasn’t unusual. When we weren’t talking business, he liked to tell me stories about the Cuban revolution. As a teenager, he had fled his home in the city and escaped to the hill country in the southwest of the island. He became part of the rebel group led by Che Guevara in the hills near Santiago de Cuba, where they organized and recruited and trained, in anticipation of the revolution. Rebels throughout the ages have often fled to the hills, away from prying eyes, hidden from the military regime.
Revolutions begin in the hill country. You can say things in the hill country that you can’t in the cities, where government spies might be listening. Things like, “the powerful will be brought down from their thrones.”
In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to the hill country. Revolutions begin in the hill country.
Thirty years later, the son that she carried on that journey would come in from the wilderness, down from the hill country, and return to Galilee to proclaim:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
Those were revolutionary words, a direct challenge to the Roman military authorities and to the Jewish authorities that collaborated with the Roman Empire. Jesus was a rebel.
Do you ever wonder where he got that from?
I think that he got it from his mother.
“The Lord has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
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.”
Mary’s song is call for revolution, a call to overturn the ways of the world. It is the song of a prophet, of one who speaks the word of God, of one who knows who God is, of one who knows what God has promised and has absolute faith that God will do as God has promised.
Mary is a young woman deeply versed and shaped by scripture. She knows her God, she knows her history. She knows that when her ancestors were slaves in Egypt, God rescued them from the hands of their enemies with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. She knows that at critical moments in the history of her people God has acted through women, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and now Elizabeth, all of whom, against the odds, bring forth children who change the course of history. Mary knows the story of Hannah, chosen by God to give birth to Samuel, and she knows Hannah’s prophetic song in praise of the God who breaks the bows of the mighty and gives the feeble strength. Mary has become one in that line of prophets, one who has faith in the steadfast love and mercy of her God, one who knows God’s promises and realizes that the best is yet to come, that everything is about to change with the birth of the child that she carries inside.
It’s not easy being a prophet. A prophet is one who calls for revolution, who points towards the changes that God is about to bring. But the first revolution is often in the life of the prophet herself. The past two months haven’t been easy for Mary. Ever since that encounter with the angel, ever since Mary was told she was to conceive and bear a son, ever since she said to the angel, “Let it be with me according to your word,” her own life has turned upside down.
The first time she missed her period, I expect she didn’t tell anyone right away, that she kept it to herself, for a whole month, just to be sure. Then she missed her period again, and that’s when she had to tell someone. Probably her mother. Who told her father. Who told Joseph’s father. Who told Joseph. I don’t know whether Mary tried to explain herself, or how Mary tried to explain herself, or whether anyone believed her if she did try to explain herself, though that I doubt. But you can imagine the tension within the family. Between the families. Word was starting to leak out in the village. Mary was at risk of being stoned, put to death. Even though she knew in her heart that this was good news, there must have been days that she had her doubts, that she was afraid.
So she quits town and runs. She goes straight to the one person who might understand, the one person mentioned by the angel, her older cousin Elizabeth. Mary sets out and goes with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she goes to the house of Zechariah and greets Elizabeth.
Now, you can imagine a few different ways that Elizabeth could have greeted Mary when she arrives. The first response might have been condemnation. “Mary, what in the world have you done?” But Elizabeth doesn’t respond like that.
A second response might have been sympathy. “Mary, oh you poor dear, this is terrible.” But she doesn’t respond that way either.
Instead Elizabeth responds with full-on, no holds-barred affirmation, with joy and admiration.
“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
And you know what? That must have been so good for Mary to hear after all the disparaging words she’d been hearing for the past couple of months. Sometimes in life, we really need to be affirmed. That’s a little nugget in this story that we should all take to heart. Affirmation is both something we need, and something we can do for others. Elizabeth does that for Mary and that in turn allows Mary’s prophetic voice to erupt.
“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
The first revolution is in the life of the prophet herself. Mary’s life has been transformed, turned upside down, and Mary is all-in, because in this she sees God’s hand, God’s steadfast love and mercy, God’s faithfulness to his promise, a promise whose fulfilment begins now.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, starting with Elizabeth, right here, right now.
The transformation in Mary’s life is a microcosm of what God will do for all those who fear her. God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant Mary; God will lift up all who are lowly, and fill the hungry with good things. Mary sings it out. Mary knows it. Mary can feel it inside her.
And Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months.
Can you imagine what that would have been like? Wouldn’t you have liked to be a fly on the wall in that house? Imagine the conversation. Two powerful women, two prophets who knew what it was like to have God turn their lives upside down. Women with a powerful sense of expectation, of hope, of determination. Women with faith in God, who understood and trusted God’s promises. Women who knew their history, and knew that that history was about to reach its turning point. Who knew that God was about to turn not just their lives but the world upside down. Women who knew that the revolution was beginning with them, in that little house in the hill country of Judea. Women who started to plan out all that they would teach their children as they grew up.
Because revolutions begin in the hill country.
Homily Yr C Advent 4 Dec 23 2018 St. Albans
Readings: Micah 5.2-5; Hebrews 10.5-10; Luke 1.39-55
Image by Teddy Llovet, Creative Commons