This Unspeakable Gift
We've been dwelling with the story of Mary and Elizabeth at Women's Division this season. In preparation for the worship at Leadership Training Event, we began thinking about the roles of these two women in hearing God's call and participating in working out the vision of God. Note also the "creative, supportive fellowship" along the journey.
This Christmas, I'm still thinking about them, and about Mary and particular, as our commercialized culture points us toward gifts and giving. Some of us are terrific gift givers—not always because the gifts are expensive or demanding of time to produce but because it's just right for the recipient. My brother is someone like that. He has a way of thinking about what you would appreciate that amazes me. When my nephew was very young he greeted each gift he received by saying, "Just what I always wanted!" My theory is that, due to my brother's gift-giving ability, he heard others in the family say this often enough that he learned it as he was expanding his vocabulary thinking that it was another way to say "thank-you!"
You'll remember that the angel greeted Mary by calling her "full of grace" or "highly favored," depending on the translation. The core of the word used here is charism, the same word that is used when we speak of our spiritual gifts (or charisms). However, here it's used with a modifier, so we have "full" of grace or "highly" favored.
In addition, the translators are trying to give expression to a sense of the word that comes from the socioeconomic hierarchy of the day, in which the king's "favor" would elevate a person from one status to another. Using this expression indicated to the hearers a change of status that could not have been achieved by hard work or luck—it is not something to which one is entitled or for which one could pay. It was a generous act of the person in power. This is not to say that the granting of the ruler's favor always came out of the blue or to someone without any merit but just that it was not the sort of promotion or elevation that anyone was "due."
Some of us are likely to be tentative about reading the story from Mary's perspective. We don't really know enough about her. Was she spiritually searching? Was her family a religious one? Was she eagerly looking for Messiah to come and rescue Israel from the Romans? We don't know. However, let me suggest that we have at least one thing in common with Mary: We have received the birth of Jesus as a gift, not earned by us, and it has changed our status or role forever.
Remembering my nephew's response as a toddler may help us identify with Elizabeth as well and say, "Just what I've always wanted."
The coming of Emmanuel as a vulnerable baby is God working to break down the dividing wall between us and love. It affirms that the love and power of God can be present in the fragile people that we are—weakness, illness, and sorrow notwithstanding. As early as Mary's Magnificat the gospel identifies this gift with justice and freedom for the outsiders, the poor and the lowly. The barriers that we continue to erect of pride and exclusion are challenged over and over again as God woos us deeper and deeper into relationship with God, with humanity and with the world. In every way that matters Jesus' birth is just what we've always wanted.
This Christmas may you receive the word of the prophets and the coming of Jesus as a pure gift. And in the year ahead, may your understanding that God loves you, just as God loves the world, take you into new paths of commitment to justice and to peace.
Harriett J. Olson is Deputy General Secretary of the Women's Division.