Luke 1.39-45 (46-55)
IT IS Christmas Eve, and Jesus is yet to born. We must wait a little longer. While we wait, we wonder. We wonder about the world he has already made his own, the little space beneath a woman’s heart.
The exultation of Elizabeth is a window on that world. Her unborn son, the boy they’ll call "the Baptist", "leaps for joy" when Mary, the mother of his Lord, greets her. There is something giddy and irrational about such "leaping". Leaping is what young things do. Kittens leap. Lambs leap. Salmon leap. Little children leap. Above all, lovers leap. "Listen! My lover! Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills" (Song of Solomon 2.8).
In the Bible, leaping is what you do on the last day. When that day dawns, when the sun of righteousness rises with healing in his wings, we shall "go out leaping like calves from the stall" (Malachi 4.2). In his mother’s womb, John the Baptist, the least unbuttoned of biblical characters, takes up the dance in which, at the last, all creation will join.
The Word already made flesh awaits his birth among us. Like all of us, he has been "knit together in a mother’s womb" (Psalm 139.13). Irenaeus claimed that Jesus, "sanctifying every age", made every stage of life his own. "He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age" (Against Heresies, II xxii, 4). We dare to add that our Lord made our embryonic and foetal life his, thus "sanctifying", too, our earliest hours.
So our Lord made our unborn life his. That life, it follows, is sacred. That does not mean that there are no circumstances in which a pregnancy may be terminated. Our moral choices — we are a fallen race — are rarely between good and bad. Usually they are between what is bad and what is worse. But the principle stands. Because Christ, too, once waited to be born, he confers on the unborn infinite worth.
Our Lord made our unborn life his. It follows that our first church is our mother’s womb, and that the nurture of the child in the church must begin in that holy place. Where we lived before we were born was not some limbo from which we were delivered by our baptism, but the home where Christ first dwelled among us, and where we were already known and loved.
Our Lord made our unborn life his. The late Dr Frank Lake, who so greatly influenced an earlier generation of Anglican clergy, maintained that our well-being, or lack of it, depends on how good or bad life was for us before we were born. Frank spoke, less than delicately perhaps, of the unborn child being "marinated in the mother’s emotional juices". It is surely no longer a contentious claim that the quality of life before birth makes a difference to life after it.
It follows that Christian devotion, and, trailing some way behind, Christian theology, has been right all along to ascribe the honour it has to Mary. Our modern understanding of what, for good or ill, happens to us between conception and birth confirms what Christians have always believed: that in his mother — in his mother — our Lord was uniquely blessed.
Our Lord made our unborn life his. He, too, was fed by a mother’s food. According to the Qur’an, while Mary was carrying her boy to be born, she drank from a pure stream and fed on the dates that fell from the tree against which she rested. What his mother ate, Christ consumed. So it always is. When the sacrament of holy communion is administered to an expectant mother, two people are fed. How curious and how sad it is that, in the Church of England, once a child is born he or she is promptly excommunicated.
Our Lord made our unborn life his. Mary magnifies the Lord who has "lifted up the lowly", among whom are those still to be born, those of all humanity the most powerless. The very helplessness of children constitutes their claim to precedence in God’s Kingdom. Necessarily, the most dependent and vulnerable of these little ones is the one still carried in a mother’s body.
So this Christmas Eve, with an ecstatic unborn Baptist, we acclaim the mother of our Lord:
She is the great Pietà who casts her mother’s cloak of mercy over our suffering humanity. She is the living womb in which, as in a second act of bodily motherhood, we are carried for the nine long months of our lives until we at last come to the glory of redemption and resurrection.
Mary, Mother of the Redemption Edward Schillebeeckx
(Sheed and Ward, 1964)
The LORD says to his people:
2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
3Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
5and he shall be the one of peace.
5When Christ came into the world, he said,
‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
6in burnt-offerings and sin-offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7Then I said, "See, God, I have come to do your will, O God"
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).’
8When he said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt-offerings and sin-offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, ‘See, I have come to do your will.’ He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me –
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
even as he said to our fathers.”