In January this year we heard that many thousands of women, including victims of rape and incest, were often treated cruelly at religious institutions run by Catholic and Protestant Churches on both sides of the Irish border. They were frequently subject to severe pressure to give their children up for adoption. You may well recall some of the testimony that accompanied those revelations. It was heart breaking to hear of their experience and the subsequent impact on their lives.
I have come to recognise this year that safeguarding is integral to the churches mission because protecting the vulnerable is at the heart of the Gospel. Whilst there is inevitably an administrative component in ensuring that we have robust safeguarding arrangements in place, it’s that we don’t treat that as an unwelcome bureaucratic burden or as an intrusion from the secular world. We must recognise that the nature of Christian community is such that there we are subject to particular safeguarding risks and respond accordingly to mitigate them.
As we all aware I’m sure, thanks in no small part to investigative journalists, it was historically the case that the church responded with rather more concern for compassion than for justice and towards clergy rather more that victims. As we look to the future I think we have to do all that we can to prevent and eradicate abuse in the church whilst at the same time being careful to recognise and acknowledge the experience of those who have suffered it.
Those revelations about the treatment of unmarried women in Ireland were not the only safeguarding concerns that came to light this year and some were rather closer to our home Diocese but I have focused on them particularly because it was this morning’s Gospel that brought those earlier reports to mind because of course it is a story of Mary, an unmarried pregnant women, visiting her relative Elizabeth in the hill country.
We might imagine how Mary may have felt as she made her way to visit Elizabeth. Excited surely after Gabriel had told her not only that would conceive but also that her relative in her old age would also. “It is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren” he said. She went into the hill country with haste we are told. Perhaps she imagines that Elizabeth’s pregnancy will be apparent when she sees her, the tangible confirmation of Gabriel’s prophecy. I imagine though that she must also have felt very vulnerable. What kind of response would she receive? She must have feared an unfavourable judgment, shame, even ostracism from her older family.
Now Elizabeth of course, knows from her own experience the cost of being shamed and excluded. In that culture a woman’s primary purpose in life was to bear children. Not having done so she had endured decades of being treated as a failure. Her husband Zechariah’s response to Gabriel’s news that she would conceive was sceptical – “How will I know that this is so? (he asked) For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years. That stands in contrast to Elizabeth’s response on her conception. She said- “this is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people”. Mary responds similarly to Gabriel’s news – “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”.
This is the background to their meeting then and as soon as they catch sight of one another, prompted by the Spirit, Elizabeth takes on the role of prophet. She proclaims what Mary has not yet had a chance to tell her and what is not yet visible, Mary is pregnant. Not only that but she understands who Mary’s child will be. The scripture says – When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
By greeting Mary with honour, Elizabeth overturns social expectations and she continues to do so by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbours would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honourable than herself. Thus the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honour instead. It is through Mary and Elizabeth, two lowly and shamed ones, that God has chosen to act.
Judith Jones, an episcopalian minister, reminds us that Elizabeth not only prophesies but she blesses. In declaring both Mary and the fruit of Mary’s womb “blessed” she begins a series of blessings that weave through Luke’s birth narrative and intensify its tone of joy, delight, and praise. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon will all add their blessings to the chain, praising God for what God is doing at this moment in history and recognising that those who are privileged to be instruments of God’s saving work have been richly blessed. Mary is blessed not only for her status as the mother of the Lord, but also for her trust in God’s promise. Our English translations obscure the fact that Elizabeth uses more than one word for “blessed.” Mary is blessed in the sense of being honoured and she is also blessed with happiness, with divine joy — because she has believed that God is able to do what God promises to do.
When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to prostitutes and sinners in his ministry. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.
Elizabeth’s words and actions invite us to reflect on our own openness to the ways that God chooses to act in our world. They might prompt to ask what God might be doing through unexpected people in our society today? Is he perhaps at work through people whom we might either intentionally or unintentionally exclude? Will we listen to the Spirit’s prompting when the bearers of God’s new reality show up on our doorstep?
May we, like Elizabeth and Mary, trust God’s promises. May we, like them, give thanks that God has taken away our shame. May we respond to God’s love by welcoming the shameful. May we too become a community that supports each other as we hope and wait.