This little passage is a story that centers on two women, both expecting in extraordinary circumstances. For Elizabeth, this pregnancy is a long-awaited triumph. She is “advanced in age” and has longed for a child since her marriage. She is delighted to be expecting yet must into seclusion as soon as she finds she’s pregnant.
Mary, however, has probably the most surprise pregnancy ever. And as pleased as Mary is to be chosen as the mother of the Messiah, it’s news she can hardly sing from the rooftops, given the cultural setting and her young, unmarried status. One can’t help but wonder what Mary’s neighbors and relations must have thought of her as news of her “condition” spread. Yet long before a growing belly would have betrayed her, Mary embarks upon this trip, far out of town.
I love to think of this visit as an act of kindness on the part of both women. Mary perhaps knew her cousin was undergoing an isolating experience just as she had the most exciting news of her life to share, so Mary sets off on this 150-kilometer uphill journey to go be with her in this time. And Elizabeth agrees to take in her young, single, pregnant cousin, whose “condition” would become more apparent during her stay.
Both of these women have something really, really exciting going on in their lives, yet various circumstances prevent them from celebrating as they might like to. Yet one woman’s act of kindness in taking in a pregnant teenager and the other’s ack of kindness in making a long and difficult journey to provide company to a friend in isolation—those two acts of kindness combined to produce the exultant expression of praise and joy that we now know as the Magnificat.
The Magnificat is one of my favorite pieces of scripture. It falls decidedly in the genre of joyful praise, and highlights themes of justice and mercy that would have been very familiar to Jews from the writings of the Old Testament prophets, and it does all this all while prophesying so much of Jesus’ message to come. The wealthy and arrogant scattered, and the hungry filled.
This is exactly what the early Christian movement did. While, of course, they didn’t have the authority to scatter the wealthy or proud, they did even better. The wealthy among them opened their homes to the poor for Agape Meals, a Communion celebration that was basically a giant, worship-filled dinner party. Affluent land-holding members sold their property and distributed the proceeds equitably among the poor in their community (Acts 4).
Mary and Elizabeth’s mutual acts of kindness inspired the acute and fierce joy we see in Mary’s song. The captivating joy we witness in the words of the Magnificat have gone on to become an inspiration to Christian faith and practice for millennia, and have inspired countless other works of kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and even joy.
The thing I love about the virtues that Paul calls the “Fruit of the Spirit” is that they don’t really each exist in silos, they relate to each other, they feed into one another. If you think about how a tree grows, springing upwards from its roots and then branching out, you notice that branches branch off from other branches.
Mary and Elizabeth’s “kindness” went on to produce a new branch of “joy.” The joy that made Mary’s song so magnetic then inspired the kindness that would come to characterize so many early Christian communities.
Many of us feel joy in response to kindness, whether that kindness is expected or unexpected. In the case of Mary and Elizabeth, “kindness” is how they channeled the joy each had in her own life. Their kindness and joy was contagious, and it continues to inspire us today.
The question I want to leave us with this morning is this: when in your life did an act of kindness inspire joy in you? And, when has joy inspired you to do some kind of special act of kindness?
This is what the Holy Spirit promises us: fruit that is contagious, that goes on to feed and nurture and take root, to grow yet more abundant fruit.
Thanks be to God! Amen.