Sanctuary


By Rev. Joan Kessler


Luke 1:39-55


There is an intimacy in this scene we have just heard tell of…we may know this experience firsthand. We receive some life-altering news and the change it brings overwhelms. We have to go and share it with someone who will understand, someone who gets us and loves us just as we are. There has to be a trust present that supports and listens and helps us make sense of whatever has turned our world upside down.


Mary is a young woman, barely past her own childhood and she learns she is with child…not just any baby but the one who is promised to be the Messiah the house of Israel has been longing for, the one who will deliver his people from Roman oppression and restore their nation to the peace and prosperity not seen since the time of King David, centuries earlier.


Young Mary goes with haste, we are told, she goes quickly to her cousin Elizabeth who lives some 60 miles away. It would have been a dangerous journey for a woman, crossing the political and militaristic landscape, soldiers and checkpoints would have been everywhere.


I have been reflecting on this trip Mary undertook and I wonder how she got to where she was going…I wonder if hitchhiking was a popular activity two millennia ago…did she get herself to the roadside and stick her thumb out? I have enjoyed hearing hitchhiking stories from some of you this past week. And while the circumstances of the need to hitch a ride differed, there was this common thread of trust that made traveling this way possible…one trusted the driver and the driver had to trust the passenger. I imagine Mary full of confidence and resolve, traveling the perilous journey, on foot or maybe with the help of the kindness of strangers, and makes her way to the Judean hill country to seek some solace and sanctuary from Elizabeth.


Elizabeth is there at the threshold, ready to greet her young pregnant cousin. She too is pregnant despite her old age, a miracle really. She too would understand the journey Mary had made to reach her home amid all the political and worldly tensions of occupation. Once inside, the pregnant women embrace one another and there is a flutter of unborn activity shared between them. Elizabeth would deliver first, a son to be named John…the one who will announce and make way for his slightly younger cousin Jesus.


Elizabeth doesn’t question Mary about her pregnancy and its circumstances. She accepts the news with her whole being and without judgment. She enfolds Mary in welcome and blessing. Mary finds refuge in Elizabeth but perhaps Elizabeth too finds something comforting and reassuring in Mary. They share in each other’s joy while turning the tables on the societal conventions of their day. And it is only in the presence of Elizabeth, in the safety of her home, that Mary can finally share her song, the Magnificat, where she sings of her faith and trust in a God who does an extraordinary thing with an ordinary woman like herself. She shares her dream of a time where justice will once again prevail and her people will live free. The powerful will be brought down from their thrones, the lowly lifted up, the hungry will be filled with good things. It all sets the scene this fourth Sunday of Advent also known as Christmas Sunday. The two women, one young, the other old, share in an experience of expectation and birthing…of the new life and possibility they hold within their bodies that will change the world. And they find refuge in each other, they find acceptance and understanding when no one else could.


So I come back to my question from the beginning, and that is, when have you experienced sanctuary? To whom and to where did you go when you needed supportive understanding and no questions asked or judgements imposed? On this last Sunday before Christmas, may we find words of blessing that find us in whatever places and circumstances we find ourselves this Christmas. May we sing our song of what God has done and all the ways that Love has been made known to us.


I want to share with you A Blessing Called Sanctuary, written by Jan Richardson, a familiar name to some of you, a beautiful artist and liturgist. As you hear her words, recall those times when you needed a sanctuary place, one of welcome and blessing…think of Mary and Elizabeth and the bond they shared…the promise of Emmanuel, God with us…


You hardly knew

how hungry you were

to be gathered in,

to receive the welcome

that invited you to enter

entirely—

nothing of you

found foreign or strange,

nothing of your life

that you were asked

to leave behind

or to carry in silence

or in shame.

Tentative steps

became settling in,

leaning into the blessing

that enfolded you,

taking your place

in the circle

that stunned you

with its unimagined grace.

You began to breathe again,

to move without fear,

to speak with abandon

the words you carried

in your bones,

that echoed in your being.

You learned to sing.

But the deal with this blessing

is that it will not leave you alone,

will not let you linger

in safety,

in stasis.

The time will come

when this blessing

will ask you to leave,

not because it has tired of you

but because it desires for you

to become the sanctuary

that you have found—

to speak your word

into the world,

to tell what you have heard

with your own ears,

seen with your own eyes,

known in your own heart:

that you are beloved,

precious child of God,

beautiful to behold,*

and you are welcome

and more than welcome

here.

—Jan Richardson

from Circle of Grace


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