The Christmas story begins with joy—visceral joy, ecstatic joy, a joy that moves through its characters’ bodies, drawing their lives together. Each event is an occasion for joy, one for the other. “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting,” Elizabeth says to Mary, “the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44). Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, who, as a fetus, can’t help but rejoice at the presence of Mary, the one who holds Jesus in her womb. And Elizabeth can’t help but feel this joy in her body as flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone, stretches her toward the Christ in Mary. “Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth says to her (Luke 1:42). She is a blessed one because Jesus comes to life within her, because her heartbeat pulses her life into his.
This is also our story, of you and me and the life we share. We’ve been brought together because of the joy of the gospel—a joy that leaps within us, stretching us toward one another, the ecstasy of shared life, fellowship through Christ, communion in the Holy Spirit.
You are Mary, and I am Elizabeth. You, like Mary, offer gospel in the flesh. You, like Mary, bear the gift of salvation within your life. Like Mary you labor for God to be born in our world—God with us, God for us. And I, like Elizabeth, rejoice when we are together. I, like Elizabeth, offer companionship. Like Elizabeth, I am a midwife—at your side for the struggle, as we face this world together.
The joy of love, of love from God, love made flesh—that’s what has brought us together. We’ve been given so much, such a gift, a life we can share. The Spirit has come upon us, has overshadowed us, drawing God into our communion, our fellowship, not because we’ve made the right decisions, not because we deserve God in our lives but because God wants to be with us, because God desires to be close to us, to know and love us from the inside and to leap with joy from my life and yours, and yours to mine—not from above, not from beyond, not from a transcendent world far away from our troubled one, but to love us through one another, as God passes between us. Like Elizabeth and Mary, we sit and talk and find ourselves in the fellowship of the Spirit, holding us and binding us together.
This is the beginning of the Christmas story, of our story—Mary and Elizabeth, with each other, dwelling in the shadow of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. But that moment doesn’t last very long. Soon Mary receives a foreboding prophecy: Because of the promised child in her arms, “a sword shall pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35). From the beginning, tragedy infuses Christmas. For Mary there will be suffering, not joy. Her soul will be pierced as she watches the blood and water spill from her son, hanging on a cross.
And what of Elizabeth? She disappears. She isn’t there as Mary keeps vigil at Golgotha. Maybe Elizabeth was too aged and frail to accompany her, or she had already died of old age. Whatever the reason, I’m sure Mary longs for her; she aches for the comfort of Elizabeth’s touch, a companion to lean on, to hold her. Elizabeth was there at the beginning of her travail, and now Mary needs Elizabeth at the end of her labor as she bears with her crucified son.
If you are Mary and I am Elizabeth, and we find ourselves absent from each other, then all we have is prayer, our communion in the Spirit. From week to week, from one city to another, we live by prayer. We live together through prayer, as I call out to God for you and you for me. Prayer as giving ourselves to the Comforter, who draws us close, who overshadows us and offers rest. Prayer as how we are close even when we are far. Prayer as being present even when we are absent.
You are Mary, I am Elizabeth, and in our prayers joy leaps across chasms of separation— the joy of knowing that God always finds us, and the comfort of knowing that God joins together what is asunder.
In the church we are all Marys and Elizabeths, as we come together with Christ in us—God with us, God among us, God passing between us. At the sight of your presence there is gospel. At the sound of your greeting there is joy. At the thought of your prayers there is renewed life. With you comes the blessing of God’s presence, a life full of Christ.