Subversive women in Judean hills
Fleeing violence in her native Honduras, Maria made her way through Guatemala and Mexico to Indiana and our congregation in Elkhart. Now she daily awaits word that a nephew has safely completed the same perilous journey. A cousin died in the desert attempting that crossing, and his body lay undiscovered for a year.
Mary of Nazareth also made a fraught summertime journey, in her case from Galilee to the home of her relative Elizabeth in the Judean hills. Both women were surprised to be pregnant — Elizabeth because of advanced age, Mary because she was unmarried. But though Mary was socially vulnerable as an unwed mother, she displayed the same radical dependence on God that modern Maria shows today.
Intrepid women these! Youthful Mary soon would flee with Joseph to Egypt to spare baby Jesus from state-sponsored infanticide. Roman rulers someday would crucify Jesus alongside political rebels. Elizabeth’s son John would grow up to challenge abuses of ruling elites so directly that King Herod would behead him.
Neither woman sought to be subversive, but their rendezvous in the Judean hills sounds like a revolutionary enclave. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting at the door, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy.” Mary burst out in a kingdom-of-God manifesto: “My soul magnifies the Lord. . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46-55).
Elizabeth was well-connected in Jewish society: her husband Zechariah was a priest at the temple.
Since at least the sixth century, Christians have identified Ein Kerem, a village five miles west of Old Jerusalem, as the place where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. In 2015 a Jewish family renovating their house at Ein Kerem found a 2,000 year-old mikveh (Jewish ritual bath), confirming that, in the New Testament era, Jews committed to ritual purity lived in the village.
Sadly, the house once belonged to an Arab family dispossessed in the war of 1948. What would Mary, with her passion for justice, think of that travesty?
I make my way to Ein Kerem to contemplate the encounter of Elizabeth and Mary. What did these expectant mothers discuss during their three months together? God was up to something — sending Gabriel with pregnancy notices both to Zechariah and to Mary! Did they try to unpack Zechariah’s inspired prophecy about a dawn coming when God would raise up a mighty deliverer who would rescue God’s people from enemies and “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:68-79)?
I explore footpaths in hills surrounding Ein Kerem, trying to imagine Mary’s approach. Words of Elizabeth about Mary resound in my ears: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Mary believed. She faithfully nurtured and followed Jesus though his ministry and crucifixion to the post-resurrection huddle of his disciples in an upper room (Acts 1:12-14).
Like modern Maria, Mary of Nazareth had a heart pierced with grief. Both women raised children under economic stress and political violence. Both became matriarchs in their faith communities. Both expressed jubilant trust in God: “The mighty one has done great things for me!” Blessed are these women who believed, who challenge me to live in thankful obedience to the God who cares about the lowly and delivers justice.
J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.
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