Do you have any favorite relatives, favorite cousins, aunts, uncles? If you found it necessary to make yourself scarce for a while, do you have a relative you know you could go stay with who wouldn’t judge you and would maybe even be glad to see you?
Immediately after Gabriel told Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus, Mary decided to get out of town. Nazareth was a small town, and a small town is not always the friendliest place for a not-yet-married mother-to-be. People talk. And when they don’t have all the facts, they tend to invent them, often with an unkind or salacious spin. So, the Gospel of Luke tells us, “Mary set out in those days and went in a hurry to a town in the hill country of Judah.” In a hurry, with haste, Mary went to stay with her older, loving, wise, nonjudgmental relative, Elizabeth, who also happened to be miraculously pregnant.
If someone told you that you that you could only have one of the four gospels to read and study for the rest of your life, the Gospel of Luke would not be a bad choice. Luke has a good sense for drama and he tells the story of Jesus in very human terms.
Luke anchors his version of the Good News in history. After a brief introduction, his narrative begins with the words, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea…” He tells us that Jesus is born during the reign of Augustus Caesar, when Quirinius is governor of Syria overseeing the collection of the first census and poll tax. He wants us to have historical context, not so much so we can pin events down to exact dates, but rather to give us a political, social, and cultural backdrop as he stages the story of Jesus.
Another reason to consider Luke if you could have only one gospel is that political and economic justice are important themes in Luke. Jesus inaugurates his ministry in Luke’s gospel by reading in the synagogue from Isaiah 61, using Isaiah’s poetry to make it clear that his proclamation of God’s reign is all about good news for the poor, healing, justice and liberation (Luke 4). Subversion of the dominant paradigm is insinuated between the lines.
In Luke’s gospel, the Holy Spirit is named more often and more directly and plays a more visible role than in Matthew and Mark and John. Jesus tells more stories in Luke. Some of our favorite and best-known parables are found only in Luke. And Luke uses scripture from the Tanakh, the Old Testament, in subtle ways to link the story of Jesus to his ancestors, because when all is said and done, Luke understands that Jesus is the crowning glory of generations of his people and his family; his story is the ultimate chapter of a long continuous narrative about the trials, triumphs, and brokenness of God’s people.
But if you only get to have one gospel, maybe the best reason to choose Luke is the women. Women play a larger role in Luke and speak more in Luke than in any of the other three gospels. And the things they say are prophetic.
When Mary meets with Elizabeth, even their names are telling part of the story and linking them to the heritage of their people and a family tradition of liberation and new order. The name Mary is a diminutive form of Miriam. The name comes from the same root as myrrh and has multiple meanings: bitter, beloved, rebellious. Miriam in Exodus was a prophet, sister of Moses. According to a tradition, when Pharaoh’s army was about to overtake the Israelites, Moses held out his staff and his hand to part the Red Sea, but Miriam is the one who led the people through the parted waves, calling the women to follow her, the women in turn then calling their men to follow them as they raised their tambourines and sang and danced her way across the dry path between the walls of water. The name Elizabeth is a form of Elisheba from El shava, meaning “God is my oath.” Elisheba was also part of the Exodus story. As the wife of Aaron she became the mother of all the priestly line of Israel. When Mary and Elizabeth meet, it is a meeting of generations of priesthood and prophecy, but in a marvelous twist the mother with the priestly name will bear a child who will become a prophet, and the mother with the name of a prophet will bear a child who will be later be called, “a high priest in the order of Melchizedek.”
And where are the men in all this? Absent or silent. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah the priest, has been silenced because he did not believe the angel Gabriel when Gabriel told him that Elizabeth would bear a child. He will not speak again until his son John is circumcised. And Joseph, Mary’s betrothed? The surrogate father of Jesus barely appears at all in Luke’s gospel. He is named only four times and never speaks. And Luke gives the distinct impression, reading between the lines, that Joseph stayed behind in Nazareth while Mary went to see Elizabeth. Luke tells us that when the order for the census came, “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem…” The implication is that he stopped by the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah “in a town in the hill country of Judah” to pick up Mary on his way to Bethlehem.
The men are silent, but the women speak. Oh do they speak. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” A loud cry. Krauge megale it says in the Greek. A very loud shout. Elizabeth’s words are included in the prayer of the rosary, but I’ve never heard them shouted. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. BLESSED ART THOU AMONG WOMEN AND BLESSED IS THE FRUIT OF YOUR WOMB…
No, it’s not usually said that way. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was—to remind us of the great joy Elizabeth feels when she is filled with the Holy Spirit and recognizes the child that her young relative is carrying in her womb. She speaks prophecy. She speaks profound blessing. Why should that be merely whispered or mumbled? These are words of joy for the whole community of humanity!
This is a story of women proclaiming the Word of God. This is a story of a family living out God’s power and presence. God builds community, peoples, nations from proclamation and from families.
Sadly, far too often proclamation is misguided and families are dysfunctional. Too much of our story as a human family is a story of anger, disruption, fracture, and violence. Maybe because the men have been doing most of the talking. Too much history and not enough herstory. The descendants of Abraham fighting the descendants of Abraham—the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar locked in hostility for generations. The descendants of one race locked in a vicious spiral of fear of and hatred for other races when we are all related in the human race, when we are all family.
These two women who meet in this unnamed town in the hills of Judah, these two women who rejoice loudly and prophesy in each other’s presence, these two women are the mothers of reconciliation and renewal. Their sons will enter a fractured world of unreconciled peoples to bring a call for change and a vision for peace and understanding . God will use this family to bring healing and renewal to all families—to the whole human family—if we can learn how to listen.
The son of Elizabeth will preach repentance, metanoia, a summons to change course. The child of Mary will proclaim a direction for that change of course, a vision of the reign of God, a new way of being, a way of embracing our heritage and responsibility as children of God and siblings in humanity. One will embody God’s call to be transformed. One will embody God’s power of recreation and renewal.
These two women are family. Their sons, these cousins, enter the world to remind us that we are all family, all related, all our stories intertwined. Mary and Elizabeth remind us that God speaks and works through families even if it’s the slow work of generations. Mary and Elizabeth remind us that God speaks and works through women to heal the world. They are the mothers of John and Jesus. They are chosen by God to be the mothers of renewal and reconciliation.
 Exodus 14-15
 Hebrews 5:10
 Luke 2:4
Painting by Corby Eisbacher @ArtByCorby