many of you have wondered what Micah is talking about when he speaks of “Bethlehem Ephrathah”? What, you, may have wondered, is “Ephrathah”? Well, it's a place name, which may or may not be a simple synonym for Bethlehem itself; but what matters to us is that, like many such names, it has a meaning, which is “fruitful”. Bethlehem, out of which was born the King of Kings, the savior of Israel and all humanity: this the prophet foretold.
But first, a stopover in Judea, before the promised births.
An unborn child is all potential, the object of our hopes as parents. Then the day comes, and we parents are presented with a bundle of nascent humanity, whose impact upon the world is unrealized and whose future, for good or ill, is seen only in our dreams, and in the providence of God. Some weeks back I came across a consideration of the morality of killing baby Hitler to forestall the evil he brought forth; in truth, it is only an academic exercise. We know not whether our children are destined for obscurity or fame or notoriety. But the two mothers-to-be in our gospel, unlike the rest of us, had Gabriel's promise that the children they carried have a place in divine providence above all others. The two miraculous conceptions, Elizabeth's out of her age, and Mary's out of her virginity, were the sprouted seeds of the grace of God; Jesus, the branch of Jesse's tree, was promised to bring to fruition the salvation so long awaited by the prophets.
And thus, in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, the Theotokos, the God-Bearer (for so she is titled in the east) came to visit her. The child in Elizabeth's womb lept, he of whom the angel promised, “he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” Caught up in the Spirit, she blessed Mary, the vessel of divine grace, for Mary's trust in God's promise, that Mary would carry the son of the Most High, the heir to the throne of David, whose kingdom will have no end.
Mary's hymn in response to Elizabeth's greeting, praising God for his mighty acts and for the grace laid upon her, is one of the great and most ancient hymns of the church. But that hymn, as she sang it, looks to the past: God has shown strength, has scattered the proud, has put down the mighty, has filled the hungry and has sent the rich away empty. The Lord God was known to her and to Judah in the history of Abraham and his descendants, bringing them out of Egypt to Sinai and then to Jerusalem, where his presence filled the temple in the midst of the land. She recalls how the Lord acted, not out of the mighty among men, but out of the small, the weak, the outcast. Abraham was childless; the children of Jacob were slaves before they passed through the sea to freedom; David was the least of Jesse's sons. But God did not forget the covenant with the father of the nation of Israel, as Mary recalled, and God does not forget his children adopted through the water of baptism. Thus did she trust in the angel's promise.
We know where the promise was to lead: to the cross and the tomb. Mary did not, or at least, Gabriel's message gives no hint of the road to Calvary. Did Mary cling to faith in God's promise to her on that Friday when the apostles' hope was broken? We do not know, though we know that she was among the few who stayed in witness. We as parents see the future in our children, whom (we hope) outlive us to continue humanity. Mary, and Elizabeth if she lived to that day, saw their sons executed, seemingly the end of hope. But God's promise was not empty: his providence was fulfilled, and beyond the hopeless Friday and dismal Saturday came that glorious Sunday, the day of life reborn and unending.
In these latter days we wait between that first advent and the next and final advent, when the kingdom will be complete and all death and sorrow shall be ended. We start out with hope for our offspring, hopes and desires which may be fulfilled or disappointed or crushed entirely in this world of sin and loss. And yet in our our sorrows, in our losses, at the grave, we sing this song: alleluia, alleluia, ALLELUIA! So in this season, let us set aside our hopelessness and look to that holy child, Jesus Christ, in whom our hope and salvation is made incarnate, and who with the Father and the Spirit is given praise and glory unto ages of ages. AMEN.