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Keep in Touch
The Reverend Krystal Leedy
December 1, 2019
Right before this passage, an angel makes an announcement about the birth of John the Baptist is foretold to his father, Zechariah, a priest. Elizabeth, his wife, is a descendant of Aaron. Zechariah loses his ability to speak because he did not believe the announcement at first. And so we pick up after the announcement has been made.
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
What a beautiful breath we all take together as we enter into another Advent season, a time of preparation for the Christ child, a time of gathering in order to endure the long winter ahead of us. And a time of remembering that Christ comes to us, not as an apparition or a wind, not as a tyrant or even as a king, but as a child—incarnate and breathing, with all the sensations of humanity. During this season, each of our five senses will serve as the way we experience the story of Christ’s inbreaking into this world this year. May our collective human experience bring us closer together as a people and closer to the Christ who became incarnate for our sake.
I’ve got some pretty amazing inside jokes with my best friend. John and I have been married for 13 years, and we have shared a lot. Meaning, that there has also been room between us for stories to be repeated over and over again. I love my husband. He is dear to me, and sometimes he may have a tendency to be the one that repeats stories. John and I also love having a fire in the fireplace when it gets cold outside, and John knows a lot about fire, which I’m sure that no one is surprised by. So, early-on in our marriage, he was lighting a fire in the fireplace and said, “You know, it’s not actually the flames that are the thing that make the fire really warm, but the coals in the bottom after the flames have gone away.” To which I replied, “Oh wow. I didn’t know that.” And the next time it was cold, he lit a fire again and said, “You know, it’s not actually the flames that are the thing that make the fire really warm, but the coals in the bottom after the flames have gone away.” To which I replied, “Yeah, I think I’ve heard that somewhere before.” And then the next time it was cold, he lit a fire in the fireplace another time and said, “You know,” and I said, “Yes, I do know.” He turns around and said, “You know what?” And I said, “It’s the coals that are the real warmth of a fire.” And he continued to light the fire, and then said, “I’ve told that story before, huh?” And I have to smile every time he puts a fire in the fireplace because it’s a race to see who will tell the story of the coals first.
So, when I first heard these song lyrics by Leah Nobel, I could not help but think about my best friend in the world:
Bring me the coals instead of kerosene
There’s something to be said about the power in the waiting
So lean a little closer
Let me tell you what I’ve learned
The most beautiful smoke
Comes from a slow burn
In my family, we have a webbed family tree, and there are some first cousins once removed on my dad’s side, and they are actually my age and we have kids of similar age, so I talk about them often when I talk about my family. But, there really is no good name to talk about these family members, whom I love. They’re “the second cousins” in my house, but I have no idea how their kids relate to my kid, and as our family tree branches and we seem to get further and further apart, they start being known as “kin,” which is how I imagine the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. If my mother were paraphrasing this passage it would be “they’re kin, honey.” And based upon the frequency or lack thereof of how long it’s been since I’ve seen my kin, it’s not surprising to me in the slightest that it’s been at least five months since Mary and Elizabeth have seen one another, perhaps only seeing each other at Thanksgiving and the occasional Christmas or Easter. It had been a while, and Elizabeth was pregnant, but for some reason was staying secluded.
Laying on a bed with her feet up and her phone in her hand, checking on all of her Judean friends, Elizabeth was not welcome out in public. She remained hidden, secluded, isolated from others. Why? I don’t know. It’s an intriguing question, but she was not welcomed or chose to remain alone. Perhaps Herod’s reign was already becoming something to be afraid of. Perhaps Elizabeth did not know what to do because her husband could not speak. Perhaps she just didn’t want anyone to know. But the reasons that keep us apart from others are sometimes not nearly as important as what that isolation does to us, even in the moments where we believe that we are actually keeping in touch with other people.
I love words. I’m fascinated by words, so I looked up a Greek word that appears nowhere in this passage. It’s the word for touch, which is the Greek word haptomai. It’s a verb, and the ending –mai points to the fact that this is the middle form of the word. So this means that the person performing the action is receiving the delight and benefit of the action. I’ll give you an example. When I tell my three-year-old in the kindest possible way to get dressed, she chooses her clothes and painstakingly puts them on. Then she comes out of her room and says, “I did it all by myself!” And what she really means is that she dressed herself. The action of dressing is for her delight and benefit. And of course, what takes us three words to say in English, I dressed myself—takes one word in Greek.
So, when I discovered touch in this middle form, I felt like I still didn’t know the action that was being performed. So, I looked up the root word: hapto, which has two meanings (1) to fasten something to something else or (2) to kindle a fire.
So when the woman of great faith, later in Luke, reaches out and touches the garment of Christ, she’s fastening herself to the cloak of Christ and kindling a fire of healing. It is the miracle of Christ, but the touch in that moment heals the woman of her ailment.
And yeah, even though it doesn’t readily appear so, Greek is still relevant today. On your phone, when you press something on your touch screen and it performs and action, you may feel a little click or tap back—a little feedback from your phone to let you know it has been touched, to remind you are the human that performed an action, to give you a sense of control. And those little clicks are called haptics. They become increasingly more important in virtual reality situations, where surgeons are performing surgery with robot arms and scientists are disassembling bombs with robot arms. These haptics give our bodies feedback to know where our bodies end and another object begins. But, we walk around with robot arms often. Keeping in touch only with the haptics of a touch screen, with a Judean desert between us, using our touch to kindle tiny sparks on a screen rather than connection with one another.
For we know the studies about phone use. We know the effect that the artificial light has on our eyes and the neck problems it causes. We know the disruption the phone has on sleep and how it is a distraction from things that we love. But there’s got to be some benefit, otherwise we would not continue using it. There’s something about that feeling of being connected that we love, that we crave. There’s something about hearing news and commenting: trying to reach out, trying to keep in touch. And communication with one another over text gives us that feeling of safety that in-person communication just can’t, but we still use terms like reach out and keeping in touch even though we are not face to face with one another. We can’t literally reach out, so we do what we can with our robotic limbs.
We can embrace one another with words, but there is something significant that happens when we embrace one another or offer a handshake in the hopes of connection. Of course, it’s always important to ask. Consent when it comes to our person space is very important, but the occasional verbal push-back should not stop us from asking. It’s impossible to know what someone is thinking unless you talk with them. And you and your kin may not be a touchy family. It appears to be genetic sometimes. For a while, when I would ask my daughter for a hug, she would just lean forward and fall into me like a kid-slug. No one had taught her the art of the embrace. So I told her to move her robot arms out like a T and lean forward as I leaned forward, and we hugged one another with the warmth of family and counted 1-2-3. The embrace we offer one another kindles a fire of relationship that keeps us warm all through this season.
Because one of the best things we can do for one another is to bring light to places where we think the light is dimming. And touch has the ability to help us remember that we are human, that we remember how to feel warmth. That we remember that we are a part of humankind, and to remember that we claim to be siblings in Christ, no matter what.
So when Mary heard the news that Elizabeth was secluded, I bet she ran. I bet her feet hit the ground and with each step of dust that churned. I bet she began to feel warm as she ran up and down hills. I bet that she allowed her love of her kin to drive her forward. Because it is rare to find a depiction of this passage in art where Mary and Elizabeth are not embracing or about to. One of those tender hugs that brings tears to your eyes. One of those hugs that makes babies jump in the womb. One of those hugs, that perhaps for Elizabeth, was the first contact she had with another person in five months.
And we know that this moment was the spark that fueled the Spirit-filled Magnificat, one of the most beautiful explanations of how the incarnation is going to change the world and how the prophetic words of the New Testament came through an unlikely source in Mary. It is beautiful that the highlights of this narrative are brought to our attention in Scripture. And these movie scenes are important and certainly don’t tell the whole story.
Because you know, the real warmth of the fire comes from the embers of the coals, which are the constant—continually warming the family home, and it really important to have those flames sometimes when you need motivation, when you are in grief, when you can’t remember that your little light knows how to shine. In those moments where you spent five months staring at your phone, wanting to connect but forgetting how, not able to form the words again with your kin after months of not speaking.
This is the slow work of Advent. The stoking of the family fire. The reminder of the warmth of this place, the reminder that the God-bearer will bring the light and it will fill us with joy. People of God, we are not robots, and this ancient embrace of kin with one another kindles fire between us that we thought was lost to a world of loneliness and separation and false haptics. The touch of Christ is real and it heals us.
May this Advent be for us a kindling of kindreds, a place of warmth and light and family.
In the name of the Light who is breaking into this world with a human embrace, Amen.
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