When we moved to Singapore, in 1998, my cousin and her husband were packing up to move back to Britain. We overlapped by just a couple of weeks. Lisa came out to the condo and gave me some tips on Singapore living, and showed me a few good places to go shopping, and dropped off their unfinished liquor which they would not be shipping home.
We hadn’t seen one another in a couple of years, since her wedding, I guess; and we haven’t seen one another now, I think, since my mother’s funeral. We keep finding ourselves a few thousand miles apart, crossing paths in unexpected ways; at one point, when she ended up in Cambridge, she was teaching English as a foreign language in the house next-door to my birth mother’s home. Cousins are the stuff of coincidences.
I was at a seminar in September, where one of the panelists was Chuck Wynder, Missioner for Social Justice and Advocacy for the Episcopal Church. I don’t remember the moderator’s name, but the two men reported that in talking together before the meeting, these two apparent strangers had discovered that they were, in fact, cousins.
Mary and Elizabeth were related somehow, we don’t know whether by blood or marriage, we don’t know how closely; casual relatives without close definition are routinely translated as cousins, so that is how we know these two women: as cousins.
For Mary, the journey to Elizabeth’s house was no little undertaking. From Nazareth to the hills outside Jerusalem is a trek, and the road was not easy nor particularly safe. It was a strong and overriding impulse that drove Mary to the house of her cousin.
The angel had told Mary that Elizabeth was six months pregnant, even though she was much older and had never carried a child before. Perhaps Mary needed to convince herself that the angel was a truth-teller, before she found herself too far along her own strange road to motherhood. Perhaps she went to Elizabeth for proof.
Elizabeth had not been visited by an angel. Instead, the angel had gone to her husband, Zechariah, as he was serving in the temple. Zechariah had been dubious: “How can I be sure of this?” he asked, and the angel got rather angry, and struck the man mute, until the child should be born.
Perhaps Mary went to compare notes on angel visitations, to convince herself that she was not going mad. Of course, she couldn’t talk to Zechariah about it, because he was unable to tell his own story; so she went to Elizabeth for the translation.
Perhaps she was simply afraid, and needed a time-out, a time to gather her strength and courage before confessing to her family that, no matter the odds, she was in the family way.
Whatever her reasoning, Mary ran to Elizabeth, and when Elizabeth saw her coming, we are told, the unborn Baptist, John, jumped for joy in her womb. I believe that this is the only time in Scripture where we are allowed to imaging John the Baptist joyful or jumping.
When my cousin and I overlapped in Singapore, I had three small children under four, and she was carrying her first. I don’t know which of us was running for the hills.
I have met women who have become mothers for the first time later in life, like Elizabeth, and they are terrified; with good reason, I am beginning to feel in my bones. I have met women, like Mary, girls who have fallen pregnant much too soon, much too young; and they, too, are terrified.
Yet when they find one another, these two, when they find where they overlap, Elizabeth’s baby jumps for joy, and Mary is strengthened to sing out her praises to God; to allow herself the luxury of joy, and hope, for her own strange child, her own strange twist of fate.
“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices,” Mary can finally say.
No matter how close we are to God; no matter how close God comes to us – Mary was carrying the divine child in her very body – no matter, she needed her cousin, she needed a friend, she needed someone outside of herself to understand, to help her carry her burdens of joy and of sorrow. She needed companions on the way.
For most of us here, our abiding and pressing concerns do not have to do with pregnancy or childbirth, let alone strange angelic visitations. But we have our need of overlap, our need to know that we are not alone, that we are not too unusual, that we, too, bear the image of Christ in our bodies, on our souls.
Some of us live in families. Some of us live alone. Some of us live with families not altogether of human origins. Cousins can be people we know well, with a shared history and common ground. Cousins can be strangers, discovered by chance at some meeting or another, brought together by grace and by God. No matter how we find one another, something inside of us leaps for joy when we recognize Christ in one another.
No matter whether we live alone or with others, we each of us carry our burdens of grace and of grief in our own bodies, and bring them to God in our prayers and our praise; and no matter how close we can be to God by ourselves; no matter how close God has come to us in our lives; we still come together, as strangers, as family, because there is nothing like sharing that joy, that makes babies leap in the womb, even John the Baptist.
When we deprive one another of our company, we deprive them of those moments of great joy, when they recognize Christ in us, in the overlapping images of God that we carry in ourselves, in our lives. Sometimes it is in the blossoming of life; sometimes it is in the grief of the cross that we carry; no matter, when we offer ourselves to one another, we offer the image of Christ, and we would be hard pressed to justify withholding that grace from those around us.
On Thursday night, and Friday morning, we will see people here that we haven’t seen in a while, running home or running for the hills; coming out from under the shadow of the cross to worship at the cradle. Let’s find the overlap we share with them, let them know that our hearts leap for joy to see them, let their hearts be lifted into song by our welcome. Let it be said of us that we are blessed, who have believed that what the Lord has said to us will be accomplished.
And for ourselves, whether we are running home or running for the hills, may the Christ child meet us in unexpected ways, and we find ourselves strangely strengthened, oddly joyful, to find our path overlapping his. Amen