"Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, exclaimed with a loud cry, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.'" (St. Luke 1: 41-42)

There is an extraordinary story in Luke's Gospel about the joyful and ecstatic meeting of two pregnant women. Mary, the unmarried and not-yet wife of Joseph, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth in Bethlehem, and when Mary enters the house the baby in Elizabeth's womb kicks and leaps at the sound of Mary's voice.

Elizabeth is filled with the kind of ecstasy only new mothers can ever know. It is a beautiful and touching scene, made all the more precious by its irregular circumstances. Mary is a peasant girl from Galilee, betrothed to a man yet pregnant with a child that is not his. Elizabeth is much older, past child-bearing age, a woman who had thought herself barren and unable to have children, who miraculously finds herself pregnant-to the astonishment of everyone. And the two women come together in a moment of sheer joy and happiness that reaches across the centuries and touches us still.


In fact, the Bible tells us about three women, three unusual and unexpected pregnancies, beginning in the Hebrew Scriptures with the story of Hannah.

Hundreds of years before Mary went to visit Elizabeth, Hannah sat praying at the door of the Lord's temple in Shiloh asking for a child (1 Samuel 1). She too was barren, which in the ancient world was seen as a curse upon a woman. Her prayer outside the temple door was a prayer of such primal depth, such heart-breaking force that the old priest sitting there noticed her and took pity. Seeing her faith, he prophesied that God would reward her, and God did. Hannah gave birth to the boy Samuel - Samuel the prophet who eventually anointed David as king over Israel.

Three women, three births, and three children destined to be among the greatest names in the history of the world: Samuel the prophet, John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible links these three together in a clear sequence of relationships: Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel and chooses David as the second; David establishes the lineage from which the Messiah will eventually come, and Jesus is born of David's line to become the anointed One, the Messiah, the saviour of the world; John the Baptist is his forerunner, the prophet announcing the good news of Christ's appearing.

These three names are linked forever in salvation history. And the Bible tells us about their remarkable mothers, as well as the children they carry. They are all women of strength. They are women of courage. They are each in their own way blacklisted by the culture and society in which they live, two because of barrenness, one because of illegitimacy.

Yet they are women of faith, faith in the God of Israel, faith in the One who looks with compassion on all who suffer. Theirs is a faith so strong that it calls down blessings from heaven upon them, a faith so true that it opens the heart of God, who sees virtue in their distress and grants them their desire. These unconventional women, who offended the mores of their society, have become the women we remember today because their trust in God began the very sequence of events that made possible the salvation of the world.

People at the margins

When Mary enters Elizabeth's house, not only do the two women greet each other but the child Elizabeth carries leaps in her womb at the presence of the Messiah. It is a sign of the extraordinary things to come - John preparing the way for Jesus, John's announcing his coming, and Jesus own baptism by John when they meet again in different waters. There are profound levels of meaning in the story, and they carry a real significance for us today, thousands of years distant.

The Anglican Church is passing through a time of controversy. There have been people praying outside the doors of our temples, people unable or unwilling to come in. Though we go in and out of our churches easily, offering quick assurances that all are welcome, these people fear they are not - aboriginal people wanting to tell us about their woundedness, gay and lesbian people asking for a blessing, young people seeking affirmation of their youthfulness, and many others.

We could have turned away from these people. We could have refused to listen, refused to apologize, refused to acknowledge, refused to bless and welcome. And because we have not done that, because we have opened the circle of our compassion a little wider, and changed the tradition that kept them out, we are paying a price in turmoil.

But what may not be so obvious is the hope, encouragement and strength we have brought to many people. There is great interest around the world in the way Canada is dealing with the legacy of residential schools and the way New Westminster is facing up to changing understandings of human sexuality.

Last year a bishop in Brazil told me our church is doing something important for the whole of Christianity. A Roman Catholic priest I met commended us for our courage and said he believed we are acting out of the gospel, and whenever the church acts out the gospel, he said, truth is released and so too is hatred. An African bishop told me "what you are doing is remarkable - some day we in Africa will have to come to terms with these issues too, and then we may need your help."

I mention these things not to make false claims that everything is wonderful, but to emphasize there is hope, gratitude, and encouragement too. Births are always joyous events; they are also messy and painful. When God brings about something new, God does that through faithful and courageous people who are willing to be put to the test. The gospel is always breaking open in new ways, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, through people who live at the margins, often those who live under a curse, a wound or a stigma, often those whose lives challenge accepted conventions.

A new Church being born

God is bringing something to birth in our time - a church for the future, a church for a changing world, a church that struggles to face up to past injustices and put right what has been done wrong, a church that dares to welcome those who feel unloved and rejected, and extends the hand of peace and reconciliation to those who doubt the wisdom of change. There are moments of joy and moments of tears in this birthing, and no certainty how events will unfold.

We are in the midst of the struggle for new life, in times that demand new spiritual visions, and it is a time for brave and courageous souls. There is great faithfulness being shown by those who cannot understand the direction we are taking, and have chosen to remain with us in fellowship and love. There is bravery in those who have waited many long years to be heard and recognised by the church and have not turned away from Christ in their constant prayers. All of us trust that this is God's church and God will bless us in our faithfulness and reward our hope.


When Mary visited Elizabeth she sang a song of thanksgiving, a song that has come down to us across the ages as a permanent feature of Anglicanism. It's been in our Prayer Books for nearly five hundred years. It's called the Magnificat, and Mary borrowed it from Hannah, who sang it centuries before:

"He has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away." (St. Luke 1: 52-53)

We have anaesthetized this song over the years and forgotten its power. It is a song of revolution, a song about radical change, about God bringing new life to birth that will change the world and overthrow the ancient orders. Mary and Hannah both believed they were participating with God in a new future, a new reign of justice, truth and mercy - precisely for those who are at the edges of society and not necessarily "orthodox." And because they were women of strength, because they believed in God more than a quiet life, they said 'yes' to all the challenges and opportunities God's blessing would bring.

This is the word of God to us today. The Church is not a place for the faint of heart. The Gospel is not a task for the timid. We are here to participate with God in the renewal of the world. Our job is to build up the church for those who hope fervently in God and pray at our doors. It will never be easy. It will always be right.