Their laughter is not self-conscious. Their laughter is not artificial or forced. Their laughter is full and real. Their laughter comes from someplace deep inside. Their laughter flows as laughter does in our moments of real happiness, or those moments when we discover the wonderful incongruities of life, or when we find that the impossible has become possible.
The laughter of Elizabeth and Mary is first of all their delight simply at seeing one another. Mary has come to visit her relative Elizabeth. Mary is the younger one – Elizabeth like an Aunt to her. It has probably been some time since they saw each other – too long – and now when they embrace they laugh with joy at the pleasure of being together. Of course we know, especially at this season perhaps, that it’s not always a joy to see relative. “Do we really have to visit them again this year?” But there are also always relatives and friends who we can’t wait to see, who we want to spend time with. And with them there is joy and laughter in catching up after a too-long absence.
Perhaps Elizabeth and Mary don’t laugh only on account of their joyful reunion. Perhaps they laugh also in their shared pregnancy. As they approach one another, their pregnancies become obvious to each other – and they are glad and cheerful at their shared expectation of a child. Elizabeth had thought she was too old to have a child, but here it is a reality. And Mary’s pregnancy is beyond her comprehension, but there is her belling getting larger by the day. The laugh together at the impossible possibility of these pregnancies.
Of course, pregnancy isn’t always a laugh – you don’t have to have been through pregnancy personally to know that. Elizabeth and Mary both experience the physical and hormonal changes that pregnancy implies – they both experience the discomfort that pregnancy implies. This past week I glanced through a book by Jenny McCarthy entitled Belly Laughs – the naked truth about pregnancy and childbirth. It’s a no-holds-barred account of what it means to be pregnant. Perhaps another way to describe it is as ‘irreverent’. McCarthy’s eighth chapter is on bladder control. It’s entitled: “I can either pee on you or you can get out of my way.” A chapter that deals with food cravings is entitled “Can I have a mustard sandwich with pickles, anchovies, peanut butter, and a little cottage cheese – oh, and throw a few fish sticks on there.” Getting a little more risqué, her chapter dealing with constipation is entitled: “Passing Stongehenge”.
Of course a man can get himself into a bit of trouble laughing at these kinds of things. But women often laugh together about the strange and wonderfully ridiculous things that happen to a woman’s body during pregnancy. We should not be so pious as to think that Elizabeth and Mary could not have shared a laugh about the odd physicality of pregnancy as they visit.
Elizabeth and Mary laugh together in seeing each other after a long absence.
Elizabeth and Mary laugh together in their common experience of pregnancy.
Backing up to read the narrative again, we find that Mary has travelled to visit her relative Elizabeth in the house of Zechariah. And as she comes near to their home – while she is still some distance off – Mary shouts a greeting to Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth hears the greeting, the baby heaves in her belly like never before. It is as if Mary’s greeting has passed through Elizabeth’s ears into her mind and heart, and from there into the mind and heart of the child she is carrying. The baby leaps in her womb – in that moment Elizabeth’s baby is all little elbows and fists, knees and feet.
The kinship between these women is complex and deep – it is a kinship through geneaology. It is a kinship in pregnancy and child-bearing. That much we have seen. But theirs is also a kinship in the Spirit. We read in the narrative: “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, Mary, 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.”
Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit – the same Holy Spirit that has come graciously upon Mary, as the angel declared to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, Mary, and the power of the most high will overshadow you, and the child to be born to you will be the Son of God.”
In these two women – and in their pregnancies – there is a weaving together of lives within the gracious purposes of God. God’s spirit is alive in the world. God’s spirit is alive in these women. The lives and experiences of Elizabeth and Mary are bound up together, and they laugh together in the Spirit.
There are some charismatic expressions of Christianity in which the Holy Spirit is said to cause holy laughter. In the context of worship, women and men in this tradition will erupt into shaking and will laugh exuberantly – they describe it as an ecstatic experience of the Spirit, manifested in holy laughter. Without making any kind of judgment of that phenomenon, we can nevertheless say that our everyday laughter in relationships – our everyday laughter in the wonderful incongruities of life – our everyday laughter at the impossible possibilities of life – this everyday laughter can be seen as a laughter in the Spirit.
Throughout the narrative and writings of the New Testament, God’s spirit draws near to women and men in their everyday lives. God meets us in the everyday in order to accomplish his purposes in our relationships, in our bodies, in our actions, in our speaking. And our laughter can in many ways be an expression of our life in the Spirit. Elizabeth and Mary laugh together in their love for each other – they laugh in their shared experience of pregnancy – and they laugh together in God’s good purposes being fulfilled in them and through them. This is holy laughter. Laughter in the Spirit.
The child to be born to Elizabeth, of course, is none other than John the Baptist. In his later life, John the Baptist will be, as he was in his mother’s womb, all elbows and fists, knees and feet – leaping and wrestling. Elizabeth’s son will grow up to be a gangly and angular presence. The Holy Spirit will lead him as he leaps into the hearts and lives of his listeners with his sharp words, and with his severe aspect, as he prepares the way for Mary’s son.
Mary’s son, of course, will be none other than Jesus of Nazareth. The one whose sandal’s John would later feel unworthy to untie. Jesus of Nazareth, who would set himself against the religious leaders and would set himself alongside the marginalized. Jesus of Nazareth, who would embody the truly human way of humility and service, truth-telling and justice. The one who would declare: “Tear down this temple, and I will build it again in three days.”
Elizabeth and Mary are kin – they are bound together – in the raising of children who will walk in the way of their tradition – who will embody the best of their tradition – who will be faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their laughter expresses this deep kinship.
We might add that in this moment of joyful ncounter, Elizabeth and Mary could not have anticipated the end that their respective children would meet. John, for his part, will be executed by Herod Antipas for having preached against Herod and his family. In all likelihood, Elizabeth will no longer alive at the time of her son’s murder (she is already older at the time of her pregnancy). But no doubt Elizabeth will understand that when we release our children into the world, when we release one another into the world, to follow in the way of God, we cannot ensure their protection, or their success, or the outcome of their lives. Her son John paid the price for his preaching and his prophetic ministry – John paid the price for following God’s leading – paid with his life.
Mary’s child, also, would meet an untimely and brutal end. Unlike Elizabeth, Mary perhaps had some foreboding of the end her son would meet. After Jesus’ birth, at his presentation in the synagogue, old Simeon would say to Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Unlike Elizabeth, also, Mary in all likelihood was there to the end, witnessing her son’s crucifixion and death, deep in her grief.
But in this moment with Elizabeth, before Simeon’s prophetic words to Mary, and well before the suffering of John, and well before the suffering of Jesus – in this moment there is only Holy Spirit inspired joy – Holy Spirit inspired laughter.
Mary’s joy and laughter carries her into song – a song that we know as the Magnificat. It is worth reading those words again in full. And as we hear those words, perhaps we should listen for the laughter in Mary’s voice as the poetry pours from her heart and mouth.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm – he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts, he has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful, to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”
In his recent book, entitled The Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany, Frederick Beuchner, recounts a story told by Maya Angelou when they were both speaking at the Trinity Institute in New York City – at a gathering of Episcopal clergy.
On certain plantations, Maya Angelou said, it was forbidden for the slaves to laugh as they worked, presumably because the masters were afraid that if it ever turned into laughter about them, the whole system might start to crumble. But if they couldn’t contain themselves, she said, what they would do was go over to some barrel that was standing around, and under the pretext of looking for something, reach down into it as far as they could and let great peels ring out where no one could here them. The laughter barrel, Angelou calls it.
Beuchner recounts further:
At the opening worship service earlier in the day there had been a procession of church dignitaries, and Maya Angelou continued her presentation by saying that as they had come parading down the aisle rigged out in their most elaborate ecclesiastical vestments and regalia, she had had an almost irresistible urge to duck off into some out-of-the-way corner somewhere – and as that point she interrupted herself by bending over double and letting fly with a cascade of laughter that no one who heard her is ever likely to forget.
Having listened to Mary’s song, we can perhaps suggest that there is something of that defiant, plantation, barrel laughter in Mary’s laughter. From Mary’s song, we can perhaps say that there is something of Maya Angelou’s subversive and iconoclastic laughter in Mary’s laughter.
Mary and Elizabeth look at themselves and laugh. They realize that this is a world where the powerful, the wealthy, and the established hold power. Mary and Elizabeth look at themselves, and laugh. In them God is doing something new and wonderful. They are first century Jewish women; poor; marginalized; powerless; living in an obscure corner of the world. They laugh. They have become participants in God’s renewal of the world. Oh the wonderful and delicious incongruity of it all. Oh the impossible possibility they are living. In setting everything right in the world, God is setting everything upside down, through them.
Mary sings and laughs:
Those proud in their thoughts are being scattered.
The rulers are being brought down from their thrones
The rich are being sent a way empty.
Mary sings – and together with her relative Elizabeth she laughs.
The humble are lifted up.
The hungry are filled with good things.
God embraces those who love him.
Mary and Elizabeth laugh – and their laughter will follow their sons into life. God is doing something new. God is making things right. God is turning the world upside down. Much laughter ensues… Thanks be to God. Amen.