This week we consider the story of two pregnant women, who coincidentally are cousins. One of them, Elizabeth, is old–very old and well beyond normal child-bearing age. Her story, of course, brings to mind other women favored by God with miracle births in the Hebrew Bible: first Sarah, wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac; later on Hannah, wife of Elkanah and mother of Samuel. The second is very young. Mary was probably somewhere around 14 or 15 years old, at best, and engaged to a much older man, Joseph. Most importantly, though, both women had been visited by angels who “explained” their pregnancies. Maybe it should not be too surprising that Mary would turn to her older cousin, who was about six months along in her pregnancy, for comfort and advice. She was, after all, the one person who could understand most clearly what was going on:
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.” –Luke 1:39-45 NRSV
A very rough (loose) translation of Luke’s comment, “…and exclaimed with a loud cry,” is that Elizabeth was speaking as if she had a megaphone to her mouth, to magnify many times what she was saying. We might say today that she was using her outdoor voice. Elizabeth not only calls Mary “blessed” (as well as the fruit of her womb) but announces that the baby she’s carrying “leaped for joy” as soon as Mary spoke her greeting to her [Elizabeth]. That unborn child would become known as John the Baptizer, of course, the one who preached repentance as a first step in preparing the way for God’s anointed one.
That final verse in the quoted passage is worth a closer look: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” First, that word translated “believed” relates not to our modern-day understanding of belief as mental acceptance of doctrinal statements but back then signified one who had an active faith that God would bring to pass what God had promised. Mary, then, is important not just because of who she is–the mother of Jesus–but also for what she hears and how she responds to the angelic message. At key moments in his Gospel, Luke writes that people break out in song. Consider now what Mary “sings”:
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” –Luke 1:46-55 NRSV
Certainly these words are not the original thoughts of your typical 14-year-old girl, especially one without formal education. Maybe that’s part of the point. For it is the Holy Spirit “helping” Mary to articulate the bigger, ultimate meaning and purpose of the child she’s carrying. God is not speaking to kings and emperors, the rich and powerful. No, just the opposite. This message is for the powerless and the hungry and the oppressed.
In Mary’s day the known world was ruled by Pax Romana, the so-called “peace of Rome,” which was characterized by violence, coersion, and hierarchical privilege. Caesar wielded ultimate power and authority; every knee bent to him and those who acted on his behalf. It was utterly inconceivable that anyone or anything could stand against him. Yet Mary uttered the word of God that Caesar and everyone like him to follow–principalities and powers of various descriptions–would someday be undone by a very different “pax,” the peace brought by the one still in this teenage girl’s womb. What a fantastic, utterly unbelievable idea!
Yet here we are on the fourth Sunday of Advent, just a few days before Christmas Day, declaring our active faith that God will indeed bring that to pass. At Christmastime there is, of course, a place for a baby in a manger and swaddling clothes and shepherds and docile animals and wise men and angels and all the rest. We need that every year, I think. I expect that when I gather with my own congregation on Christmas Eve, joining with millions of Christians around the world celebrating in different but essentially similar ways.
We need also to listen to Mary’s song and recognize there’s still plenty of evil and darkness, bigotry and hatred, in the world (this year it’s been marked by mass violence and bloodshed in Paris and San Bernardino,; and just this past week brought the three-year anniversary of the incredible awfulness at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school).
I’ll draw on my “inner Luke” here and encourage you to take about three minutes to listen to a song: Rory Cooney’s “Canticle of the Turning,” which is based on Mary’s song known as The Magnificat. (I love the fact it is published in my denomination’s two-year-old hymnal, Community of Christ Sings, No. 404.)
*Portions used from the 2012 ForeWords archive