It was a normal day for Elizabeth and that was something to be thankful for indeed. Just six months ago her husband had a most unusual meeting when serving as a priest before God. Indeed, in that one brief meeting, their lives changed forever. Not only did Zechariah actually meet an angel of the Lord, but Elizabeth was now also with child – something she never dreamed could be a reality. Yes, thankfully, today was going on as a normal day. It started with preparing the morning breakfast and after that the household chores followed by the laundry. My goodness how those things just seemed to pile up each and every day. With only a few more tunics to launder, Elizabeth could begin to see the end of the long list of things to do.
Suddenly, she heard the greeting of her cousin, Mary, and just as suddenly, the child inside of Elizabeth leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s greeting. As Elizabeth stood there holding on to the tail of one of those last tunics, she felt the power of the Holy Spirit come over her. Looking at Mary, Elizabeth speaks the whole, utterly surprising truth as she says, “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.” Not only was she pregnant with a child – now she was also a prophetess proclaiming a holy truth!
So much for that normal day.
Up to this point in Luke’s narrative, there has been no exchange between Mary and Elizabeth. Though we are told of how they are related to each other, we are given no clues that Elizabeth could actually know about Mary’s visit with the angel Gabriel or about the fact that Mary is the mother of Jesus. Instead of being a weak character that plays an insignificant role in the narrative, Elizabeth becomes a prophetess in Luke’s birth narrative and proclaims the coming of the Lord even before her son, John the Baptizer, can do so. In her willingness to believe, Elizabeth becomes a faithful servant of the Lord and recognizes Mary for who she is before actually being told anything about Mary’s visit with the angel, and she opens the door for Mary to make her own song:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.”1
Mary’s song, which we now call the Magnificat, is a song of complete faithfulness in God, and it is one of the greatest moments in all of the gospels in which we can see plainly the strength of the women characters in the gospel texts. She begins with a song of thanksgiving for all that the Lord has done for her and slowly moves outward to the inclusion of what God does for all those that fear him.2 In the first few stanzas of Mary’s song, she exclaims the greatness of God because of all that God has done for her. Mary proclaims God’s greatness because God has “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” and “has done great things” for Mary. Mary has shown incredible strength and faithfulness precisely because she is willing to trust in God, and she says yes to the way that God is calling her into the bounty of God’s love. She is willing to be God’s servant and to lower herself to the point of being considered an outcast.3
Then, Mary’s song shifts subtly but in very important ways. As the song continues, Mary’s song widens to include all that God showers God’s mercy upon. In Mary’s song, God shows mercy on “those that fear him in every generation.” Just as Mary was lifted from lowliness to being exalted, so too are all those that fear God and trust in God’s goodness. And to whom is God’s goodness shown the most in Mary’s song? To the lowest and the poorest. For it is in her song that God “has scattered the arrogant in their conceit” and “brought down the powerful.” It is in Mary’s song that God has “lifted up the lowly” and “filled the hungry with good things.” It is in Mary’s song that we discover the fullness and the power of God’s love in the world today, and it is in Mary’s song that we are able to re-member who we are as members of the body of Christ.
Sisters and brothers, we are now only days away from Christmas morning and the time in which we welcome the Christ child into the world, and we are being called to remember all that God has done and continues to do in our lives. Mary’s song is one way in which we are able to recall that we do not have to have all the answers or solutions. Mary’s song fills our hearts with the words that we need to remember – that our faith urges us to put our trust in God and in God alone. In short, Mary’s song urges us to become more like Mary – a strong, faithful woman that has the gumption to proclaim the goodness of the Lord in the only canticle given to a woman character in Luke’s narrative.4 We, like Mary, are being called to have the strength to become lowly servants of God in our own context. While traditional theologies of Mary want to paint her as meek and mild, I want us to recognize that Mary is actually a paradigm of faithfulness in the face of the very real potential of becoming an outcast of society. By simply saying yes to God, Mary took the risk of being shunned because she was pregnant before her marriage to Joseph could be finalized. She took the ultimate risk for a woman in the first century, and God showered her with mercy.
The strength of Mary as a woman, then, is the strength that we need to find in our own faithfulness. God is calling us to become like Mary – a pillar of faithfulness that is willing to take the ultimate risk of saying yes to God. Mary’s strength is the model for us to follow if we are to be effective ministers of the good news of Jesus Christ, and Mary’s faithfulness is precisely what the world needs more of right now to counter the words of fear and hatred that are so prevalent in the media today. Mary’s song calls us towards the love of God and shapes us into persons that are characterized by loving others. Her words that recall the past actions of God also remind us that what God did in the past God is doing in the present and will continue to do into the future. Thus, Mary helps us to re-member that the Christian response to the stranger is to love them. The Christian response to the fear and the hatred in the world is to remind the world of the goodness and the love of God. Our response to the things that create fear in our hearts is to join Mary in her own song and to remind ourselves and the world that Christ is coming into the world, and we need not fear. Our response is to join Mary in her song and to proclaim, “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.”
- The Book of Common Prayer, p. 119
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (United States: Liturgical Press, The, 1991), p. 43.
- Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p. 43
- Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds., The Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,U.S., 1998), p. 502.