In this morning’s readings of the Gospel, for this fourth and final Sunday in Advent, we come to the Visitation of Mary to her relative Elizabeth, both of whom are pregnant in remarkable ways. Elizabeth because she was older and had been unable to have a child until this point, when the angel appeared to her husband as he was serving in the temple. And to Mary, because she had not yet married Joseph, but was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and conceived. And in this account of the meeting of the two, we read two remarkable things.
The first being that when Mary speaks, the baby that Elizabeth is carrying responds, as though there is something special about Mary and the baby that Mary is carrying. There is the mysterious acknowledgement, without yet receiving any news or indication as to what kind of child this will be, that there is something special going on here. And in response, Elizabeth proclaims that Mary has become blessed among women — of which Luke curiously uses a form of the word “Blessed” that is only used once, in this instance, of someone other than Jesus. There is something special going on here indeed.
If we can for a moment put aside our awareness of the rest of the story and imagine that we are hearing it for the first time, here’s the information that we have so far: That the angel appeared to Mary, a young woman engaged but not yet married to Joseph, and told her these words:
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
And I am fighting so hard right now to not go into a diatribe on the song, “Mary did you know?” Because, she didn’t, OK. That settles it.
But what does she hear? Essentially, that he will sit on the throne of his ancestor David, forever. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense if that’s all you’ve got to go with. No wonder Mary is said to have pondered these things in her heart.
She’s also told that her relative Elizabeth is now six-months pregnant. So she goes to Elizabeth, who greets her and tells her that when she spoke, her, Elizabeth’s baby, leapt in her womb.
It’s to this, and the proclamation of being blessed among women, and blessed is the baby inside her, that she responds in the words which we call the Magnificat — the name deriving from the Latin word for “magnifies,” the first word of her reply in Latin.
And in this, we see not a demurring Mary, as we often see in iconography, but a bold, confident, and even a defiant woman. Because in her words, we progress from her self-reflection of her poor estate and standing, her humility before God, to the great blessings which God has given her in this moment—and she hasn’t even given birth yet to this baby! She’s barely even pregnant at this point!
But look at the language she uses of the work that God is doing through her and this moment. In it we see a God who is strong and powerful, the Mighty One. A God who is merciful and has acted on Mary’s behalf and been good to her. And a God who upturns the social order, turning it on its head.
It’s to this that I want to turn, to what we see about the God who Mary has encountered, and who this God is that is doing this curious thing through her and the children that she and Elizabeth will raise.
Because we sang the magnificat in place of the Psalm, I want to reread it from the NRSV to you. It begins:
“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.
This praise that Mary gives to God is remarkable already, because there’s not much that has happened at this point, as we recounted moments ago. An angel appeared to her, telling her that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, he will rule over Israel, and Elizabeth is pregnant. And from just THIS, Mary acknowledges that God has done great things for her. Little does she know what lies in store — because no, she didn’t know. Not at this point.
And yet, she has a remarkable thankfulness and humility before God — an attitude of gratitude — for the love of God shown to her by affirming her and inviting her to be part of this great work of salvation to come.
Following this, we see the remarkable works and priorities that se attributes to God:
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.
Throughout these words, we see a bold proclamation of the mercy and might of God, who will turn the social order over in order to affirm and lift up the lowly—the humble, the powerless, the hungry—while the arrogant, powerful, and the rich will stand to lose greatly. Do you hear the echoes to Jesus’ later words: The first shall be last and the last shall be first?
But this is our God, revealed to us in the face of Jesus, who showed exceptional kindness and mercy to those who were suffering in this life, or who humbled themselves before God and the teachings of Jesus. These ones, like the tax collector praying in the temple, went away justified, while the others went away excluded from the blessings enjoyed by the others.
May that be a lesson to us, that as we enjoy the daily visitation of Christ in our lives, the daily Advent of Jesus to us, that we would learn from the words of Mary in this Gospel, and to appreciate the mercy of the mighty one to the humble, the lowly, and those in need.