The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Advent sermon, http://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like/
Jesus was born to be a marginal person. He was conceived by Mary when she was unwed .… Thus, while the birth of Jesus to Mary was divinely justified, it was nevertheless socially condemned. Jesus, as well as his parents, was marginalised from the time of his conception. — Jung Young Lee, Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 79
This is one of the very few passages of scripture in which only women appear. It may be the only one in the New Testament; the only other one in all scripture that I can think of is the story of Ruth, where Ruth, her mother-in-law Naomi and sister-in-law Orpah are heading out of Moab towards Bethlehem. Orpah, of course, returns to Moab but Ruth goes on with Naomi.
But today, we have Elizabeth and Mary. As I said, alone. No man in sight. And really, men are given scarce credit for this scenario.
You know, if Luke chapter 1 were a film, Mary would be the star and Elizabeth her co-star. Her husband Zechariah would be a supporting actor and poor Joseph would be an extra. With his name in very small print.
Now, we do have stories of women in ancient literature. We have Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Boudicca. But they were women who were players—leaders, conquerers, queens.
Not so Elizabeth and Mary. They were not players, but they were caught up in something much bigger than them.
As Luke tells the story, Gabriel the angel of God had told Zechariah that Elizabeth would be a mother in her old age, and that her son ‘will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’.
And Gabriel had bypassed Joseph altogether to speak to Mary:
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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Gabriel had also told Mary that Elizabeth, a relative, was also pregnant. So the first thing Mary does is to go and see Elizabeth.
Why? I imagine she needed some time with someone who might understand.
After all, here we have two women who have no business being mothers. Elizabeth is too old, and Mary is unmarried. Yet their bodies are to experience the tumult of pregnancy and childbirth.
Neither of them had any business being mothers, but people would have been happy for Elizabeth. In those days, it was vital to produce children. If a couple couldn’t have children, it was the wife’s fault. She bore the blame and the shame. She must have must done something wrong, they thought, to bring this disgrace upon herself and her husband.
Yet Luke has told us that both Zechariah and Elizabeth ‘were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord’. Yet Elizabeth was—in that terrible word—barren. Very strange.
Neither of them had any business being mothers, and Mary would have started tongues wagging. If people were happy she was pregnant, it was the perverse pleasure of having someone new to gossip about. You see, Mary was betrothed to Joseph. In other words, their families had come to an agreement and they were promised to each other. They were not yet married, Mary was still living with her family, but betrothal was a binding agreement. And they were expected to wait for marriage until they had sex.
So when she heard that Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age, Mary hurried to see her. What a wise choice that was.
Wise, because Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke really emphasises the Spirit of God who energises and moves God’s people; that’s important here because Elizabeth responds to Mary with what we can only call deference:
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 fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
Filled with the Spirit, Elizabeth saw what God was doing. So, even though she lived ‘blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord’, she wasn’t holier than thou. She didn’t criticise Mary. She didn’t ask her what she thought she was doing, getting herself pregnant. She didn’t scold her at all. No, she—the older woman—bows to Mary, who was fifteen at most.
We need people like Elizabeth, people who will allow the Spirit to form their character and their thinking so they can discern what God is doing. Such people are good to know, trustworthy people.
And then, this tiny girl erupts into that great song of praise, Mary’s Song, the Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
Coming to Elizabeth for care and comfort, Mary finds the strength to proclaim what God is doing through these two quite obscure women. Through them, and not through the men, God is fulfilling the promise made to their ancestors:
[God] has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
[God] has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Mary, one of the lowly, who may well have known real hunger, looks for the day when God’s promises will take effect. Through her Son.
I said before that Luke emphasises the role of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Elizabeth could do what they did because they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
We don’t talk a lot about being filled with the Holy Spirit, we leave that to the Pentecostals. And what happens?—they get the monopoly on the meaning.
We need to talk about the Spirit too. For Luke, the Holy Spirit is the third with Mary and Elizabeth, and the Spirit is seen as she turns everything upside down. How is everything upside down, topsy-turvy? We’ve already seen it, all the way through this story. We see it as God lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.
The story is about two ordinary women, one only just a woman. Yet God will bring the Saviour into the world through them. Biblical writers weren’t often less interested in women; they’re not often even given a name.
But here, today, there are no men. And no man is even credited with Mary’s pregnancy. Luke presents it all as the work of the Spirit.
The story is of an older, respected woman, a woman who Mary goes to for counsel and comfort. And perhaps to get away from village busybodies. But this respected woman, Elizabeth, bows to Mary. Mary, who is pregnant yet unmarried. Mary, no older than fifteen.
Why? Elizabeth feels her baby leap in her womb, and interprets that as her baby greeting the child Mary is carrying with joy. The Spirit doesn’t care about our hierarchies and systems, and so Elizabeth can defer to Mary. The Spirit
has scattered the proud
in the thoughts of their hearts.
She has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly…
Can any good thing come out of Nazareth, the religious authorities asked in John’s Gospel. Let’s see, shall we, over the next two days?
The Spirit reconciles the creation with God. The Spirit still has a lot to do in an era of massive climate change. The rich and powerful still appear to be on their thrones. Faith alone believes that Christ is Lord, hope alone sees the day coming when the knowledge of God fills the earth as the waters cover the sea, love alone makes heaven real on earth today.
We’re coming to the end of Advent, perhaps the least understood and appreciated season of the Church Year. Our waiting will be over tomorrow evening as we welcome the birth of Jesus.
The Spirit is still turning things upside down, which in God’s eyes is the right way up. We need to examine ourselves once again. In global terms, we are the rich and powerful. The Spirit calls us to join her in lifting the poor, in giving them a voice, in welcoming the refugee. Let’s join in.