As we tiptoe closer to the manger over the next week or so, I want us to consider the passages in Luke that tell the story of Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth. The angel Gabriel has just delivered some astonishing news, and Mary has just delivered her world-changing “Let it be”. And now, immediately and “with haste,” Mary makes her way to Elizabeth’s house in the hills of Judea for a three-month stay. Scenes featuring women as protagonists, with no men present, are rare in the Bible. Luke strikingly bookends the life of Jesus with two such scenes: at the end, the discovery of the empty tomb by a group of women, and here at the beginning, Mary, pregnant with God, visits Elizabeth. In this sense, Luke turns the marginalization of women on its head: at both of these crucial points in the action — birth and death, womb and tomb — it’s women at the center of the story.
Mary’s song — called the “Magnificat” after the song’s first word in the Latin translation — evokes and echoes its ancient forerunner, Hannah’s song of gratitude to God for the newness of life embodied in her son, Samuel. Hannah is a strong, bold visionary, and her story demonstrates that she is well-acquainted with the history of Israel’s relationship with God. First, she prays fervently at the sanctuary in Shiloh, and then later, thanking God for Samuel, Hannah sings of divine majesty and power, painting a picture of God as a master of reversals: YHWH “raises up the poor from the dust,” even as “the bows of the mighty are broken” (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
Musically, Mary’s song is just the beginning. Luke includes no less than four songs in his Gospel’s two opening chapters: Mary’s, Zechariah’s (traditionally called the “Benedictus”), the angels’ song to the shepherds, and Simeon’s song (the “Nunc Dimittis”) (Luke 1:45-55; 1:67-79; 2:14; 2:29-32). It’s as if Luke stages the story as a kind of exuberant musical, suggesting that the joyful mystery of Jesus’ birth can’t be contained or expressed by prose alone. Again and again, the power and poetry of music break through.
Mary has just received stunning, exhilarating news, and her first instinct is to leave her home (and her fiance) in Nazareth — immediately and “with haste” — for an extended stay with her relative, Elizabeth. Part of what’s behind her haste may well be the sheer vulnerability of being a young, pregnant, unmarried woman in first-century Palestine — or anywhere and anytime, for that matter. Or perhaps she wanted some time and space to process what was happening, in the company of an older relative who would understand — and indeed a woman blessed with her own astonishing pregnancy (Elizabeth, like her ancestor Sarah before her, was “getting on in years”). Or perhaps, Mary was simply eager to celebrate with a trusted confidante, since joy is seldom complete until it’s shared. Whatever her motives, Mary’s first move was to Elizabeth’s home: a sanctuary of solidarity and support. The fact that this refuge was in the hill country of Judea, some distance away from the more prestigious cities of Jerusalem, Rome, and Nazareth, underscores the story’s central theme: God lifts up the lowly, working out deeds of power through supposedly powerless people and places.
Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary, “Blessed are you among women,” recalls ancient words spoken about Jael and Judith, two women famous for the parts they played in liberating Israel (Judges 5:24 and Judith 13:18). The greeting thus frames Mary as a liberator, too — and as she sings, a great chorus sings with her: the generations of women throughout the ages with crucial roles in salvation history. Elizabeth testifies that when she heard Mary’s greeting, the child in her womb (John the Baptizer) “leaped for joy” — and Elizabeth in her own way leaps in her joyous exclamation, as does Mary in her song. The common thread here is a particular kind of anticipatory celebration, taking joy in what has secretly begun, but has not yet fully come into view. Call it “first trimester joy.” After all, both women are still in the midst of shadows and uncertainty, still on the margins of society — and the divine promises themselves seem outlandish (the priest Zechariah, for example, initially doesn’t believe them! (Luke 1:20)). Nevertheless, Mary and Elizabeth joyfully believe, and testify, and sing.
Luke portrays Mary not only as poised and courageous, but also as learned and wise. Her eloquent hymn, so evocative of Israel’s longstanding relationship with God, indicates that she is deeply formed in Jewish tradition (and so was likely to instill in her son a love of scripture). Only someone profoundly familiar with Hebrew scripture and tradition, and in particular with Hannah’s song, could have composed the Magnificat. Luke’s point is clear: Mary is a young woman of vision, learning, artistry, and chutzpah. She interprets her life according to ancient patterns of divine action, and her song encourages us to do the same.
Mary sings a revolutionary song about God’s revolutionary love, and this passage illustrates a series of recommendations for budding revolutionaries to consider. First, just as Mary learned from her ancestor Hannah, we are wise to devote time to studying the tradition we’ve inherited, and learning some of its key forms by heart. In this way, we can reflect on the ideas and actions of those who’ve gone before us, all for the sake of building on their good work here and now. Second, when new opportunities and challenges arise, we are wise to follow Mary’s example and intentionally seek out allies and advocates, forming sanctuaries of mutual support. And third, drawing inspiration from both our forebears and our friends, the next step is having the courage to lift up our voices and sing: “Joy to the world, for God is lifting up the lowly!”
The Rev. D. Jill Johnson-Scott