Commentary on Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]
Traditionally, preachers move in one of two trajectories when reading this gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Advent: emphasizing either Mary or the One she magnifies.
Either choice is justifiable and opens up excellent preaching opportunities.
Mary, after all, is a model of faith. If her son will later function as the “second Adam” in the temptation in the wilderness, Mary appears here as something of a “second Eve,” representing all humanity in her faithful embrace of her role in God’s plan of salvation. Luke constructs his scenes with care, contrasting this poor (“lowly” does not simply denote humility), unknown, and unremarkable teenage girl with Zechariah the priest, in that though also struck with wonder, Mary trusts rather than doubts the angel’s prophecy. Hence, and somewhat ironically, the child in Elizabeth’s womb — Zechariah’s son — leaps in joy, recognizing the onset of salvation in Mary’s faith in God’s promises. Mary, with her mixture of wonder, faith and courage, is surely worthy of our attention and imitation.
At the same time, one might move in the direction of emphasizing the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, who chooses ordinary Mary though whom to do extraordinary things. This is the God of reversals, the one who regularly shows up where we least expect God to be — manger, cross, vulnerability, suffering — in order to scatter the proud, exalt the lowly, satisfy the hungry, and send the rich away empty. Mary’s God is a God of justice and compassion, the One who hears the cry of the oppressed and despondent of all generations and responds, and so also deserves our attention.
But, this Advent, what tugs at my imagination is neither the singer nor the subject, but rather the song itself. That is, I think it matters that Luke recounts this portion of his gospel story in verse. By transcending the rubrics of prose narrative, poetry, such as Mary’s Magnificat, pierces the veil of the ordinary and opens a window by which to perceive afresh the extraordinary and unexpected goodness of God. In doing so, Mary, through her song, promises that the Holy One of Israel may also encounter us amid the ordinary, mundane, and even difficult activities of daily life.
Luke’s infancy narratives are suffused with singing. After Mary, Zechariah will take the stage to praise God’s fidelity to Israel through the birth of John the Baptist, the angels will offer their canticle of peace and good will at the birth of Jesus, and Simeon will croon of God’s mercy being extended to all the world. Why so much verse? Because Luke understands, as did the Psalmists of Israel, that songs are powerful. Laments express our grief and fear so as to honor these deep and difficult emotions and simultaneously strip them of their power to incapacitate us. Songs of praise and thanksgiving unite us with the One to whom we lift our voices. And canticles of courage and promise not only name our hopes but also contribute to bringing them into being.
Songs are power; this one, especially so. Notice that the verbs in Mary’s song are in the past (aorist) tense. Mary recognizes that she has been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel, the one who has been siding with the oppressed and downtrodden since the days of Egypt, the one who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham. The past tense in this case, we should be clear, does not signify that all Mary sings of has been accomplished, but rather describes God’s characteristic activity and acknowledges that Mary is now included in God’s history of redemption.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that whereas Luke has on several occasions in these opening chapters located God’s activity among the historically powerful (1:5, 2:1, 3:1), they are noticeably absent in this scene, replaced by two pregnant cousins. Similarly, the politically or prophetically significant cities of Rome, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth are not the locale for this action, but rather the hill country of Judea. Already, at least in this scene, the proud have been scattered and the lowly uplifted; all this occasioned by two women greeting each other in love and wonder. How much more we will see, Luke intimates, when the children these cousins bear come of age.
Songs are powerful. Last month we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But while the breaching of that monument to division took most of the world by surprise, it is important to remember that it had been preceded for several months by the peaceful protests of the citizens of Leipzig. Gathering on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church — the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas — they would sing. Over two months their numbers grew from fewer than a thousand voices to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world.
Songs are powerful. Perhaps we should therefore take our cue on this day from Elizabeth and Mary and keep our preached words to a minimum to make ample room for singing. Traditional advent hymns like “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” as well as newer ones like the “Canticle of the Turning,” give us the chance to voice our confident and courageous hope alongside Mary, and in doing so actually become more confident and courageous. As the Fourth Sunday of Advent serves as the bridge to Christmas, we might also consider leaning into the treasury of Christmas carols and include “Joy to the World” or “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” to begin celebrating — and thereby participating in — Christ’s advent in the flesh.
Whatever your decisions regarding hymnody, know that when we gather together and sing to God, the hope and consolation of Israel and the world, we, like Mary, are swept into God’s divine activity to save and redeem that world. A few voices drawn together in song in late December may seem a small thing in the face of the wars and worries of the age, but surely no smaller than those voices joined in Leipzig twenty years ago or those two voices joined in the Judean hill country twenty centuries ago. Mary’s God, we should remember, delights in taking what is small and insignificant in the eyes of the world to do extraordinary and unexpected things. So it has been, is, and ever shall be “according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
December 20, 2009