Fourth Sunday of Advent

A paradoxical prophecy

Stone carving of Mary and Elizabeth touching hands
Photo by Lawrence, OP on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

December 19, 2021

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Commentary on Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

Advent, the season of waiting for Christ to come to us (Latin, ad [to] + venire [come]) has a pattern that stretches across its four Sundays. The first Sunday begins at the End (with a capital E): the parousia—we await Jesus’ second coming. The focus of weeks two and three backs up to zoom in on John the Baptist, who prepares for the coming of Jesus’ ministry. And then on Advent 4, we finally back up to the beginning of Christ’s story to turn our focus to preparing for the coming of the nativity of Christ, for the incarnation.

This lection from Luke 1 breaks into two parts. Verses 39–45 is a narrative telling of the encounter of Elizabeth and Mary, both of whom are pregnant. One reason Luke tells this story is christological: it portrays Elizabeth and her yet-to-be-born son John as recognizing the yet-to-be-born child of Mary as messiah, “Lord.” A second reason for the scene is that it provides a narrative setting for the second part of the lection, verses 46–55. 

This canticle spoken by Mary is called the Magnificat, taken from the opening line: “My soul/being magnifies the Lord.” The Revised Common Lectionary makes these verses an optional part of the Gospel lection because they can be read in place of a psalm for the day. If the other option for the psalm of the day is used (Psalm 80:1–7), the verses should definitely be read as part of the Gospel lesson. 

Whether read separately in the place of the psalm or as part of the Gospel reading, preachers should not miss the chance to explore this speech with their congregations. First, it is one of the few texts in the Bible, written in an ancient patriarchal culture, where a woman is presented as the main character, much less as one who speaks prophetically. Second, the Magnificat offers a different understanding of the incarnation than our culture and many congregations usually embrace. And third, Mary’s canticle does the two prior items by announcing a major theme that will unfold across the narrative of Luke-Acts: salvation by reversal.

This reversal begins with Mary herself. God looks upon her lowliness as God’s servant (or better, her humiliation as God’s slave) and calls her blessed (verse 48). But then quickly Mary’s prophetic announcement of salvation extends beyond an individualistic to a cultural, systemic concern. Luke presents her as preaching that God brought judgment on the proud and the powerful, sending the rich away empty, and conversely that God lifted up the lowly and fed the hungry (verses 51–53).

There are two keys to understanding the Magnificat’s proclamation of salvation by reversal to which preachers should attend. First, Mary is responding to her pregnancy. The canticle is a prophetic celebration of the fact that Elizabeth’s declaration confirms the fulfilment of what the angel promised: Her son “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” (1:32). So, this ecstatic speech is a prophecy of what God will do through Christ. 

Second, however, Luke shapes the Magnificat by having Mary speak of God’s actions in the past tense: God looked, did great things for me, showed strength, scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry, sent the rich away empty, and helped Israel (verses 48–54). Note that modern English translations render the verbs in the perfect tense (for example, “has looked”) implying an action in the past that continues on into the present. But the Greek verbs are all aorist, indicating actions completely completed in the past.

Thus, we see that the Magnificat is a paradoxical prophecy. It speaks of a future God will bring in through the yet-to-be-born messiah using past tense verbs. There is a sense, then, in which Luke is proclaiming that already at the point of awaiting the coming of the messiah, salvation is a done deal.

The paradox of the Magnificat is the paradox of our faith. This is the “already” (past tense verbs) and “not yet” (hope for the future) of biblical eschatology. Already the reign of God has arrived, but when we look around at the world we plead that God’s reign might yet come. Is not this the paradox of Advent itself: Christ already came (born, preached, healed, opposed the powers-that-be, died, resurrected, and ascended) and yet we begin the Christian year waiting, preparing, and hoping for him to come?

At the center of the paradox is the concern for why Jesus came/is coming. We often talk about soteriology in terms of individual redemption. But Mary will not allow us to think of individual salvation apart from Jesus turning the power structures of the world on its head. As the beginning of the Magnificat that focused on the reversal of Mary’s situation cannot be separated from the latter portion that focused on systems of power being reversed, our salvation is part and parcel of the saving of the world. 

Following Luke, the Christian faith is concerned at the ultimate level with the reversal of the systems of oppression that keep some on top by putting others on the bottom. This, says the first prophet in Luke-Acts, is why Jesus came/is coming. This, suggests Mary, is what we are to preach, celebrate, and for which we hope in Advent with Christmas just around the corner.