I love to learn about the lives of the women in the Bible. I find it so interesting to go back in time, to gain a better understanding of how things were done, and the reasons why. There are always nuggets of wisdom that can be gleaned; common threads that we can identify with; and, in the end, gain a better understanding of ourselves, and our struggles as people of God. When one thinks of the women of the ancient world, our first response is often pity. There was so much that women could not do, or become. The men assumed the leadership roles, especially in spiritual matters. Women’s status was more as a servant whose work largely focused around domestic tasks, bearing children and caring for family. Yet, in the Bible, there were many women who seemed to be an exception to the rule…
Let’s turn the clock back, in time, and enter into the lives of two women by the names of Elizabeth (wife of Zechariah) and her young, thirteen year old cousin, Mary. Let’s take a closer look at their beliefs and their actions: how they might speak to us, today; and, what nuggets of wisdom on which we might wish to ponder, this Season of Advent!
As we begin, Mary (betrothed to Joseph) has just been visited by The Angel Gabriel, who has told her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God” (Luke 1:38) …and will conceive and bear a son, of the Most High, and his name will be Jesus. She was also told that her - quite elderly - relative Elizabeth - would soon conceive and bear a son, despite her advanced years. Can you imagine the shock, fear and bewilderment that filled the heart of this humble, thirteen year old, peasant girl? Yet, clearly: “The Holy Spirit heated, inflamed and melted Mary with love, as fire does iron, so that the flame of the Spirit was seen and nothing – nothing was felt but the fire of the love of God!” - St. ldefonsus of Toledo - …as after Mary had pondered all that had taken place, she replied to the Angel: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me, according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Shortly thereafter, Mary set out and went, with haste, to a Judean town in the hill country. She felt called to go to her elderly cousin Elizabeth.
Scripture tells us that, when Mary entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth: “…the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry: 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 hear the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy! And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:342-46) Clearly Mary and Elizabeth are kindred spirits, sharing a bond and relationship that goes beyond words….each woman was there, believing in, and not questioning the, miraculous, circumstances of the other. Each surely needed to let herself go…
Tears and fears were as safe between Elizabeth and Mary as awesome joy! Surely a radiant light is now shining on Mary and Elizabeth, two lowly and shamed women through whom God has chosen to begin the transformation of the world … that God is already at work within…to overturn the world’s unbalanced structures and expectations. By greeting Mary with honor, Elizabeth overturns social expectations. Mary is a pregnant, unmarried, woman. She might expect shame and judgment from her older kinswoman. Yet Elizabeth knows, from her own experience, the cost of being shamed and excluded. In her culture a woman’s primary purpose in life was to bear children, so as an elderly, infertile wife she had experienced a lifetime as a failure.
Her response to her miraculous pregnancy emphasizes that God’s grace has reversed her social status: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (Luke 1:25) At long last, in her old age, Elizabeth is an acceptable, married woman. Elizabeth continues the pattern of social reversal by lovingly extending hospitality to a relative whom her neighbors would expect her to ostracize. But, instead of excluding Mary, she welcomes her, in raising her above herself, saying: “Who am I that the Mother of my Lord should visit me?” (Luke 1:43) The pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings honour and joy instead! When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she shows the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to sinners and prostitutes. She doesn’t see Mary’s situation as shameful, but Elizabeth sees the reality of God’s love, at work, among those whom mainstream society would reject. Finally, with an unexpected prophetic voice, Elizabeth, exclaims that Mary is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims (what Mary has not yet told her), and is invisible to the eye: that Mary is pregnant with the mother of ‘my’ Lord. Now, as for Mary: she is just a humble peasant girl. She did not have any social standing due to parentage or class, nor even the dignity of Elizabeth, her cousin. Yet, The Magnificat – or The Song of Mary - which we all said together, this morning, instead of the Psalm - is Mary’s natural reaction to meeting her cousin Elizabeth.
Mary’s Song is an outpouring of love as she joyfully gives thanks to God for the many wonderful things God has done for her. It overflows with Mary’s wisdom and is evident of her strong faith and trust in God. On a spiritual level, Mary’s song infers that God’s salvation has come, even before the birth of Jesus; that God’s choice has passed over kings and rulers, the mighty and the rich, and embraced the humble and obedient, entrusting her with the role of Mother to God’s Son. It is interesting to note that Mary’s Song does not focus on the immediate blessedness of her having this child, but on the ultimate outcome of the coming of the Messiah. Her words also reflect her deep understanding of the themes of the Old Testament, its Prophets, God’s mercy and compassion for the poor and the helpless…and God’s ultimate plan! For these reasons, we know that Mary has clearly grasped the social implications of the gospel, understanding that the good news of the Messiah’s coming would result in revolutions: of morals: The self righteous will be brought down and the humble exalted;of social norms: because it breaks through the human divisions of status and prestige and considers all people to be of equal value; finally, an economic revolution: as the hungry will be fed, and the well fed, will be hungry.
Therefore Mary’s Song promotes a Christian society which considers the needs of all, which shares, so that all might benefit and flourish. I think it’s also interesting to note that Mary does not in any way view herself as better, or holier, than anyone else. She views herself as one who needs God’s salvation, and as a servant of God, whose humble state is the occasion for His mercy and grace. There is no suggestion that she thinks God has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah due to her blessedness, but rather, her blessedness is the result of God’s gracious choice to use her as His instrument. Mary did not see herself singled out for blessing. Instead she saw her blessing as one instance of God’s grace, which leads her to sing her praises to God for all His grace. Mary’s Song reveals the depth of her understanding of God’s grace, which is not only shown to her, but to all generations. Is it any wonder that God found favour in Mary? Mary is a model disciple.
One cannot read the Magnificat without realizing her deep faith and trust in God; she has deeply drawn from the theology of the Old Testament and she also expresses herself in biblical terms. Finally, in order to have learned all this, Mary had to be a young woman who not only believed the Word of God, but who meditated on it. Yes, Mary has a lot to teach us! How shallow our prayers and praise seem when compared with those of Mary. Our praise tends to be based, almost exclusively, on our pleasant and pleasurable experiences.
Our praise tends to focus primarily on what God has done for us. If we choose to learn from the wisdom of Mary, we must seek to dwell much more on the character of God, of His covenant promises, and of His working through history. We must try and gain a deeper understanding of Scripture so that it is naturally a part of our language, of prayer and praise; and, the focus of our meditation. In Mary’s Song there is the humility of knowing that all that is being accomplished in her, is being accomplished by God: “…for the mighty One has done great things for me…” (Luke 1:49) Mary makes no effort to minimise this greatness. She accepts it –joyfully ! Her great song of praise is a glorious expression of her faith, that all God’s promises will be fulfilled in days to come. The Magnificat is a beautiful prayer of Mary’s, likely offered up, daily; in good times and in bad. Even at times like the passion and death of her son, her faith remained strong that God would care for her and take care of her son. In prayer, we too, can pray our own Magnificat, thanking God for our many blessings, and good times; for God’s faithfulness in walking beside us, and helping us, to get through our times of pain and struggle. Can you think of moments in your life, when, just like Mary, you know that you have been blessed?
Sometimes, it may be only a gradual realisation, in difficult circumstances. … Mary was clearly a model disciple for us, a woman of strong, faith, rooted in the themes of the Old Testament. Elizabeth praises her, not because she has conceived the Christ, but because she believed the angel’s words. Let us pray that we, too, may have a strong faith, like Mary’s; a faith that God can do, what we think, is impossible. May we, like Mary, pass on the praise to God: acknowledging the truth: that God is the author, of every good thing, in our lives. As we go forward in our journey through Advent, I pray, Lord, that you will also give us Mary’s confidence and generosity of spirit. I pray that we not just listen to your voice and do your will, but that we do it joyfully and fearlessly, knowing that you will show us the way to truth and justice. Like Mary, may we pray the Magnificat, and ponder all of this in our heart.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
By The Rev. Juanita Clark