Luke 1:39-56 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Hans Holbein -- Toledo Museum of Art39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,and holy is his name.50 His mercy is for those who fear himfrom generation to generation.51 He has shown strength with his arm;he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,and lifted up the lowly;53 he has filled the hungry with good things,and sent the rich away empty.54 He has helped his servant Israel,in remembrance of his mercy,55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Who is Mary and what is her role in the story of our salvation? Why has God chosen her to be the mother of the Lord? Some of that information is given in the preceding verses, where the angel visits Mary and announces that she will bear a child, even though she has not been with a man. No worries, says the Angel, the Holy Spirit will take care of that. And indeed, Mary is now with child. Luke offers us one of two takes on the question of Jesus’ origins. For the most part the New Testament writers show no interest in Jesus’ conception or birth. For the most part Mary doesn’t figure prominently in the story. Yet, Mary has figured prominently in the traditions of the church. The Nicene Creed declares of Jesus that “for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.” The confession that Mary was at the time of conception a virgin, and perhaps ever afterward, has long been a point of contention within and without the Christian community. It has become a matter of contention in the modern age as questions are raised about the miraculous. While some continue to hold fast to the ancient confession, perhaps because they embrace the miraculous or because they believe that this is an essential tenet of the faith, others reject the concept, relegating it to the realm of myth, and thus something that needs to be set aside by reasonable moderns. There are still others who simply continue affirming the confession, not because it is in line with modern beliefs, but because it reflects the important role of Mary in the economy of God. As John P. Meier put it: “one’s acceptance or rejection of the doctrine will be largely influenced by one’s own philosophical and theological presuppositions, as well as the weight one gives Church teachings” [A Marginal Jew, 1:222].
As we gather on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we stand on the border between the season of anticipation and the season of fulfillment. The Gospel reading for this Sunday focuses on the visit of Mary to her relative Elizabeth. The text itself has nothing to do with the question of nature of Mary’s conception, except that she feels greatly blessed that God would choose her as a partner in the work of salvation. Elizabeth’s pregnancy is, according to Luke, almost as miraculous as that of Mary. Like Sarah and Hannah, she was past the age of child-bearing. And yet she is carrying a child, who will in time come to be known as John the Baptist. Thus, even as John will in engage in a ministry of preparation, the same is true of Elizabeth.
After Elizabeth gives her witness to the importance of Mary’s child, Mary begins to sing the song we’ve come to know as the Magnificat. In this powerful psalm, Mary declares both her trust in God’s decision to honor her with this calling and her own sense of God’s vision for the future. As with many of the texts we read during Advent, this song has an eschatological/apocalyptic tone. God is going to do something rather powerful, and she is part of this effort.
What will this work of God look like? Something revolutionary is about to happen. God will turn the world upside down. The rich and the powerful will be brought low, and those living on the margins will be raised up. This isn’t a vision that fits very well with a Christian world that values success and power. It’s not the kind of vision that Constantine would embrace, or many Christians living in America today. Nonetheless, this is the vision espoused by Luke and by Mary. For this reason, Elizabeth declares Mary to be blessed by God. Mary’s vision is challenging. Even those who celebrate it, likely will be uncomfortable with its message, or at least we should be. As powerful and as important as this message is, I want to spend the rest of the reflection focusing on the person of Mary, and her role in our belief systems.
While Roman Catholics venerate Mary, Protestants have historically struggled to integrate her into our faith experience. Even those Protestants who hold on to the belief in the virginal conception, usually struggle with this question. In part this may have to do with resistance to Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. For some Protestants, anything that looks Catholic needs to be rejected (though this is thankfully increasingly rare). The good news is that in recent years we’ve seen a growing appreciation for Mary within Protestantism. One reason might be that she is a leading female figure within the biblical story. Another reason is found in this very text. Many Protestants with a progressive social vision celebrate Mary’s song.
Since there is this greater appreciation of Mary’s role in the biblical story, I thought I might highlight her importance to the Christian faith tradition. It is at the Advent/Christmas season that we engage with Mary. She is, after all, the mother of Jesus (however this conception and birth took place). So how do we integrate her into our faith journey? Leaving aside the question of Mary’s virginity, which is not at issue in this passage, who is Mary to us as modern Christians? What does it mean for Mary to be chosen by God to participate in God’s work of salvation?
How do we get from the humble servant of Luke to Mary the Theotokos? By the fourth and fifth centuries as the debates about Jesus’ humanity and divinity were heating up, the question of Mary’s role was raised. For some (the winners of the debate) she was the Theotokos, the “God-bearer.” Those who argued for this title wanted to affirm the divinity of the child whom Mary had carried in her womb. This position was challenged by Nestorius, who claimed that Mary couldn’t be the mother of God, for God has no mother. Nestorius was concerned that in protecting Jesus’ divinity, the theologians of the church were diminishing Christ’s humanity. In the end, the matter was “settled” by the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Nestorius lost, though Nestorian Christianity found a home in the churches of the East. But is there something of value to be found in these debates? Is there something of importance to be found in the confession of Mary as the Theotokos, even if Nestorius raised questions about its value? One modern theologian, Joe Jones writes: “If we pull back from this sobering assertion, then we endanger our capacity to follow through on the logic of the eternal Son becoming incarnate by the womb of a woman” [A Grammar of Christian Faith, 2:409]. Jones goes on to state that the “miracle” has nothing to do with whether Mary is a virgin: “The real miracle is that God becomes human flesh through h being born of a Jewish woman” [Grammar, 2:410]. The important matter is Mary’s election by God. She is the one, for whatever reason, whom God chose to bless. That is her own confession. Jones writes: It should now be fully clear that creaturely bodiliness is not alien to God but is assumed by God and lovingly embraced by God, not just in possibility but in concrete act” [p. 410].
The story of Mary is one of being chosen by God to participate in God’s work of salvation, liberation, reconciliation. Mary is the one who bears the child through whom and in whom God is revealed to humanity. In assuming humanity, God suffers the scandal of particularity. Why this child? Why this ethnic community? Why this . . . the list of questions can go on forever. The answer is, this is God’s choice, and Mary has answered the call, and because of her willingness to participate God’s work, the nations will be blessed, “according to the promise made to Abraham and his descendants.” From here we move on to the stable in Bethlehem, where the glory of God is revealed in a child born to Mary. And as Elizabeth declared, and John affirmed from the womb, “blessed are you among women, and blessed be the fruit of your womb.”