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!”
The meaning of the original word used by Luke to describe Elizabeth’s exclamation loses some of its impact in the modern English translation. “A loud cry”, according to scholars, should be understood to be an exaggerated loud cry – as if Elizabeth was using a megaphone! It’s another example of Luke’s gift for drawing us into the joyful experience of our emotions as the story of the coming Messiah begins to take shape.
Allowing that particular brand of spirit to set the tone for us bids us notice that the text cries out as well – cries out to be preached in all its incongruity and craziness. It’s really a story that calls for us to engage viscerally and personally in the joy, the amazement and the passion seen in this encounter between Mary and Elizabeth. Max Harris, who offers great assistance in our pushing at the boundaries of how we reflect on scripture, points out to us that in this moment we are observing God’s embarrassing and threatening “challenge to good order” – that in Luke’s gospel this visitation between Mary and Elizabeth is a kind of spiritual overture to the rest of the gospel story in which Jesus will bring us face to face with a world turned upside down.
Harris’ innovative approach is wonderfully and imaginatively represented in his 2003 book Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance, a work that describes medieval folk traditions and street theatre, as blending with the tales of scripture, in ways that don’t limit our interpretations to serious academic research or pious religiosity. We learn of the Feast of Fools and of Carnival, in which social hierarchies of the day are brought down by being spoofed – the lowly raised, instead, to places of honor. Indeed it is a time honored desire and practice. We moderns, then, are invited to prepare for Christ’s birth, not only through serious theological reflection, but also through unconventional laughter, astonishment and, perhaps best of all, singing.
Luke is clearly a fan of singing. Woven through his birth and infancy narrative we find a disproportionate amount of singing going on – more than in all the other gospels combined. Mary sings the Magnificat – our subject for today – which is followed by Zechariah’s song at the birth of his son John the Baptist. The angels sing to the shepherds who are abiding in the fields, keeping watch over the flocks by night. And when the Holy Family visits the temple to offer a pair of doves for the birth of their son, Simeon – devout and righteous, having received the promise of the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah before departing this life – he lifts his voice in praise to God singing, “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised.”
Songs are powerful. This is also time honored – an ancient tradition among the people of Israel. The Psalms are long-cherished: laments – these express our pain even as they strip it of its power to incapacitate us; songs of praise and thanksgiving – these unite us with the One to whom we sing; and canticles, like Mary’s song – these are proclamations of courage and promise, that both name our hopes and have the power to help bring them into being.
Mary’s song here echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel – a song with which she gives thanks for Samuel, the son and prophet she bears. Both Hannah and Mary:
• Exclaim their joy in their God
• Both Hannah and Mary take heart in the promise that God considers, cares for, and acts on behalf of the lowly rather than the mighty and powerful
• Both Hannah and Mary identify what God is doing as being not just for them, but also, through them for all people.
It’s remarkable how many matching expressions there are in the two songs. So much so that it draws the Hebrew Bible and New Testament writing closer – which supports the contention by many scholars that Mary’s song existed in some form long before Luke put pen to paper. Even more, it’s important to note that all of Judeo-Christian scripture, at least in part, has had a history of being learned through oral tradition – the spoken word. And a great deal of the texts were, indeed, set to music.
Song is a form of spiritual elevation – thought and emotion combine in uniquely spirited ways. In this place, in particular, that truth resonates…how can I say it? Keenly. When we gather and sing to God, we, like Mary, are invited to be swept into God’s divine activity to save and redeem the world.
Songs are powerful. Some scholars cry out for less words in the pulpit in order to make room for more song! And with good cause! We have several examples, today, of moments in song that articulate our confidence and courage – that give voice to God’s divine activity – the meaning in the words helping to make us more hope-filed and joyous.
“O Come Desire of Nations bind in one the hearts of humankind, bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our king of peace. Rejoice!”
“Tell out my soul the greatness of his might, powers and dominions lay their glory by. Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight, the hungry fed the humble lifted high!”
What happens differently when you wrap the words in the intention of actually finding what meaning lies in them for you? That may be the most interesting question to come out of reflection on Mary’s song.
According to Luke, when Mary sang she didn’t just name God’s promises, she entered into them. All the verbs she uses in her song are in the past tense. This is meant to show that she recognizes, as she sings, that she has already been drawn more deeply into relationship with God’s characteristic activity as it is seen throughout the history of salvation – from Genesis onward. This is what animates her song and makes her a vessel for the newest thing ever. She is, in her person, the incarnation of the entire tradition.
When we sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, we too have the opportunity to be drawn into the story of Israel’s redemption, and not only long for, but also participate, from the inside out, in God’s promise to bring light, and to cheer us – to become banishers of the impact of death and darkness. Can you see how that might translate beyond the history of salvation as it is represented in scripture, and become alive, not only in your personal life and experience, but also how that intention might turn out to be the spiritual element that enables you to rejoice in God’s goodness even in the face of challenges that appear in the heart, the home, the nation or the world?
Madeline L’Engle offers us some gentle and very helpful thoughts on this subject:
“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe – by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are – but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know it.”
It is into a history of chosenness, despite being trampled on by others for centuries, that Emmanuel is born. Born into a town of little interest. Is it his destiny to overturn things? Yes. But not as we mortals may wish to see it. Not by putting more weapons into more hands. Not with collective violence. No. Emmanuel reverses that and takes the perspective of the victim. That is how God sees. God takes the perspective of the victim to its destiny – becoming the one who is both disgraced and executed.
And yet it’s that same God whose rising on the third day changes everything. God’s rising IS the power of forgiveness, rather than the power of vengeance. And it is through the power of that immeasurable forgiveness that the vital perspective of the victim survives forever. And that this is how we know God, cannot be overstated.
Mary’s God delights in taking what is small and insignificant in the eyes of the world to do extraordinary and unexpected things. God chooses ordinary Mary to do extraordinary things. This God of reversals shows up where we least expect – in the manger, on the cross – in vulnerability and in suffering. By showing up in such places God scatters the proud, exalts the lowly and satisfies the hungry.
Both Mary and the one she magnifies are worthy of our attention – and intention. Especially in this gospel moment. It matters that Luke has set this part of the story in song, because songs transcend the conventions of prose. They subtly, almost subversively, pierce the veil of the ordinary and open a window through which our perceptions of God may be freshened – a freshness that has the power to point us toward something new that God is trying to say.
Women, so often overlooked in both history and scripture, have the only speaking roles in this scene. This realization intensifies as we notice that the historically powerful are absent – not the emperor or his minions, not the temple leadership are present here. Already the proud have been scattered and the lowly uplifted as two women – both astonishingly pregnant – meet in love and wonder.
Mary’s song – the Magnificat – is one of the truly beautiful songs with which Luke adorns his telling of the nativity. It’s rich with affirmation of God’s mercy, promise, restoration and healing. When strife in our hearts or in our world threatens to take away our desire and ability to sing, it is through moments like this in the gospels we can catch our breath, hold onto each other and remember that we are not alone and that through one another we will be experience God’s power to save.
19th century Anglican theologian Thomas Dehaney Bernard, when reflecting on the Magnificat, puts it quite beautifully:
“Do we not all know how sentences from the Bible or liturgy glide into our prayers and offer their unsought aid to express kindred feelings of our own? So here the words as well as the thoughts are those of a high-souled Hebrew maiden of devout and meditative habit, whose mind has taken the tone of the scriptures in which she has been nurtured. We feel the breath of the prophets, we catch the echoes of the psalms, we recognize most distinctly the vivid reminiscences of the Song of Hannah.”
It’s a beautiful acknowledgment of how Mary spontaneously irrupts with a glorious cascade of themes that summarize the story of salvation. Do we know that? Do sentences from scripture and liturgy glide into our prayers?
As this sense of wonder rests in our heart, we will not be afraid, dear friends. This need not be unending ponderousness. Don’t forget how we started down this path today recalling medieval folk traditions and performances. There are many ways to open the kind of window that allows words from scripture and liturgy to glide into our hearts.
Let’s rejoice in that we prepare for Christ’s birth – in the world in and in each one of our hearts – not only through serious theological reflection, but also through unorthodox laughter, astonishment and, perhaps best of all, singing.