39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home 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 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
46 Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! 47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. 48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored 49 because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. 50 He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. 51 He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. 52 He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. 54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, 55 just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (CEB)
If you think about it, Advent always seems a little backwards. When you look at the Gospel readings for the first three Sundays, it just looks weird. Especially if you’re one of those people who think Advent is all about getting ready for Christmas. (Hint: It’s not, and it never has been!).
The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent, Luke 21:25-36, has an adult Jesus proclaiming the end of days and the great judgment. The text for the second Sunday, Luke 3:1-6, has an adult John the Baptizer preaching about the need for repentance due to the coming of God’s kingdom. The text for the third Sunday of Advent, Luke 3:7-18, has an adult John the Baptizer preaching about God’s judgment and—again—the dire need for true repentance.
Then, quite strangely, the story backs up. Jesus and John the Baptizer both appear in the text, but they’re unnamed. Instead, the ones identified in the story are their mothers who carry them in their wombs. It seems like such an odd turn-around, but it’s actually a powerful way to tell a story.
It’s like the beginning of the movie Tangled where the narrator tells us, “This is the story of how I died.” Then he backs up to tell the story. On the first three Sundays of Advent Jesus and John both proclaim the coming of God’s rule and reign, but on the fourth Sunday, it’s as if the church decided to say, And this is how it began.
The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth is really a beautiful story of two women who each represent something old and yet something new. Elizabeth is an echo of Sarah, an old woman who was barren. She was a descendant of Aaron and was married to a priest. Her husband is promised a son through Elizabeth who will come in “the spirit and power of Elijah” to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Lord. It’s something we recognize because God has done it before: God bringing new life through an elderly barren woman is sort of an old trick. But it’s still a pretty amazing one.
Mary is, in some ways, an echo of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Even Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is similar to Hannah’s song (c.f. 1 Samuel 2:1-10). And yet, Mary is very different. She’s a young girl. She’s not even married. The angel, Gabriel, promised her she would give birth to the Son of the Most High, a king to rule over Jacob’s house forever in an unending kingdom. It’s rather potent news for an unwed girl. This is a new thing that God is doing. It was largely unexpected even though it was foretold. “The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14b, CEB).
When the angel told Mary she would become pregnant in this way, Gabriel reminds her that her relative, Elizabeth, has conceived a son in her old age. As soon as the angel leaves her, Mary sets out to visit Elizabeth. Some scholars think it was Mary’s desire for confirmation that led her to trek out into the Judean countryside to find Elizabeth. In fact, John Calvin wrote about the appropriateness of Mary seeking such confirmation. It wasn’t a lack of faith on Mary’s part that led her to Elizabeth. Instead, it was a following through.
Imagine, if you would, the shepherds in their fields who were suddenly surrounded by the heavenly forces singing God’s glory. What if, when they were told by the angel about the birth of their savior, they shrugged and said, Yeah, I believe that, and stayed in their fields. If they had done that, we would all be in awe of their faithfulness for taking the angel’s word at face value as well as their stupidity for not going to see this miraculous thing that an angel told them about. No! The angel told them, and they said, Let’s go check this out right now!
It’s appropriate that Mary got up and went to see this miraculous thing the angel laid before her.
But there are other scholars, such as Venerable Bede, who suggest that Mary went to Elizabeth in order to give Elizabeth confirmation about what God was doing. Mary thought Elizabeth needed to know. She also went to care for Elizabeth during the last stages of her pregnancy. The text indicates that Mary stayed for the first three months of her own pregnancy, until just before Elizabeth gave birth to John.
When Mary walked into Elizabeth’s house, it’s Elizabeth’s child who recognized the significance of this visitor. John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She became a prophet, speaking the words her in-utero son couldn’t yet proclaim. The Holy Spirit caused Elizabeth to recognize everything. Elizabeth makes the connection between Mary’s blessing and Mary’s believing. “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry… Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.” (Lk. 1:42b, 45, CEB).
Elizabeth is the elder, yet she’s genuinely humbled and surprised that her young relative, Mary, would deign to visit her. “Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:43). It’s a little bit lost on us twenty-first century types who are so used to calling Jesus our Lord, but it’s significant that Elizabeth addresses Mary as the mother of her Lord—the title for God—under the prophetic influence of the Holy Spirit. Through Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit of God tells us without a doubt that Mary is the Mother of God—the Θεοτόκος, the God-bearer—as the church calls her.
It strikes me as ridiculous that Protestants sometimes accuse Catholics of honoring Mary too much. Especially when we’ve essentially thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. We fail to honor Mary enough, almost to the point of dismissing her completely. If anyone thinks Jesus is going to be friendly with someone who disrespects his Mama, we’ve probably got a surprise coming. Jesus did his first miracle, not because he thought it was a good idea or because it was his time, but because his mother asked him to do it. Think about that.
The holy Scripture labels Mary as the Mother of God, the woman blessed above all other women on the earth, the first believer in Christ, and all of it is confirmed by Elizabeth’s prophetic utterance as she’s filled with the Holy Spirit.
Part of the beauty of this story is that Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth gives both of these women something they needed. They find in each other understanding, community, and connection. Mary, especially, would have experienced some stigma and ostracism. But in Elizabeth, she finds acceptance and companionship. It’s a representation of what the church ought to be.
Elizabeth had already faced such marginalization. She was an old woman who had been barren. Barrenness was, in the eyes of other people, shameful, and a mark of God’s disfavor. When Elizabeth became pregnant, we’re told she kept to herself for five months (c.f. Lk. 1:24). She said to herself, “This is the Lord’s doing He has shown his favor to me by removing my disgrace among other people. (Lk. 1:25, CEB). She didn’t want to be the talk of the town. These two marginalized, pregnant women carry within them the future of God’s plan, and they are the first to proclaim the Christ who would come to save us.
Another part of this story’s beauty is in its absolute absurdity. God constantly surprises us by doing new things, but this one takes the cake. That God should come to us through a humble, unwed peasant girl of no significance—from a human point of view—is almost laughable.
That Mary, this youthful nonentity, should be revealed as God’s favored one, the one girl on the planet whom God chose to be the mother of God’s Son, shows us how pathetic our human expectations are.
That this girl, an unmarried pregnant teenager, should proclaim some of the most significant words ever spoken and written shines a light on the folly of our vaunted human wisdom.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is the heart of Christian hope, belief, and theology. Mary proclaims the upside-down, inside-out reality of God’s promises as already accomplished facts. Throughout her song, Mary says God has done this and God has done that.
God has shown mercy to everyone. God has shown strength with his arm. God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones. God has lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things. God has sent the rich away empty-handed. God has come to the aid of his servant, Israel. God has remembered his promise of mercy.
Mary reminds us that we can have confidence in God’s promises to us. What God says he will do is as factual as if it had already happened. God’s kingdom is coming. Of that, we can be assured. To us, Mary’s words point to a world that appears up-side-down. But Mary sees with the eyes of a faith and tradition she has known. She invites us to see her God-given vision of a world finally turned right-side-up by God’s great reversal.
Mary’s Song is a call to us, a reminder to be faithful to the plan God has for the world. It actually goes along rather well with the apocalyptic words of her son from the first Sunday of Advent. The workings of God leave the nations confused, fearful, and shaken. But it’s inescapable. God’s kingdom is coming. In some sense, God’s plan began to take shape ages ago. But in another sense, the beginning of the fullness of God’s plan began with two pregnant women who carried within them the weight of God’s promise and fulfillment. One would prepare the way. The other would be the Way, the Truth, and the Light.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!