Here is the story of Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, mother of John whom we know as John the Baptist. Mary and Elizabeth were related. They could have been cousins or, given the age difference, Elizabeth could have been Mary’s aunt.
This passage tells of miracles and surprised and reversals. There was the miracle of Elizabeth conceiving. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were elderly. She had been barren and long since given up hope of having a child. Now she was with child. Mary had her own miracle in her belly though a troublesome one.
This was an unusual visit. In those days pregnant woman, particularly an unmarried woman, would ordinarily be cloistered and would not travel. There was no urgent care medical facility along the way. It is not clear why Mary went to visit Elizabeth. The visit of an unmarried pregnant girl to a relative could have been a way to reduce the visibility of a shameful pregnancy. Perhaps Mary went to escape wagging tongues in Nazareth who had a few questions about this single mother and who the real father might be.
The story may be familiar to you, but there still mysteries in what happened. There is no indication that Joseph accompanied her to ease her way on the steep, rocky dirt roads and trails. It was a difficult journey and dangerous journey yet, the Gospel tells us, she went in haste. Why in haste?
And in another surprising twist it was Elizabeth who said she was blessed by Mary’s presence. We don’t know why she – Elizabeth – thought she was the one who was honored. It does say that Elizabeth “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord”. The sudden presence of an unwed, pregnant relative was somehow enough for her to accept what was otherwise unacceptable. Here is the Gospel story.
39 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 him from 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.
Before she was a believer, Mary was a doubter. The angel Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Hail, O favored one. The Lord is with you!” In one translation it says she was, “Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.”
To reassure her, the angel said, “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” “How shall this be,” she asked, “since I have no husband?” Remember she was probably about 13-years-old and this two millenniums ago before there were sex education classes.
Worse for Mary is that in those days to have a child out of wedlock brought a woman and her family shame and dishonor. It was no small matter to be told that she was with child. She was legally her father’s property, and he might seek financial restitution for this pregnancy. The law even allowed for her to be stoned to death.
How would she explain her condition to Joseph, to her family and friends, to her neighbors? Nobody is ever going to believe this angel story. But the first doubter also became the first believer.
After she pondered in her heart what the angel had to say she responded, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” What we learn from Mary is that it is all right with God that we have doubts. As Mary lived with doubt, she also sought faith.
In first-century Israel, one could hardly be lower than to be a dirt-poor, unmarried, pregnant Jewish teenager. Mary occupied what is sometimes referred to as a humble station. She was a woman in a patriarchal society; a young person in a society that venerated age. There is no record of her immediate family offering her support. Away from home she gave birth in a stable. Her child’s first crib was an animal’s eating trough.
Instead of complaining she celebrated the mercies of God because of the promises of God. Which means that the powerful ones on the throne should worry. This is a moment when we see God turning the world upside down. It begins with Elizabeth providing hospitality to Mary, Elizabeth, a woman of position and means giving refuge to Mary, a teenage relative in a troubled situation.
Elizabeth could be justifiably proud of finally conceiving and might have looked down on Mary who it would appear was shamefully expecting. Instead, one of high estate lifted up the one of low estate. Elizabeth, a woman who for years had longed for a child, said that Mary who was pregnant and not yet married, was the blessed one. We get an early clue that God is changing the normal order of things.
When Mary arrived, this baby leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. And Elizabeth greeted Mary with many of the same words that the angle spoke to Mary, “Blessed are you among women.” Then Elizabeth added, “And is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Why would she think this baby in the womb of a teenage relative was her Lord? The normal order of things is being jumbled.
Mary said to Elizabeth, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Or as it is translated in The Message Bible: “I’m bursting with God-news.” The God news is great news for some, terrible news for others. On our Christmas cards we often find Mary holding the baby Jesus while dressed like royalty. Sometimes she even has a crown or halo on her head with white light shining on her like a beacon. Her clothes are spotless and white even though she just gave birth in a barn. This is how artists honor her.
But the gospel writers tell us of Mary who represents the humble, the poor, and the powerless. This is Mary who is one of lowest social standing, part of the world of these weak, hungry and oppressed. We will celebrate the Christmas season with lights and tinsel, with candlelight and carols. But we always need to remember that at the heart of what God did in Jesus’ birth was to turn the world upside down; toppling the powerful from their thrones; lifting those of low estate; filling the hungry with good things; and sending the rich empty away.
And for those of us who are filled and have many good things it ought to be a time to pause and ponder and maybe be concerned. God seems always to be overturning the world’s social order. Caesars proclaimed themselves to be gods and they have all fallen from their thrones. Do you know who today celebrates the ones who had John beheaded and Jesus crucified? No one. Empires as long lived as Holy Roman Empire have proclaimed themselves master of the world and they have disappeared from the face of the earth.
Caesars and Hitler’s by many names have set out to subdue all nations under their feet but today they all lie in their graves or soon will be. It is true what Mary said: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he has put down the mighty from their thrones.” This is the great reversal, the divine foolishness of our God who is not impressed with pomp, power, wealth, credentials or privilege.
A tale is told of when the funeral cortege of Charlemagne came to the cathedral. The people were shocked to find the gate barred by the bishop. “Who comes?” shouted the bishop. The heralds answered, “Charlemagne, Lord and King of the Holy Roman Empire!” Answering for God, the bishop replied, “Him I know not! Who comes?” The heralds, a bit shaken, answered, “Charles the Great, a good and honest man of the earth!” Again, the bishop answered, “Him I know not. Who comes?” Now completely crushed, the heralds said, “Charles, a lowly sinner, who begs the gift of Christ.” “Him I know,” the bishop replied. “Enter!”
If the high and mighty are paying attention they should be concerned. Back before India won its independence and was under British rule, Bishop William Temple of the Anglican Church warned his missionaries to India not to read the Magnificat in public. He feared that it would be so inflammatory that it might start a revolution.
The story of Mary tells us that life can be hard, but it is in the midst of all the trouble where God is to be found. A simple young woman from Nazareth in Galilee is lifted up today in churches across the globe, standing tall amidst the fallen giants of an earlier day, because in simple humility she placed herself at God’s disposal.
There was a reversal in this patriarchal culture where women were subservient and where women were not permitted to speak in public even to their husbands. They were not invited to lead in the Temple. It was the reversal that it was not the son of the Temple priest who is the savior but the son a single young woman betrothed to Joe the carpenter. It is almost like God’s own little joke. This is God’s extravagant love for the poor and marginalized and oppressed. God is always on the side with those knocked down, those who are excluded, those left out.
I find it interesting that in the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth, the angles offered the invitation in a particular order of arrival. First invited were the shepherds, the commonest of working folks, the lowest on the social scale. A couple of years later the kings ended up getting the word of the messiah’s birth. They who were most prominent were last to be invited.
In the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, we know that God intimately identifies with the marginalized and the oppressed. God is always on the side of those knocked down; those who are excluded; those left out. Christmas is a time when many people are marginalized. Even Jesus is pushed to the margin by Santa. Profit and exploitation marginalize Jesus’ proclamation of good news for the poor and can make the Magnificat sound a little quaint.
As quaint as it sounds this is the message of Mary: “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” One of my favorite stories is about Fiorello LaGuardia, Mayor of New York City during the bleakest days of the Great Depression. I don’t know if this story is true or apocryphal, but I like it in any case.
LaGuardia was a colorful character, who used to show up in unexpected places around the city. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court serving one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Exercising his mayoral privilege, LaGuardia directed the judge to let him take a turn at the bench and preside over some of the cases.
A tattered old woman was dragged before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She poured out before the mayor a tale of woe – how she had been deserted by her husband, how her daughter was sick, how her two grandchildren were starving. The shopkeeper refused to drop the charges, insisting that other would-be thieves had to be taught a lesson.
Mayor LaGuardia sighed, and said to the woman, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.” Even as he said that the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He took out a bill and tossed it into his famous fedora hat, saying, “Here is the ten-dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore, I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents, for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
A total of $47.50 was collected, a princely sum, in those days. It was turned over to the poor woman that night. Fifty cents came from the grocery store owner himself plus some petty criminals, traffic violators, and New York City policemen contributed the rest. The courtroom rose of one accord and gave the mayor a standing ovation. They understood what it meant to be lowly and to see the lowly are fed.
The story of the birth helps to feed our hungers. It feeds us if we are willing to stand against the values of our world and stand with the God we have come to know in Jesus, the one has come to turn the world upside down and fill the hungry with good things.
The promise is ancient yet there are times and places we see the promises of God are being kept. Millenniums ago, God made a promise to an old man named Abraham about being the father of Israel, with his wife Sarah birthing God’s own people. God kept the promise when a band of Jewish slaves defeat an Egyptian pharaoh. God kept the promise again taking David, a humble shepherd boy, and made him Israel’s greatest king. Somehow the promise is kept to this day despite all efforts throughout history to destroy the Jewish people. Promise made. Promise kept.
Thornton Wilder wrote a play entitled “Skin of our Teeth.” At one point a husband asked for a divorce on some flimsy grounds. His wife replied, “I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise.
“That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people married, and it was the promise that made the marriage…And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; and it wasn’t our love that protected them – it was the promise.”
It is the promise God made to Mary and Joseph in the birth of their son; it is the promise God has made to every generation since and to us that lets us live in the confidence that in God’s time and God’s own way the promise will be fulfilled. At Christmas we proclaim that God entered human history as a poor and vulnerable baby, not as a child of privilege.
We are sometimes told we should not mix religion and politics. But God seems to disagree with this. Politics is now we order things; it is how we achieve the mercy and justice of God. In the birth of Jesus God reordered the world.
Jesus began his ministry reading the words of the prophet Isaiah saying he had come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus was crucified on the charge of being the king of the Jews.
Here is my main take away. Whenever there is a conflict between the rich and the poor, between the powerful and the weak, between the exalted and the shunned, we know whose side God is on. If we wish to follow Jesus that is the side we should be on – the side of the poor and the powerless.
Mary’s words are an invitation to share with God in the work of turning the world upside down; bringing good news to the poor and release to the captives; overcoming hate with love; changing enemies into friends; and turning darkness into light. God’s mercy continues from generation to generation. It is a promise God has made and it is a promise that God keeps to this day.
God’s mercy continues from generation to generation. This is the child who was to be born in ancient days yet is born again even in us. To this child we sing, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas Angels the Great glad tidings tell; O come to us Abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!”