Here we are, on the 4th Sunday of Advent – the last Sunday in Advent. We’ve had three weeks of repentance and preparation; three weeks of getting ready not for the baby Jesus but for the coming of Christ at the end of days, in judgement and righteousness and mercy. Advent is a season of power and justice.
And then the 4th Sunday arrives; a Sunday reserved, every year, for Mary’s part in the story. This year, it’s Mary and Elizabeth – two miraculously pregnant women, one too old and one too virginal to be bearing the sons they are bearing.
And, more often than not, the tone changes. We move from power to intimacy; from the mighty saviour to the precious infant. It’s an important move to make, sometimes. It’s important to recognize that God worked through these soon-to-be mothers – just as God worked through the generations of mothers throughout the history of our salvation – Sarah and Rachel and Rebekah and Jochibed, Moses’ biological mother as well as his unnamed adoptive mother and Hannah and Naomi. It’s important to recognize God’s working through these women, the presence of God in the most intimate and most feminine of spheres.
But it’s also important to recognize God’s subversive choice in making Mary and Elizabeth prophets of Jesus and of God’s kingdom because that that is what they were – prophets.
The scene before us today may seem cozy and domestic – and perhaps it was. But it was not tame.
The Holy Spirit has grabbed hold of Elizabeth, inspiring her to prophecy. The Holy Spirit has overshadowed Mary and turned her very body into a vessel of God. We would do well, I think, to imagine more frenzy and less decorum. These are not normal women – at least not anymore.
Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary echoes the words used for an entirely different set of fore-mothers. “Blessed are you among women!” cries Elizabeth, under the power of the Holy Spirit.
But Mary is not the only woman so proclaimed.
Deborah, one of Israel’s judges from before the time of kings, called Yael, the women who slew an invading general with a tent peg through the head and saved Israel from defeat, “Most Blessed of women”.
And Judith, who beheaded yet another invading general and prevented Israel from surrendering to slavery and apostasy is similarly named: “Blessed by the most High God above all other women”.
Yael and Judith are rather different sisters for Mary from Sarah and Hannah – but sisters they are. Mary is not only a mother; not only Jesus’ first disciple – she is a warrior; a saviour of Israel. Like Yael and Judith, Mary was called to step beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour for women. Like Yael and Judith, Mary risked death in following God’s outrageous call – social death at best and literal death at worst, whether at the hands of an outraged community or in the remarkably dangerous act of giving birth.
Like Yael and Judith, Mary understood herself to be playing an active political role in the working out of God’s salvation of Israel – her response to Elizabeth’s recognition is a song of radical this-worldly transformation: “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel.”
Mary is a prophet and a revolutionary. And the mother of our Lord. Blessed is she among women!
Because God didn’t do it without her – and Mary knew her role.
Elizabeth’s greeting ends with another benediction: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
To which Mary responds not with humble thanks or demure reassurance but with the remarkably bold opening line of her famous song: “My soul magnifies the Lord”.
The phrase just slips off the tongue of many of us – one of many occasions, perhaps, when over familiarity is not helpful because it can keep us from recognizing the strangeness of the actual words. “My soul magnifies the Lord”
God is the direct object here and Mary the subject. Her soul magnifies God – God is magnified – made greater – by Mary’s soul.
What can that possibly mean? How can anyone make God greater than God simply is?
The correct answer, of course, the proper and safe answer is that they can’t. But perhaps they can reveal God’s greatness to others in such a way as to have a similar effect. Or, to put it another way, maybe a less safe way -perhaps God’s greatness needs to be revealed in order to matter.
And Mary is certainly active in the revealing of God. She is literally magnifying God as she speaks, cell by cell, blood of her blood. Her soul has been given over to the work of gestating, raising, and releasing this child, the Son of the Most High and the salvation of his people Israel. Like Yael and Judith, Mary is setting God’s people free.
Unlike her warrior sisters, however, Mary will not shed anyone’s blood but her own son’s – it is not only her death that she risks in following God’s call. Mary’s revolution does not require murdering generals. It does not require calling plagues down upon Egypt, like her brother prophet, Moses did. Mary’s revolution begins with a child – as they all do – but this child is different; this child offers a different kind of freedom. Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord – because Mary is revealing God in a way that God has never been revealed before.
Mary’s song is not meek or mild. It is also not a song primarily of hope for the future – it is a song of victory; a song of power. Mary belongs to Advent not simply because she awaits the birth of Jesus but because she reveals the final triumph of God’s reign of righteousness and peace over this world of injustice and sin. She awaits, as we do, the full expression of God’s transformative power and, as she waits, she gives it form both in the womb and with her voice.
Her soul magnifies the Lord.
Blessed is she among women.
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