Love Remakes the World: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Four
Fourth Week of Advent (Year C): Luke 1:39-56
1) If you’re lighting a traditional Advent wreath in your home or church, this week you'll light a candle of love against the shadows of hate. Reading Luke’s account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in this candlelight casts it as a story of a loving God who works through loving relationships – and at the same time casts “love” as an unfolding force in history, taking shape through generations of ordinary, unexpected, often vulnerable people.
2) The angel Gabriel has just delivered his astonishing news, and Mary has just delivered her world-changing “Let it be” (Luke 1:38). And now, immediately and “with haste,” Mary makes her way to Elizabeth’s house in the hills of Judea for a three-month stay. Scenes featuring women as protagonists with no men present are rare in the Bible, and Luke strikingly bookends the life of Jesus with two such scenes: at the end, the discovery of the empty tomb by a group of women, and here at the beginning, Mary, pregnant with God, visits Elizabeth. In this sense, Luke turns the marginalization of women on its head. At both of these crucial points in the action - birth and death, womb and tomb - it’s women at the center of the story.
3) Mary’s song - called the “Magnificat” after the song’s first word in the Latin translation - evokes and echoes its ancient forerunner, Hannah’s song of gratitude to God for the newness of life embodied in her son, Samuel. Hannah is a strong, bold visionary, and her story demonstrates that she is well-acquainted with the history of Israel’s relationship with God. Thanking God for Samuel, Hannah sings of divine majesty and power, painting a picture of God as a master of reversals: God “raises up the poor from the dust,” even as “the bows of the mighty are broken” (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
4) Musically, Mary's song is just the beginning. Luke includes no less than four songs in his Gospel’s two opening chapters: Mary’s, Zechariah’s (traditionally called the “Benedictus”), the angels’ song to the shepherds, and Simeon’s song (the “Nunc Dimittis”) (Luke 1:46-55; 1:67-79; 2:14; 2:29-32). Each of these songs, in its own way, is a love song. It’s as if Luke stages the story as a kind of exuberant musical, suggesting that the joyful mystery of God’s love can’t be contained or expressed by prose alone. Again and again, the power and poetry of music break through!
1) After hearing Gabriel’s news, Mary’s first instinct is to leave her home (and her fiancé) in Nazareth - immediately and “with haste” - for an extended stay with her relative, Elizabeth. Part of what’s behind her haste may well be the sheer vulnerability of being a young, pregnant, unmarried woman in first-century Palestine (or anytime and anywhere!). Or perhaps she wanted some time and space to process what was happening, in this case with an older, trusted relative who would understand - and indeed a woman with her own astonishing pregnancy (Elizabeth, like her ancestor Sarah before her, was “getting on in years”). Or perhaps she was simply eager to celebrate with a confidante, since joy is seldom complete until it's shared with someone we love. Whatever her motives, Mary’s first move was to Elizabeth’s home, a sanctuary of inspiring solidarity and support. The fact that this sanctuary was in the hill country of Judea, some distance away from the more politically or prophetically prestigious cities of Jerusalem, Rome, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, only underscores the story’s central theme: the God of Love lifts up the lowly, working out deeds of power through supposedly powerless people and places.
2) Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary, “Blessed are you among women,” recalls ancient words spoken about Jael and Judith, two women famous for the parts they played in liberating Israel (Judges 5:24 and Judith 13:18). The greeting thus frames Mary as a liberator, too - and as she sings, a great chorus sings with her: the generations of women throughout the ages with crucial roles in salvation history.
3) Elizabeth testifies that when she heard Mary's greeting, the child in her womb (John the Baptizer) “leaped for joy” - and Elizabeth in her own way leaps in her joyous exclamation, as does Mary in her song. The common thread here is a particular kind of anticipatory joy, celebrating what has secretly begun but has not yet fully come into view. Call it “first trimester joy.” After all, both women are still in the midst of shadows and uncertainty, still on the margins of society - and the divine promises themselves seem incredible, even to so-called experts (the priest Zechariah, for example, initially doesn’t believe them (Luke 1:20)). Nevertheless, Mary and Elizabeth joyfully believe, and testify, and sing.
4) Luke portrays Mary not only as strong and poised, but also as educated and insightful. Her eloquent hymn, so evocative of Israel’s longstanding relationship with God, indicates that she is deeply formed in Jewish tradition (and so was most likely the one who instilled in her son a love of scripture and interpretation). Only someone profoundly familiar with Hebrew tradition, and in particular with Hannah’s song, could have composed the Magnificat. Luke’s point is clear: Mary is a young woman of vision, learning, artistry, and chutzpah. She interprets her life according to ancient patterns of divine love and action, and her song encourages us to do the same.
1) Reading the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth through the lens of this week’s Advent theme of “Love” is an invitation to reflect on what love really is, both God’s and ours. The Christmas story is an epic, multigenerational love story, a story of God coming to be with us through prestigious prophets and “nowhere” towns; though young women (Mary) and old women (Elizabeth); through stars and shepherds and scripture and song. In short, this beautiful, ancient story insists that God’s love is a force that remakes the world.
2) Mary sings a revolutionary song about God’s revolutionary love, and this story illustrates a series of recommendations for all of us to consider. First, just as Mary learned from her ancestor Hannah, we are wise to devote time to studying the tradition we've inherited, even learning some of its key forms by heart. In this way, we can reflect on the ideas and actions of those who’ve gone before us, all for the sake of building on their good work in our own lives. Second, when new opportunities and challenges arise, we are wise to follow Mary's example and intentionally seek out allies, forming sanctuaries of love and mutual support. And third, drawing inspiration from both our forebears and our friends, the next step is having the courage to lift our voices and sing: God’s love is remaking the world!
3) With all this in mind, we can set aside once and for all the picture of Mary as “meek and mild.” She is nothing less than the first disciple, a force to be reckoned with, a young woman of vision, learning, artistry, and chutzpah. Her world-turning “yes” and “let it be” come from the same conviction that breaks into song: her fierce, bold, deep-down-in-her-bones trust that God’s love, even now, is making all things new.