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|"The Excitement of Anticipation"
At this time of year
even those who are outside the church are usually familiar with
nativity scenes. Numerous churches, and even homes, have
nativity scenes on their lawns, frequently lighted at night. But
those scenes have a LIMITED cast of characters.
We see shepherds and angels, maybe wise men, animals of the stable, and, of course, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the manger.
But I say that the cast of characters is LIMITED, because this scene, frozen in time and place, EXCLUDES people and events which make that scene even MORE meaningful.
Because Mary has a RELATIVE by the name of ELIZABETH; and Elizabeth has been barren of children, and is now BEYOND childbearing years. But suddenly a strange thing happens. Elizabeth becomes pregnant. Now, normally when things like this happen, the word is spread among family and friends. But Mary learned of it by a DIFFERENT route. Mary heard of it from an angel. And this was no random, or accidental message, but it accompanied the news that she TOO would be bearing a child.
And after the angel has given her this information, the angel adds, in the thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh verses of the the first chapter of the gospel according to Luke,
"And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has ALSO conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was SAID to be barren.
“For NOTHING will be IMPOSSIBLE with GOD."
So Mary set out to meet with Elizabeth. "In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth."
Now, two women who are expecting, going through their terms of pregnancy at the same time, would share a special affinity. But for THESE two women, there is much MORE involved.
Not only are they RELATIVES, but by any KNOWN LAW, they shouldn't even be having children: Elizabeth, because she has been barren and is beyond child-bearing age, and Mary, because she has no husband and has never had a sexual relationship with a man.
Yet, towering over all this are the angelic messages which have announced these births. Zechariach has been told by the angel Gabriel who Elizabeth's son would be, what his NAME would be, and what he would do. And WE know that their son would be John the Baptist. And Mary has been told that HER son would be the Son of God, the Messiah.
"When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit..." And thus the women meet. Mary has been told that Elizabeth is pregnant; and Elizabeth, so far as we know, has been told NOTHING about Mary. Yet, in that moment of meeting, in that greeting, her yet unborn child RESPONDS within her, and the message to her is clear.
"...and [she] exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!"
Now, there are feminist philosophers and theologians who dismiss the significance of Mary as the mother of Jesus. They argue that this is nothing more than another example of how women have been used by men for their own purposes, that Mary was only a means to an end, that she was merely a vehicle to get the Messiah into the world. But I would strongly disagree with all of this. Rather than diminish women and motherhood, I believe it EXALTS it. God could have chosen to simply have the Messiah appear, out of nothing, into full-grown manhood. But God did not. Instead, Jesus was BORN into the world, BORN into humanity, as a natural PART of humanity.
And the only way THAT could be achieved was through a woman and through motherhood. But beyond that: Mary and Elizabeth were not passive and uncomprehending of what was happening within them.
On the contrary, they were actively involved in the spiritual events of which they were a part. They KNEW what was going on, and they GLORIED in it.
And Elizabeth, AMAZED at what is happening, asks in astonished humility, "And why has THIS happened to ME, that the mother of my Lord comes to ME? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the CHILD in MY womb leaped for joy."
And indeed it is a prophetic passage; for although for Elizabeth it might have been just ANY baby in ANY womb, it was not.
Rather, it would be the one who would signal the BEGINNING of Christ's ministry on earth, the one who would baptise him with water, although he would say, "I need to be baptized by YOU."
It is a meeting of two women who are anticipating miraculous births. But MORE miraculous is the RELATIONSHIP of those births; for the child of Elizabeth will be a PROPHET who will foretell the coming of the child of Mary. And although they may not sense the fulness of these future events, the signs are present for them.
And Elizabeth proclaims, "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
Now, at first glance it would appear that she is talking about MARY; but I believe that she is also referring to HERSELF, although SHE received the message through Zechariah.
And indeed, are we not all blessed when we believe that God will fulfill the promises which have been made? But specifically with regard to Mary, It was her BELIEF that caused her to take the journey to visit Elizabeth; and their meeting confirmed her belief.
And in response, Mary offers up the mighty prayer of thanksgiving we have come to know as the Magnificat. At this point I will be using the words of the New Revised Standard Version.
But the message is the same as our earlier responsive reading from the hymnal, in which the words are taken from the International Consultation on English Texts revised by English Language Liturgical Consultation.
"My soul magnifies the Lord."
And in this prayer we hear echoes of the song of Hannah from the first ten verses of the second chapter of First Samuel, which opens "My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory."
Yet there is a striking difference between Mary and Hannah. Mary had NOT asked God for a son, as Hannah had. In fact, we learn from the ninth through the eighteenth verses of the first chapter of First Samuel that Hannah went to the temple and PRAYED for a son, promising to consecrate him to God's service if her prayer were granted.
Yet, BOTH Mary and Hannah are giving THANKS to God for their gift of a child. And in both senses, the sons are consecrated to God's service.
But beyond thanksgiving and praise, there is something else here. And it is magnification. Literally, to magnify means to enlarge, to make greater. And we need to remind ourselves of what Gabriel told Mary: "For with God nothing will be impossible."
And when WE "magnify the Lord" we are expressing our understanding of that omnipotence, of that power that can do anything. We express our understanding that in God is a power that knows no bounds.
"...and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed."
But Mary's words understate what is happening. For God has not merely "looked with favor" on her lowliness, but has elevated her. And though it IS the lowliness of a woman in her culture, in which women held no positions of authority, it is also the lowliness of a human being which has been elevated. And that lowliness has been elevated by God's choosing to become a part of humanity.
But what are we to make of all generations calling Mary "blessed"? Is it an elevation of Mary herself? I don't really think so. Rather, I believe that she would see herself as having been honored by God's choice. It is her relationship to God that should be remembered, not Mary herself.
"...for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name."
Mary's message of humility is one that we would all do well to remember.
Whenever I start to contemplate how wonderful I am, I stop to remember that "the Mighty One has done great things for me," and that many, many other persons have done great things for me.
And then I realize that I am not so much wonderful as I am wonderfully blessed by God. Too many folks think that their wealth and power is of their own doing, and they forget the one who has done great things for them.
But there is a transitional point in Mary's song that moves it from reflection to prophesy. When she says, "His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation," she is beginning to draw implications for the birth of the Messiah.
And when she says, "from generation to generation," she is projecting into the future, showing us that God's mercy is continually and forever available to happen to us. And it is in the birth of Christ that God is making that abundantly possible.
When Mary says, "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts," is this so far from Jesus saying, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth"? Indeed Mary is setting the stage for Jesus ministry.
She is providing a foretaste for what might be expected of Jesus.
She goes on to say, "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." And it was THAT EXALTATION that was the core of Jesus teaching. Recall Jesus saying "The first shall be last, and the last first."
Recall that Jesus spent much of his ministry with outcasts: publicans, prostitutes, lepers, the sick and the dying, the crummy people of society that respectable people wished to have nothing to do with.
And it was the FEAR of the mighty losing their thrones that resulted in Jesus crucifixion. Herod had all the infants in the region of Bethlehem, born at the time of Jesus birth, put to death, for fear that a rival king had been born.
It was the fear of the earthly powerful in the form not only of the Romans but also of the chief priests, and the scribes, and the pharisees, that brought about Jesus death.
And WHEN Jesus was crucified, the sign on the cross that read "King of the Jews" signified that it was not the PERSON of Jesus that was feared so much as it was the LOSS of the THRONES of those who crucified him.
And when Mary tells us that "he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty," we are reminded of the beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
And again, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." And we are reminded of the rich young man who asked Jesus how he might receive eternal life, and Jesus told him to sell everything he had.
We are reminded that Jesus showed his greatest anger during his ministry when he physically drove the money-changers from the temple.
And in the final two verses of Mary's song, she pulls deeply from the history of her people: "He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
And we are reminded of the seventh verse of the seventeenth chapter of Genesis, as God said to Abraham, "I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you."
Two women expecting children meet. And in their anticipation, they praise God for all that God has done for them. As we anticipate the coming of the Christ child, let us do likewise.
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