Luke 1:46-55, Advent 2022
And Mary said: My soul glorifies the Lord . . .
This passage is Mary’s inspired hymn of praise to God when she is pregnant with Jesus. She sings this when she arrives after a dangerous 100-mile journey to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with the child who will be John the Baptist.
Mary is betrothed to Joseph, but they are not yet married. The custom in Jewish society at that time was for a betrothal to take place a year before the wedding. A betrothal was somewhat like an engagement today, except that it was legally binding. The betrothal was a public ceremony in which the couple exchanged oaths of commitment to each other. This legally sealed the future marriage as a binding covenant.
To back out of the marriage commitment after making that covenant required a divorce, even though the couple were not yet living together nor had conjugal relations. After that pre-marriage ceremony, the bride continued to live with her parents and the groom with his.
After 12 months the groom would go to the bride’s parents’ house and the couple would go together to the groom’s parents’ home, where the marriage would be consummated in a private bridal chamber. A joyous 7-day celebration would follow.
So it was while Mary was still at her parents’ house that she became pregnant. It would have been assumed that Mary committed adultery. As we learn from Matthew’s Gospel Joseph was going to divorce Mary privately, so as not to expose her to public disgrace.
But an angel appeared to Joseph and told him that Mary had not been unfaithful, that the baby was conceived by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. So Joseph took heart and he and Mary became husband and wife. In the Gospel accounts we learn that Mary is an amazing young woman, who in spite of facing scandal, has the faith and courage to say “Yes” to God’s calling.
That’s the personal background for Mary’s song of praise.
But there’s also a wider social and political background. The people of Israel were militarily occupied by Rome and tyrannized by their own King Herod. Most were impoverished and brutally oppressed. In this situation many Israelites were hoping that God would send a Savior, the Messiah, who would overthrow Roman rule, and cause Israel to flourish.
Mary’s revolutionary song joyously proclaims that this great Messianic deliverance has come. Though, as we know, it turned out to be in a very different form than anyone had imagined.
Mary’s prayer is a wonderful example of what an offering of praise to God can be. She begins by praising God for who he is – Lord and Savior. Then she extols God’s great works — both in her personal life and in the world at large. Finally, she ends by recognizing God’s faithfulness to his promises. Let’s look at Mary’s song verse by verse.
Vss 46-47: “And Mary said: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,”
Mary’s song glorifies God as Lord and rejoices in him as Savior. Glorifying God isn’t only a matter of words. To glorify God as Lord means to say “yes” to God and give our lives fully to God’s plan and purpose, as Mary did.
Like Mary, we too are called to be Christ-bearers. To let God shine forth through us. To reveal God’s character in and through our own lives, serving the world in love.
There’s a story about an old Mennonite. An evangelist came to his door and asked, “Are you a Christian?” The old man replied, “Well, you’ll have to ask my neighbors about that.” Glorifying God isn’t a matter of lip service, but life service.
Mary also rejoices in God her Savior. She does this because she courageously trusts God even in her situation of great personal and national vulnerability. Indeed, it’s when we trust God in our weakness and act with bold faith as Mary did that the Holy Spirit flows within. Christ is formed in us and lives through us. We may think of vulnerability, dependency, and heroic action as an odd mixture, but Mary shows us that they belong together.
As we follow Jesus, he will lead us into the unknown and uncertain. Those of us who came here from other countries know that very well. But all of us have experienced this.
Diana and I have often found ourselves in situations where we were over our head and out of our depth. For example, in welcoming new-born Abel into our home as our foster son for the first two years of his life. An immense joy, but also at our age beyond our own natural capacity. In this and other circumstances we have had to depend on God.
As have all of us in the challenges we’ve faced. So we too, like Mary, rejoice in God our Savior.
Vss 48-50: “For God has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to all those who reverence him, from generation to generation.”
Mary speaks of herself as lowly. She was a young peasant girl in Nazareth in her early teens, which was the custom at that time. Joseph would have also been young, probably in his late teens.
And Mary was economically poor. We know that because after Jesus was born and she and Joseph took him to the temple for dedication, Luke tells us that they offered two doves or pigeons, which was the offering commanded for parents who couldn’t afford to offer a lamb.
The lesson is that God’s blessings do not depend on our worldly status and circumstances. None of us need say, I’m not worthy for Christ to live in me: I don’t have enough education, or enough income or enough influence. Because God’s mercy extends to all those who reverence him.
There was a little boy, maybe 5 or 6, whose grandfather gave him a shiny new silver dollar. The boy always kept it in his pocket. Whenever he needed more confidence, or the courage to do the right thing, or just wanted to feel happy, he’d reach into his pocket and feel the silver dollar and know with joy that it was there. Likewise, we rejoice that Jesus is living in us and will bless the world through us. The Mighty One has done great things for us.
Vss 51-53: God has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.
God is going to repair and re-order the world in love and justice. Redemption isn’t only in heaven, but will come to earth, when God’s kingdom arrives in fullness at Jesus’ 2nd coming in glory. When that happens, the existing social order will be reversed. The first will be last and the last first. That’s why we can call God’s Reign “the upside-down kingdom.”
And this renewal isn’t just for the future. It began with Jesus’ first coming and continues in and through us. As we sow seeds of compassion, justice and peace wherever we can in our own sphere of life. As we act to bring about a better world. Not by might, not by power, but by God’s Spirit, expressing self-giving love, as Mary did. Humbly and courageously letting Christ be formed in us and becoming servants – not masters — to the world.
Vss 54-55 God has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.
Mary concludes by praising God for fulfilling his promises to his covenant people. In Mary’s song that promise is focused on the people of Israel. But in Jesus the promise has widened to include both Jews and Gentiles. For in Christ we too are Abraham’s children, God’s forever family through faith.
Advent is a time of waiting, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of Mary’s song, for the coming of Christ and the renewal of the world.
We live in difficult times and sometimes wonder “how long will it be?” How long before we experience a better life and a fairer world? That’s in part up to us, as we serve as Christ-bearers with the energy of the Holy Spirit in love. Yet much remains beyond our control.
And how long until Jesus returns in glory and the new world arrives in fullness? A new heavens and new earth, where all things are made right.
On this 3rd Sunday of Advent, I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The original context for his words is a little different, but their application is universal:
I come to say to you today, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long. Because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long! Because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long! Because the arc of the moral universe . . . bends toward justice. How long? Not long! Because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
May God make it so.
Marty Shupack, Dec. 11, 2022