Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 23, 2012
Poor frightened Mary. Overwhelmed by her unexpected circumstance in life, she asks her parents if she might get some breathing space by leaving town for a bit to go visit her favorite cousin, Elizabeth. I wonder if Elizabeth was not more like a best friend, an older sister, to Mary. This text has become the basis for religious art that depicts what the church has called “the Visitation.”
Just prior to today’s passage in Luke we find the portion that describes what has become another focus for many artists, the “Annunciation”—when the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she will miraculously conceive a child who will be the Messiah, the Son of God. The angel concludes by telling Mary that Elizabeth, her “relative” –“who was said to be barren” has already conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her.”
The scene in today’s Gospel draws extensively from the story of Hannah in the Old Testament Book of Samuel. Hannah, who is also barren, and calls herself a servant of the Lord, receives the blessing of a child and dedicates him to God with a hymn of praise much like Mary’s Song of magnification.
Considering the fact that Elizabeth was of far advanced age the risk involved with her unexpected pregnancy, Mary “set out and went with haste” to visit her who has been in seclusion for sixth months. To get to Elizabeth’s dwelling in the hill country, Mary had to travel some forty or fifty miles south through the Great Plain of Esdralon over the mountains of Samaria. That was quite a journey.
When she arrives in the uplands of Judah and beholds the very pregnant and gray-haired Elizabeth, she is caught off guard by Elizabeth’s announcement: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
But how did she know? Who told her about Mary’s pregnancy? There was no mail or telephone in those days, no singing telegrams. And to Mary’s further surprise, Elizabeth asks no questions, makes no judgments, but takes her in her arms and assures her that all will be well and, in fact, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy when the two embraced. Even John still in utero, one day to be the prophet whose voice would be heard in the wilderness, had witnessed to the truth that Mary bore the embryo of the Savior of the world in her womb.
Unable to contain herself, Mary bursts into a hymn of praise—whose words echo those of her kinswoman Hannah who a thousand year proclaimed, “My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in God. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.”
Mary was probably no more than sixteen when she sang these words. Like many others of her age, she was betrothed to a man she hardly knew. What Hannah, Mary, and Elizabeth all discovered is that God is true to God’s promises. Each of them was blessed with the gift of new, yet totally unforeseen, life moving around in them. They are blessed because they all took God at God’s word, believed God’s promise and that is, after all the living definition of faith—a faith that keeps our hopes thriving, a faith in things we have not yet seen.
Mary and Elizabeth were marginalized members of their society and culture, yet in each other’s company and supported by one another’s courage, they declared prophetic words about what God was doing in their midst. Neither had a convenient pregnancy—Mary being an unwed teenager and Elizabeth an elderly woman but they allowed themselves to be inconvenienced for the great blessing attached to the child each bore.
We do an injustice to this young woman Mary if we receive her song merely as a lovely act of praise and thanksgiving coming from the mouth of an ordinary, simple, unimportant teenager who has been called to the unbelievable undertaking of bringing God’s Son into the world in the flesh, for there is much, much more to her proclamation. She is no revolutionary, but what she expresses are radical and revolutionary sentiments.
The Magnificat calls for a new world order which would be set in place through the coming and ministry of Jesus. It’s a world where the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with abundance, the rich sent away empty.
The most significant verb in Mary’s joyful song is Magnifies—a word that means “makes clear, enlarges, brings into focus.” If you have ever used a magnifying glass, you know what that experience is like. Everything seen through it takes on a different perspective. I wonder if Mary didn’t have a huge revelation in her own pregnancy and the pregnancy of Elizabeth. Could it be that the God who had been for her an abstract concept, a vague far away being suddenly became a living, loving reality? Did she mean that all of this wonder and awe brought God into focus for her in a completely new way? Did Mary now see and experience God in a larger, expanded way?
In our limited modern imaginations, this story of Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancy may seem odd. Yet who are we, in our limitations, to tell God what God should and should not do in order to get to us? The wonderfully Good News about this story is that it shows us what can happen when God touches our lives—even intrudes on them. Mary and Elizabeth’s stories, and the blessings that came through their babies, hold out the promise that God can do great things through us. For God still comes to us, keeps pushing into our narrow, limited and confined experience, giving us in return a bigger, wider and broader view of the world full of surprising and illuminating new life, inviting us to a larger, deeper relationship with the Creator God who made and loves us. For that wonder and mystery of faith our souls can truly magnify the Lord.