God’s Magnificent Love

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:39-55

As encounters go, the one described in our reading from Luke’s gospel today is pretty far under the radar, not the sort of event that the important people of the first century would have been angling for an invitation to attend. Luke invites us to a family reunion of sorts, a joyful coming together of two—really four—cousins, spurred on by some big and exciting and in some ways terrifying goings on in their lives. But just because, for any number of reasons, the meeting that Luke describes in the hill country of Judea might have gone unnoticed in the eyes of the world’s major power players,  that doesn’t mean it wasn’t consequential. Just because the Caesar Augustuses and the Herods of the world weren’t paying attention to what was going on just outside Jerusalem on that day doesn’t mean it wasn’t important, even world-altering. Because within that encounter, within the embrace and the greeting and the time spent together, we don’t just see some family members sharing how they feel about each other. We witness the power and the glory, the magnificence of God’s love, breaking into the world in ways that would change everything.

Let’s talk briefly about who was involved in this meeting. First, the women. Elizabeth and Mary. Two women from the same family. Two women who occupy a central role in the story that God is telling here at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Two women who, for so many reasons, would have been overlooked by so many in their world. Elizabeth, the wife of a priest, is older. Up until very recently, she and her husband Zechariah had borne the burden of childlessness, a stigma that would have been noticeable in every sympathetic, pitying look they got from their neighbors, a reality that would have weighed heavily on them whenever they thought about the future. But all that had changed when Zechariah met an angel in the temple and heard the news that he was going to be a father, that Elizabeth would bear a son, and that their child had an important part to play in the drama of God and his people.

Then there is Mary, a young woman, an unmarried virgin with her whole life ahead of her. Like Elizabeth, she is pregnant. And she cannot help but be fearful, or at least anxious, at the thought of what this baby in her belly means. Undoubtedly, her angelic visit was followed up by some difficult conversations with her family about her pregnancy. If the suspicious glances and gossipy whispers from her fellow Nazarenes haven’t started yet, she knows they’re coming. And then there is the matter of Joseph. Like Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, who has been rendered mute because of his doubt, Joseph, Mary’s fiancee, isn’t a part of this scene that unfolds in Luke 1. It could be that he just stayed behind in Nazareth to work. It’s just as likely that he’s wrestling with some serious doubts and questions of his own, that he’s still in the midst of the process that the gospel of Matthew describes, of deliberating how to divorce Mary quietly, how to end the engagement without too much of a scandal, leaving Mary to face an uncertain future alone. Joseph will ultimately come around, but those days or weeks when Mary’s life with Joseph hung in the balance had to be overwhelming.

Maybe this is why Mary hurries to Elizabeth, a woman who had perhaps been equal parts rock to lean on and example to learn from as Mary had grown toward adulthood. Maybe Mary knows that, even in the midst of this scary time, this moment when Mary is vulnerable in the face of so many possibilities both spoken and unspoken, Elizabeth is someone who will rejoice with her. And of course, she’s right. The greeting that Elizabeth gives Mary affirms God’s gracious work and Mary’s place in it. She calls Mary the mother of my Lord. She pronounces her blessing on her young cousin, inviting Mary into her home and also into her wonder at all that God was doing. 

But Elizabeth isn’t the only one who recognizes the amazing way that God is working in Mary’s life. As Mary draws close and greets her cousin, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb, the baby who will, in just a few months, be named John, and who, years later will fulfill his role as the messenger and forerunner of the Christ, leaps for joy. Even as a pre-born child, John is already fulfilling the purpose that God has named for him. He is already heralding the coming of the Lord, already energetically announcing the kingdom, jumping in the womb as if he is shaking off the chains of the old order and welcoming the new reality that the child in Mary’s womb even now, in the earliest stages of his life, is already embodying. It is a remarkable scene. This gathering of two women and their two unborn children, coming together in joyful anticipation and loving celebration, is as consequential a meeting, and as profound an inbreaking of God’s grace, as we are likely to find anywhere in Scripture or elsewhere.

If the events described by Luke, the miraculous response of Elizabeth’s pre-born child, and the words that pass between Elizabeth and Mary hint at the weighty significance of this moment and at all that God is doing in their lives and in this world, the song that Mary sings at the close of this passage makes the case even more clearly. This emphatic, prophetic proclamation is among the most stirring and beautiful testaments to the overwhelming power of God’s love that we find anywhere in Scripture. As she sings, Mary takes her place among the messengers of God’s kingdom from Miriam and Hannah to Isaiah and Malachi, the prophets and prophetesses who were prompted by the Spirit of God to call their people to repent and rejoice, the men and women who gave voice to renewed perspectives and reconfigured imaginations concerning all that God was capable of doing and all that God was willing to do for the people he loved. 

Mary opens her song by glorifying the Lord for his attitude and his attention toward her and toward all his children. She sings of the way that God is mindful even of a humble servant like herself. She exults in his mercy that extends throughout the generations to all who fear him. This is a picture of God as one who tenderly watches over his children. It’s a picture of a God who is warmly affectionate and lavishly generous toward those he loves, a God who doesn’t withhold his concern for those in his care. But this is not a passive love. Just as quickly, Mary shifts her attention to what God has done and what God continues to do. The verbs that we see in verses 51-55 are strong and bracing. God has performed mighty deeds. He has scattered the proud. He has brought down rulers from their thrones. He has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty. This is the work of a creative God, remaking a broken and unjust world in his image, with a righteous energy and a surgical focus, stripping away everything that stands in the way of his coming Kingdom and elevating everything that points toward the abundant life he holds out for his children. This is the work of a faithful God, one who has been keeping his promises since the beginning of time and who is not about to stop now. 

The God whom Mary sings about is one with both the power and the will to do what he says: to lift up those who are downtrodden while bringing the proud to their knees; to give voice to the voiceless while silencing the oppressor. The picture of love that is at the heart of Mary’s song here is both tender and fierce. Perhaps fittingly, the closest analogue we have for what Mary is describing is the love of a mother for her child. There are few places that a mother will not go, few things she will not do, to uphold the love she has for her child. This is something that Mary would understand even at this early stage, and something she would come to understand in crucial, heartbreaking ways, in the years to come. When she held her baby in the Bethlehem night, shielding him from the chill in the stable. When she heard about Herod’s decree, targeting her infant son, and fled with Joseph and their baby to Egypt. When she heard the contempt of the Scribes and Pharisees as they judged her grown son’s every move. And of course, when she stood at the foot of the cross and saw the blood flowing down his face.

In these moments, and in so many countless others, the love that Mary had for her child would have been manifest in a powerful urge to protect him. Sometimes she could. But of course, at other times, in other battles, even the most loving mother can’t win. But she will persist. And what makes such a love so powerful, so enormously significant, is that, in its own way, it mirrors the love of a compassionate and merciful God. This is the love that gives shape and power to this song, this Magnificat, sung by a young woman who was carrying in her own womb the incarnate Son of God, who became human so that he might redeem us, who took on the very nature of a servant so that he might be our king. This is such a powerful mystery. This is such a marvelous story. This is such a magnificent love.

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