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Advent IV

“In those days, Mary set out and went with haste…” These are the words that open our Gospel reading today, which clearly queue up the question, “In which days?” We are, evidently, not starting at the beginning of the story in which Mary sets out with haste. Earlier, Luke began his account of the “events that have been fulfilled among us” by introducing us to a righteous but barren couple: Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was a descendent of priests. Zechariah encountered a messenger from God in the temple sanctuary when he was selected to offer prayers for the nation and to offer incense in accordance with such prayer. The messenger told Zechariah that he and his wife would bear a son, whom they were to name John. This child would be integral to God’s plan of salvation, and as such he would be filled with the Holy Spirit (even before birth!). His divinely ordained vocation was to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” When Zechariah asked for a sign of confirmation that this vision and proclamation were real, the angel Gabriel accused him of harboring doubt and caused him to become mute until all that had been proclaimed had come to pass. Luke tells us that Zechariah returned home after his service at the temple was completed and that, soon after, his wife became pregnant.

Six months later, the same angel who went to Zechariah appeared to Mary, a young women engaged but not yet wed. Gabriel told her that she would conceive a holy child who would be the Son of the Most High, and who would inherit the throne of David to rule over the house of Jacob forever. When Mary questioned Gabriel about how, exactly, this would be possible, the angel declared that the child would be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. When it comes to the divine plan, possibility, he told Mary, is not limited by human imagination or finitude. In other words, with God, nothing is impossible. As if to offer proof that God can make possible what seems impossible, Gabriel tells Mary that her older cousin, Elizabeth, who had been unable to conceive a child for many years, was now six months pregnant.

It was in these days, that Mary set out with haste to a small Judean town in the hill country, to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Luke has been concerned to locate John and Jesus’ births squarely in the story of God’s redemptive purpose. Through the angelic messenger, Luke tells us that God intends to intervene in history, to draw God’s people into new and renewed relationship. And now, through Elizabeth’s prophecy and Mary’s proclamation, he begins to imagine for us the shape and contour of the divine purpose fulfilled through these women and the children they will bear. 

In her song, Mary identifies God as “Savior,” as One who acts in our present circumstances. For Mary, God’s salvation is not relegated to the distant future but is instead something that is breaking into history now. This is a powerful declaration, especially given the oppressive rule of Rome under which Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah lived. When Mary sings of God “lifting up the lowly” and “filling the hungry with good things,” she is proclaiming that God’s salvation encompasses the totality of life. Just as salvation is not a future event, so too is salvation not to be spiritualized, disconnected from our historical, social, and political realities. We should be cautious here, however, not to read into Mary’s song a clarion call revolutionary action. The subject of all the verbs in these verses is God. God is the one who scatters the thoughts of the proud, lifts the lowly, dethrones the powerful, and sends the rich away empty. It is therefore more appropriate to suggest that Mary sings not of human-centered revolution, but instead, as one commentator put it, “the revolutionary nature of the divine will.”

What is so revolutionary is made explicit in the pattern of reversal that Mary’s song proclaims. Those who have power and privilege will be brought low, and those who suffer under the weight of that power and privilege will be lifted up. Mary paints God as a divine warrior, who goes to war with corrupt and cruel systems of oppression on behalf of God’s people for the express purpose of deliverance. Not only is God a God who acts, who breaks into history, but God does so with the intent of turning the world around, of upending our distorted notions of power and liberating all who suffer under its violent control. This is a theme that Luke will continue to develop as he recounts the Gospel story, particularly in the shape and purpose of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

What I find so striking in this narrative of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and their Spirit-empowered prophecy of the coming of God’s reign, is that their encounter also highlights the communal nature of God’s salvation and the significance of community in the face of social, political, and economic suffering. At the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb “leapt for joy.” The Spirit’s ecstatic movement filled Elizabeth and she prophesied that Mary was the bearer of her Lord. By the Spirit’s enablement, Elizabeth was able to recognize the work of God in Mary and to see in that the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s promises. Only in community do they find both the confirmation of God’s activity and the occasion for celebratory praise! The salvation that God offers is no private or individualistic salvation. It is, rather, communal, divinely purposed for the whole people of God (and, as we’ll soon come to find out in Luke’s narrative, for the whole of humankind). When Elizabeth is humbled by the visitation of Mary and the One she bears in her womb; when Mary sings out that God has looked upon her with favor – these are not proclamations of some kind of private experience of redemption. Rather, they are the proclamations of two women who, by the power and conviction of the Holy Spirit, find themselves caught up in the salvific movement of the divine will; they recognize not only that God is working to fulfil the promise of liberation but also that they have a place in the fulfilment of that promise.

As we enter the last few days of our journey toward Bethlehem, I wonder what kind of deliverance and liberation we are anticipating? What longings for God’s justice and mercy are welling up in our souls? What signs of God’s coming are fueling our imaginations and our hope for the fullness of God’s purposes to be realized?

All of us carry the wounds of oppression and suffering. All of us exist in the context of this unequitable world and need liberation from the patterns of living and existing and governing that insist on some Darwinian notion of strength and survival. All of us need the hope contained in Mary’s womb. 

Perhaps today, dear People of St Paul’s, we might find within us the ecstatic joy of the Spirit that will open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to recognize the divine redemptive purpose that God is bringing to fruition in and among us. Perhaps today, we might be inspired and empowered to respond as Elizabeth and Mary, to magnify the Lord and to rejoice in God our Savior, to sing out God’s promises and prophecy their fulfillment.