December 13, 2009

Advent III-My soul magnifies the Lord

Today we look at Mary's visit to Elizabeth. Mary's song of joy, the Magnificat is probably one of the better known Bible passages.

Elizabeth was Mary’s relative, traditionally a cousin. Her husband Zechariah was a priest in the Temple and Elizabeth was “of the daughters of Aaron”. In other words, the family was members of the priesthood since the time of Moses. However, Elizabeth was barren, so the line would end with her generation. This was no doubt a source of great sadness to both Zechariah and Elizabeth. For Elizabeth it was probably worse because barrenness was an indication that you had sinned and God was angry.

Imagine their joy when the angel told Zechariah that Elizabeth would finally be pregnant and have a son. No wonder he was skeptical. He and his wife were “advanced in years”. Elizabeth “hid herself for 5 months, saying, ‘thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach…’” The joy of being pregnant and the hope that it was true kept her from sharing the news until she was certain.

Mary learns of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy when the angel informs her that “your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” She decides to visit her cousin. Both women had received unexpected and astonishing gifts from God.

We continue with our interviewer Luke as he talks to Mary about her trip to see Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). Images of the meeting are popular in art and range from medieval representations that include a priest at one end to more modern line drawings of the two women greeting each other.

LUKE: I understand you almost immediately went on a trip. Wasn’t that unusual?

MARY: The angel told me that Elizabeth, my cousin, was six months pregnant. I wanted to see her and rejoice with her. I was sure she would understand my own joy and my confusion about why I was chosen to be mother of Messiah.

LUKE: Were Joseph and your parents concerned?

MARY: (nods) They were. Mother tried to talk me out of it. ‘You should not travel in your condition,’ she cautioned. ‘This is God’s child,’ I reminded her, ‘nothing can happen.’ Joseph seemed to understand, although I know he was sad to see me leave so soon after our marriage.

LUKE: How did you get from Nazareth to Elizabeth?

MARY: There was a caravan from Sepphoris. Joseph knew one of the traders and entrusted me to his care. I walked most of the way. Sometimes I rode on a donkey the trader owned. It took nearly two weeks to make the trip. The traders stopped at several cities along the way. I was amazed by the different clothing and hair styles in some of the places, like Sebaste. I knew I shouldn’t, but I stared at the women of Samaria. They didn’t look debauched like people claimed because they don’t worship God like the Jews. They were friendly and kind to me.

LUKE: Was Elizabeth surprised to see you?

MARY: There was no way to let her know I was coming. When we arrived at Zechariah’s house, a servant ran to find his mistress. She came hurrying out of the house and I saw immediately that the angel had not lied. My cousin was heavy with child. I was a little ashamed of how relieved I was. Even though my own body was changing, I sometimes wondered if I dreamed the conversation with the angel.

LUKE: Then what happened?

MARY: (smiles at the memory) Elizabeth came toward me with her hands outstretched to welcome me. ‘Mary, how sweet of you…’ Then she stopped, stared at me, and crossed her hands over her belly. I thought something was wrong and ran toward her. A smile burst across her face and she caught my hands,

‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why has the mother of my Lord come to me?’ It was my turn to stare at her. She continued to exalt, ‘As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

LUKE: You must have been relieved that she knew your news.

MARY: It was more than that. I felt almost as if God was drawing me close again. My own song broke out. The words just came flowing from my heart.

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 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; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
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 for ever.’

LUKE: That is beautiful.

MARY: Elizabeth and I had so much to talk about. She told me how an angel came to Zechariah when he was burning incense before the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. ‘He isn’t able to talk because he couldn’t believe I would have a child,’ she explained. ‘The angel told him, ‘you will be silent and unable to speak until the day these things come to pass because you did not believe my words.’ I am glad you are here because I haven’t had anyone to discuss the miracle with.’

LUKE: How long did you stay with Elizabeth?

MARY: I remained about 3 months. When it was almost time for her to be delivered, she sent me home. ‘You should not be present at the birth,’ she told me. ‘You must return to your husband and family and prepare for your own baby.’ Zechariah arranged for me to travel with some fellow priests who were returning to Galilee after their service at the Temple was done. We returned by a different route because they would not go through Samaria and the Roman escort preferred to stop at the Roman outposts. I was surprised that the priests were willing to travel with the conquerors, but then I realized they wanted to be safe.

LUKE: I can understand that traveling with Roman troops would have been safer than traveling alone.

MARY: The soldiers were kind to me. I was never afraid of them. Most of them were just young men. Joseph was glad to see me. He had finished our home while I was gone. Of course he built it adjacent to his father’s house. It was nice to return to my family.

Elizabeth and Mary are both women of great faith. Like Sarah in the Old Testament, Elizabeth was blessed with a child when she was ‘too old’. Jesus tells his disciples, “…all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27) When faced with something that seems impossible or improbable, it might be good to stop and remember the many times throughout history that God has accomplished the “impossible”. Often it is the women who are beneficiaries of this grace. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah are just a few of the women who, like Elizabeth, conceived when it seemed impossible. Hebrews 11 lists a summary of the acts of grace that patriarchs and matriarchs received by faith. Their example can teach us to live our faith vibrantly.

Does the song of Mary resonate with you as a glorious revelation of the ways God acts to ‘lift up the lowly’?
Are there ways you can be part of God’s plan to show love by ‘filling the hungry’ or otherwise making a difference in your corner of the world?

The second verse of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” summarizes some of the ways we know, through nature, that God is with us. The miraculous birth of Elizabeth’s son, John (the Baptist), was the confirmation Mary needed to reassure her heart that God was indeed with her.

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love

As promised, the book special this week (Dec. 13-19) is free shipping on any of my books. You can only get this special by emailing me and noting Blog Special in the memo line.

See you next week for the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

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