Year C Advent 4: The Magnificat

Mary went out with haste into the hill country.

A young woman, a teenager pregnant with a baby of uncertain paternity, an unwed mother in first-century Galilee – you can bet that she got out of town with some haste. She literally ran for the hills. She went to find safe haven with her cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband, Zechariah, a priest of the temple, who might be expected to disapprove, but Mary had a hunch, from something that the angel said, that this couple might, instead, understand.

They did more than understand. When Elizabeth saw Mary coming, she ran to embrace her. She blessed her, she poured out her love upon her, she anointed her with the Holy Spirit that was spilling out of her. Elizabeth did not simply tolerate or accept or understand Mary and Mary’s condition: she loved her, and she loved her loudly and openly.

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for six months, until John was born. The two women must have both been quite terrified at what was happening to them. One was too old to have a child, had suffered so many disappointments in her life before this happened, it must have been hard not to dream in the night of all that might go wrong. She had not asked for this, at her time of life; it had been dropped in her lap as an unexpected gift, and while it was amazing and the most joyful and wonderful gift she could have imagined, it was also beyond her imagining, and it was pretty scary. And the other, she was too young to have a child. She had no idea why this had happened to her, why the angel came to her, of all people – had everyone else said no, and she was the only one foolish enough to say, “Let it be to me as you have said?” Or did the angel know something about her that she had not yet realized about herself, as young as she was, as new to her own life? At any rate, it was frightening to think about how to explain her growing belly, and it was frightening to think that one day soon she, a mere child herself, would have a child of her own. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for six months, until John was born, so that the two women could take care of one another, share their fears, their hopes, their wonderment at their angel-announced pregnancies, their doubts, their love.

These two women, one old enough and one young enough to be quite overlooked by society, these two women in the hill country went about quietly, in the stillness of Elizabeth’s house and in the privacy of their own bodies, preparing the way for God’s salvation of all flesh.

Actually, scratch that, they weren’t altogether quiet about it. After Mary arrived, and Elizabeth hugged her and blessed her and Elizabeth’s baby bounced up and down with joy at the sound of her voice, Mary was so relieved and overwhelmed and overcome with the rightness of it all, with the wonder of it all, which she could enjoy now that she was safe; Mary was so excited by her cousin’s baby’s affirmation of her own child that she burst into song.

She was a teenager, after all. Perhaps she danced a bit, too.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” sang Mary, “my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” But while her song of praise is full of relief and gratitude for what God has done for her, Mary does not stop there. She realizes, about halfway through her song, that what is happening to her is not for her alone. It will have implications for the whole world. This child, which has been presented to her by the angel, is not for her alone, but for everyone.

Jane Williams puts it this way: “[Mary] is fiercely glad that God has asked her to do this thing, but although she is rightly proud of her own role, she also knows that this is not just about her. The Bible shows that it is about God coming to establish a new world order, and to be close to the poor and the powerless.”[1]

Just as Elizabeth’s child was announced as someone who would have profound implications for the people, turning the hearts of many back to God, so Mary’s child was not simply a happy accident for her to enjoy, but the sign of God’s favour on all of God’s people, the coming of the day of the Lord spoken by the prophets, when order would be restored, oppression ended, the reign of God brought near to replace the iron rule of Rome.

“God’s mercy is for those who fear God,” sings Mary, “God has shown strength with his arm; scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. The hungry have been filled with good food, and the rich sent away empty. God has fulfilled the promises made to Israel, to Abraham and his descendants for ever.”

Salvation is never merely personal.

It may start that way, with a message from an angel, or a word from a friend, an embrace from a cousin, a sharing of wonder and love, but salvation is for everyone, and it demands to be shared. The kingdom of God is a public event, not a private club, and access is unlimited.

The proud have been scattered in their imaginations, the powerful brought low while the lowly are lifted up, the hungry fed with the bread of the rich. Salvation wreaks havoc with the social order: unwed teenage mothers are celebrated and embraced by their rather religious family.

It starts at the personal level, with family, with a house in the hills, but it has implications for the whole of history. It cannot be contained.

It is still that way. We gather, first as individuals, then drawing in our family, our friends, those whom we think could use a bit of good news, a word of salvation, and as we grow, as our faith grows in us, we wonder what fruit it might bear beyond ourselves, beyond our building, beyond our own four walls. What difference could this new life of God born in us make to the hungry, to the proud, to the lowly? Can we, as small as we are, make a big difference in the world around us?

Why not? Mary did.

As we leave here this morning, to finish up our own preparations for Christmas Day, we will take a few moments to talk about our work in this place, what God is growing in us here, how we can share our blessings, our joy, our hope with those around us. We will pledge to continue our life together, and to reach beyond ourselves to be a refuge, a beacon, a place of blessing and joy to those around us. We are here because God has made a difference in our lives, God’s salvation has visited us, has blessed us, has embraced us. We can use those visitations, those blessings and embraces to make a difference beyond ourselves. Salvation is never merely personal. We are called to make a difference, to share those blessings, to feed the hungry with the bread of the rich, to mess with the imaginations of the powerful by calling on them to lift up the lowly, to recognize the reign of God in our midst. We are called on to magnify the Lord and rejoice in the coming of God, our Saviour.

“Blessed are you,” Elizabeth greeted her. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.”


[1] Jane Williams, Approaching Christmas (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2005), p. 11

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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