In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that God had chosen her to bear a child, saying:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33).
After Mary heard Gabriel’s message, she had a choice. She could accept this mission, or she could turn it down. You see, God gives us choices. Although Mary could have said no, she said yes, even though she did raise some good questions about how this was going to work out. It might have been with fear and trepidation, but she chose to take on this vocation of being the mother of Jesus, who would be called the Son of the Most High.
Like other prophets called into God’s service, Mary received her calling with a great deal of humility, as well as resolve. When God asked who would go out and speak God’s message to the king, Isaiah said “Here am I, send me,” but not before he confessed to not feeling worthy of the job (Isa. 6). The same was true of Jeremiah, and now of Mary. Despite their concerns about their qualifications, they all took up the prophetic mantle, and shared God’s word with the world.
After Mary said yes to God’s calling, she became pregnant with the promised child, and then quickly set off from her home in Nazareth to the home of her relative Elizabeth, who lived in the hill country of Judea. Elizabeth was the spouse of Zechariah, a priest, and according to Luke, like Sarah and Hannah before her, she was beyond the age of child-bearing when she became pregnant. The angel Gabriel appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, who received the unlikely news that his wife would bear a child, who like Elijah would be a prophet of God and prepare the people for the coming of the Lord (Lk 1:5-20). Mary, on the other hand, was probably only a teenager, when she received her calling.
Luke tells us that when Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home, Elizabeth’s child leapt for joy in her womb. When she felt this stirring in her womb, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
When Mary heard Elizabeth’s words of blessing, she also was filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to sing God’s praises. She magnified the Lord and rejoiced in God her savior, because God had chosen her to be the mother of the Lord. This song carries the title “The Magnificat,” because that is the Latin Word for Magnify, but I think that word also speaks of God’s commitment to justice for those who live on the margins of society. That would have included Mary. As one commentator pointed out, “these women could be eighth-century prophets for the way they understand God to be emphatically on the side of the poor, the hungry, the weak, and the sad.” [E. Elizabeth Johnson, in Connections, p. 60]. Yes, the songs that come from Mary’s lips, and perhaps from Elizabeth’s as well, echo the themes of Amos, Micah, and Isaiah.
There’s a tendency to jump too quickly from the person who sings the song to its message of justice. But let’s not forget the messenger, whose life provides the context for the song. Think about the connection between Elizabeth and Mary, and between the two children still in their mothers’ wombs. Elizabeth and John fulfill their prophetic calling by pointing the way to Mary, who rejoices that God has chosen her and her unborn child, to be a blessing to the world. This is a most appropriate song to sing during Advent, because Advent reminds us of John’s prophetic vocation to prepare the way for the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:1-22).
Protestants have tended to downplay Mary’s role in the Christian story, which may be why we jump too quickly from the messenger to the message. But this morning we have the opportunity to invite Mary back into the center of the story. We can join Elizabeth in calling her blessed. In fact, we might want to join the majority of the Christian world and call her the “God-bearer,” which in Greek is “Theotokos.”
This term emerged out of conversations in the fourth and fifth centuries when the early church was debating how Jesus might be both divine and human. While many in my circles tend to emphasize Jesus’ humanity, which is a good thing, there is another witness that needs to be heard. That witness declares that the Word of God became flesh, and dwelled among us, revealing to us the full nature of God (John 1:1-14). Mary was a partner in that process, which is why the ancient church called Mary the Theotokos.
Disciple theologian Joe Jones believes that if we let go of this witness, we lose something important. He writes that “the real miracle is that God becomes human flesh through being born of a Jewish woman” [Grammar of the Christian Faith 2:410]. The important matter here is Mary’s election by God to be the bearer of the one, who in the words of Gabriel “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” She is the one, for whatever reason, God chose to bless. Jones writes: “It should now be fully clear that creaturely bodiliness is not alien to God but is assumed by God and lovingly embraced by God, not just in possibility but in concrete act” [Grammar, p. 410].
As we hear Mary’s song, which erupts during her pregnancy, in response to Elizabeth’s words of blessing, may we remember Mary’s role in partnering with God’s work of redemption. Mary reveals to us God’s vision of a world turned upside down, where the proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly and the hungry are lifted up, and that her son would stand at the center of this work. There is much about Mary’s story that is a mystery, but here, at the beginning of the story, we hear her magnify the Lord and rejoice in God her savior, “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
This morning we have heard Mary proclaim the blessings that come when the realm of God is fully revealed. Having heard this proclamation, may we celebrate with Mary, her calling to partner with God in setting in motion God’s work of salvation, liberation, and reconciliation. That is because Mary is the one whom God chose to bear the child through whom, and in whom, God is revealed to humanity.
God issued this call, and Mary said, “Here am I, send me.” She may not have used those words, but these words of Isaiah express her sense of call. Because she was willing to answer this call, even though she was young and her station in life was lowly, we can join the nations and call her blessed, “according to the promise made to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
As we leave here today, we move from that town in the hills of Judea— where Mary resided in the house of Elizabeth—to the stable in Bethlehem, a town that according to the prophet Micah is but “one of the little clans of Judah,” but “from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). In this “little town of Bethlehem,” where “the dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
The time for us to celebrate the birth of Jesus is near at hand, but for now let us take heed of the words of Mary, “the God-bearer,” who cries out like an eighth-century prophet, expressing God’s vision of God’s realm, where justice and peace will reign, and the glory of God will be revealed in Mary’s child. May we, as God’s people, join with Elizabeth and John and declare of Mary: “blessed are you among women, and blessed be the fruit of your womb.”
And according to Luke, Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months, perhaps until the moment of John’s birth. Then she returned home to Nazareth to pack for the trip to Bethlehem, where Jesus would be born.