Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011
Commentary on the Texts
This Commentary is also used for the Gospel Reading, Year C, Advent 4
This passage of Scripture is known as "The Visitation," referring to Mary's visit with her kinswoman Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea. Mary's song in vv. 46-55 is known as the Magnificat, from the first word of the Latin translation of the song in v. 46.
This entire passage is related not only to the surrounding verses, but also to the unfolding of Luke's account throughout the Gospel and on into his companion volume, Acts. So, while there are several avenues of approaching this text, I will suggest hearing it as part of the unfolding drama of Luke-Acts.
The assumption here is that these passages, as in other parts of Luke, are more than simply the recounting of historical event. While there is no question that historical event lies behind the narrative, the theological message of Luke lies more in how he tells the story, in what shape he gives to the events, and what aspects of the tradition he emphasizes. As such, we need to follow the story and listen carefully to the texture of the narrative as it unfolds and as it engages us in the journey that will wind from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem, and on to Rome and beyond.
It is noteworthy at the outset that Luke's narrative opens with a rather ordinary circumstance of the priest Zechariah going about his duties in the temple. We are told that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who are "getting on in years," have no children because Elizabeth is barren. More than just a biological fact, this is a theological comment about the lack of possibility and the lack of a future, a dead end in life (note the similar use of the concept of barrenness as applied to Sarah in Gen 11:30, just before the promise of newness in Gen 12:1-3; also: Rebekah, Gen 25:21; Rachel, Gen 30:1ff; Manoah's wife, Judg 13:2; Hannah, 1 Sam 1:5ff).
This sense of impossibility, of endings, of dead ends, is a major feature, not only of Luke, but of the entire Gospel tradition, because in the theological confessions of Scripture human impossibilities, human endings, human dead ends are only the arena in which God works possibilities, new beginnings, and new paths!
And so at that very point of barrenness, as often happens in biblical narratives, Zechariah was confronted with the messenger of God and given a wonderful promise of something quite extraordinary that would unfold, the birth of a child who would fulfill a special role in bringing newness not only to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but to the entire world. And yet on the verge of this newness, Zechariah quickly falls silent (quite literally; 1:20) because he could not believe the message. As a result, the story line immediately shifts to Elizabeth who rejoiced at the anticipated birth of John (1:25).
The narrative then moves to the Annunciation (1:26-38), in which a similar promise of newness is given to Mary. She will also bear a special child who will play an even larger role than John. While Mary is not barren, she is a virgin, which underscores the impossibility from a human perspective of any of this happening. And yet she believes. There has been much debate about the age of Mary. She is most likely a very young teen. But the text does not given an age, and we probably should not make too much of it. Still, the fact that she is not yet married in that culture suggests that she is to be seen in terms of social and cultural weakness, someone who has not yet established a "place" in the world. And from that position of weakness she believes and accepts the work of God in her life.
While certainly not wanting to make too much of an argument from silence, it is at least noteworthy that Joseph plays no role in this story in Luke. While Matthew recounts the turmoil that Joseph goes through in trying to decide what to do with Mary, in Luke's account Joseph is barely mentioned (1:27). We could speculate about the motives for this omission, and probably not reach many satisfying conclusions. However, the result in Luke's narrative is clear: the whole focus of the story now revolves around these two women, one old and one young, both powerless, and a new future that each represents.
Mary decided to journey to visit Elizabeth. The reason for the trip is not given, and again, we could spend time speculating on possible reasons. Maybe Mary was frightened at what was unfolding and needed the comfort of someone who would understand. Perhaps it was a form of seclusion given the social stigma that would unfold in the coming months. Maybe she was seeking clarification as to the meaning of the Annunciation itself, and understood that the "impossible" of her own life was inextricably linked with the "impossible" happening to Elizabeth. All these things may be valid, or none of them.
In any case, it is clear that Luke the narrator is continuing to link John and Jesus. But it is not an equal linking. Luke is careful in many ways throughout these chapters to subordinate John to Jesus. Some have suggested that this was to counter a tendency in some circles of the early Christian communities for people to be more drawn to the flamboyant John than to Jesus. Whatever the reason, Luke leaves no doubt that, as important a role as John may play in preparing the people, Jesus is the focal point of his narrative.
As Mary and Elizabeth met and exchanged greetings, the prenatal John kicked in the womb. There is precedent in OT tradition for unborn children to provide clues to God's work in the world (Gen 25:22-23, Jer 1:5). From our perspective, we can easily get bogged down here in wondering how this can be. But such concern misses the point. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit here (v. 41; in Gen 25:23 it is the Lord directly), that Elizabeth interpreted the baby's movements as paying homage to Jesus. Just like the Annunciation to Mary, such work of God is not self evident as if by human intuition we could figure it all out. But it can be understood as God Himself makes known His purposes (in other contexts we call this inspiration).
Elizabeth, as Mary had done earlier, and in contrast to Zechariah, simply acknowledged that God is sovereign in their lives and is working His purposes, and so offered a blessing to Mary because of her belief in that work. This tone of celebration and simple joy at the unfolding of an impossible work of God is carried through the first part of the Magnificat as Mary also acknowledged her role in this divine-human drama.
Mary's song (the Magnificat) revolves around two central ideas that not only connect the interwoven strands of the story here, but provide a larger frame of reference for the entire narrative sweep of Luke-Acts.
First, there is emphasis on the continuity of what is unfolding in these impossible things both with the faithfulness of God in the past and the possibilities that are unfolding for the future. The reference to the strong "arm" of God with which he scatters his enemies (v. 51) recalls the formulaic way in which the exodus from Egypt was traditionally recounted (for example, Psa 136:12; cf. Ex 13:14, Deut 6:21). The "great things" that is here tied to the present events (v. 49) recalls the great things that God has done in Israel's history (for example, Deut 10:21-22, 2 Sam 7:23, Psa 106:21-22).
Other phrases similarly recall traditional faith confessions (compare v. 50a with Sirach 2:7-10). Even the fact that this song is largely based on Hannah's song as she "lends" Samuel back to God (1 Sam 2:1-10) also serves to strengthen the emphasis on continuity with the past (see A Child Borrowed and Loaned).
Likewise, the future orientation is emphasized in Mary's anticipation of future generations' acknowledgment of the "great things" now unfolding before her. The traditional "generation to generation" also underscores Luke's efforts, not only in this passage but in these first 3 chapters, to establish a connection between these events and both God's great acts of the past and the future outworking of their results. In so doing, and in light of the unfolding story through Acts, he is drawing a line from the past through these events and on into the future of the early church.
This insight into the effect of Luke's story here calls us to read these narratives with an eye not just to the births here, as marvelous as they are, but to see a larger horizon. Luke is here beginning to communicate his understanding of the impact of these "great things" of God in shaping the character of the early Christian community.
And yet, there is a sense of discontinuity that begins to emerge in the story. The contrast between the young girl and the older woman is understated in the story, but unmistakable. The older woman Elizabeth will give birth to a prophetic figure who will be the last of his kind. In a real sense, she represents the past. It is a wonderful past, filled with promise and anticipation, now made concrete in the child that she carries. It is not a past to be discarded, because in that past lies the foundation for the present and the future.
But just as John will gradually be eclipsed by Jesus, so that past, as valuable as it was, will gradually be eclipsed by the new future that is being born. Later in the narrative, this dimension is highlighted again as the old man Simeon, who had lived his entire life in expectation, could now die knowing that the future he had been anticipating was now a reality (2:29-32). So, there is some sense that in this passage in Luke we are witnessing that time, reduced to the brief moment of a greeting, a blessing, and a song, in which the past gives way to the future, as Elizabeth who embodies the miracle of God's faithfulness in history, passes on the blessing to one who embodies the promise of the future.
The second major feature of Mary's song picks up a well established OT theological confession, sometimes referred to as the theme of "reversal of fortunes." This is simply the consistent affirmation, most pronounced in the OT prophetic writings, although permeating OT Scripture, that those who are powerful and secure by human standards are not really powerful and secure by God's standards (for example, Amos 6:1-3, Hab 2:6-20, Isa 14). Likewise, there is the repeated affirmation that God hears the cries of oppressed people, and that the lowly and powerless are more likely to be open to hearing and seeing and experiencing God's work in the world.
This theme in the prophets took on larger dimensions than just an idealization of what ought to be. Based on the central historical faith confession of the OT, the exodus from Egypt (and to a lesser degree the return from exile), this theme became a faith confession about the nature of God's work in the world (Psa 99:4-5, 111), that also defined the people's response (Deut 24:17-18). This theme appears throughout Luke's Gospel ( 6:20-26, 16:19-31, etc.), and is climaxed in the resurrection of Jesus (ch. 24; note Phil 2:6-11).
And yet there is clearly an eschatological dimension here. That is, there is a realization that in spite of God's self-revelation as a God of justice and righteousness who calls people to "let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an everflowing stream" (Amos 5:24), the world, and even God's people, do not yet reflect that justice and concern for the powerless. And so, they anticipate a future, an "end time" (eschaton) in which God's reign over the earth will be fully established in justice and righteousness, expressed in the concrete images of an inversion, a reversal, of the way things are ordered now by human standards: those who are hungry will have enough to eat and the lowly will be exalted; the rich will leave with an empty stomach and the powerful will be brought down from their thrones.
The introduction of this theme here in Mary's song is a way to affirm that with the coming of Jesus the "reversal of fortunes" is underway. Through Jesus, God is in the process of bringing about the eschaton, the "end times" in which the world will be ordered on God's terms rather than on human terms. We should not just spiritualize the concrete images here into abstractions and ignore their real life context. To do so would be to pronounce blessings on the hungry without giving them anything to eat. Yet, as concrete as the images are, they reflect God's transforming grace at work in the world on a far larger scale than physical bread.
Here, we could again get sidetracked in worrying about eschatological timetables and confusing apocalyptic with eschatological and millennial scenarios. All of those miss the point here in Luke. This song simply affirms the radical dimensions of the Gospel that is to unfold in the teachings and life of this yet unborn child (Lk 6:20-21).
The world will never be the same after the birth of this child. In a real sense, Jesus will become subversive of the ordered power structures of the world. He will call kings and rulers to accountability. And he will call for God's people to participate in the reversal of fortunes that is involved in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, of healing the sick, of doing justice in the world. But there is also a sense in which God himself must bring the reversal. This is evident in Mary's song: it is God's right arm that will overthrow kings and kingdoms, it is he who will fill the hungry, and it is he who will help his servant Israel.
It is this juxtaposition of God's work with people's response to that work that will define the early church. Luke and the rest of the Gospel tradition will return to that dimension. And yet, in this song from Mary, at the beginning, it is all God's work! This is a powerful affirmation of an eschatological future, a future that will reflect the nature of God, a future that He will bring apart from human worthiness or effort or possibility. And in this song is also the confession that this future of God has already begun in the impending births of these children. There is a subversion of power that God has already begun in the world that still awaits its completion, a subversion highlighted at its beginning by the very circumstances of the births.
In is in this tension between the reversal of fortune begun and accomplished that we live between the two Advents, remembering the First and anticipating the Second. That simple fact becomes the context in which Luke tells the rest of the Gospel story.
Why does Luke, uniquely among the four Gospels, open his narrative with Zechariah falling silent and Elizabeth moving to center stage? Why does Luke focus on Mary and her response to these new acts of God? And why does he bring these two women together in mutual celebration that evokes the theologically laden Magnificat? Pondering these questions may open up some productive preaching paths.
There is no question that this entire narrative is subversive of the normal structures of power in the world. The weakness and inability of the women, not as women, but as part of a culture and history that renders them weak, is a central feature not only of the songs and blessings in the mouths of the two women, but of the very way Luke has structured the narrative.
Introducing the theme of the reversal of fortune, especially against the background of the great acts of God by which He had revealed Himself and defined Himself to the Israelites throughout the OT, serves to place the impending births in the context of a reordering of the world. This anticipates not only the immediately following features of the narrative, for example when shepherds are the first to receive the news of a Savior born in the city of David, but also the role of the new community of Faith that is emerging in the world.
With this expression of the Advent in terms of subversions of power, of the reversal of fortunes of the weak and hungry and oppressed, there is clearly a call to the early church to participate in this subversion. That does not mean a call to militancy of any kind; but it means a call to live out the implications of accepting a God who defines Himself in terms of the weak and oppressed, who has chosen to work in the world among lowly handmaids and barren women. It is not that we must work to earn such newness as much as it is, like Elizabeth and Mary, to believe the newness and embrace it as a defining characteristic of what it means to be faithful to God.
To embrace this newness is to confess with Mary in joy, faith, and submission that "the Mighty One has done great things for me." It is to acknowledge that the powers of this world are not the powers that matter most, and that God is the great leveler of all human structures of power that oppress and control. It is He who brings down the exalted and elevates the lowly. We are called to nothing less than to view the world in terms of that potential of God's ordering of worth and value, not in terms of our own ordering of worth and value.
The message here for people today can be liberating. Often this text is used to promote agendas for various victims of oppression. It cannot be rightly used in such a way. Yet, there is a message here for those who lurk on the fringes of the world's hierarchy of value. For some, this may mean that the very fact that the central figures here are women is important. In many contexts women are marginalized by the social and cultural ordering of power so that they are not valued as persons.
But the issue here is not really specifically about gender. It can be applied to anyone who has been marginalized by society, by culture, even by the church. For some, it may be a message that offers newness in the midst of racial or economic discrimination. For some, it may mean a message of newness from a wheelchair or a nursing home, or in the midst of grief or loss, or barrenness of body or soul. For some, it may be a message that God's criteria of value and worth go beyond conformity to certain creeds or definitions of truth or paths to salvation defined by self proclaimed defenders of orthodoxy. It is a message that God does some of his best work with powerless people whose lives are defined by the world as impossible!
That is why I have used the term "subversive" to refer to the thrust of this passage. The newness of this passage is the newness that promises a new future to people who have no future. It is not a social message, although it has that dimension. It is not a message of physical prosperity or of social mobility. But it is a message of salvation to people who have come to a dead end in life. It is a message of hope that suggests, even promises, that the "powers that be" are no power at all, and that the only power worth believing in comes from God through the Holy Spirit to those who wait for the promise of the Father (Acts 1:4-5).
And underlying all of this in Luke's larger story is the call for the church to participate in this subversion as it is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims, and lives, the Kingdom of God (Acts 28:31)!
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