The familiar story we have heard today has been painted thousands of times throughout history. Two women, one young, one elderly, both of them pregnant, greeting each other. Often, the elderly one is deferring to the younger one, kneeling before her. Other times, the two are embracing. It’s such a familiar image, such a familiar story, that we tend to pay it little attention. Certainly, it does not factor largely in our devotion. Though it’s the occasion for two of the most common hymns or devotions in Catholicism—the Ave Maria and the Magnificat—we probably rarely reflect on the narrative context from which these hymns come. And really, it’s hardly shocking that we don’t pay closer attention to the Visitation, for it’s a brief episode, not more than a couple of verses (not including the magnificat itself).
Two women, well, an elderly woman and a teenager, greeting each other. Luke puts in their mouths pious statements, hymns. The painters, although many show emotion on the faces of the women, and pose them in gestures, show them always in appropriate, even aristocratic garb. These are respectable women from respectable families, wealthy, well-established. Their words seem hardly natural; they are carefully composed, more reflective of the Gospel writer’s concerns than in any way the actual conversation of two pregnant women meeting for conversation.
Imagine that scene again. How old was Mary, twelve, thirteen years old (that’s the age most NT scholars suggest, given what we know about marriage patterns among Jews in 1st century Palestine). Twelve or thirteen years old, according to Luke’s story, she’s already heard from an angel that she is to give birth to a son. When the angel Gabriel appears to her and greets her, Hail Favored One, she is perplexed. When the angel tells her that she will bear a son, Jesus, who will be named Jesus and ascend to David’s throne, she asks, “How can this be?” The angel then tells her that her son will come from the Holy Spirit, that he will be the Son of God, and about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Then she responds, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
She then goes to visit Elizabeth where today’s gospel picks up with Elizabeth’s greeting, “Hail favored One!” and then her final words, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
Before we reflect more on this little vignette, I would like to point to another passage in Luke’s gospel, a later reference to Mary. A woman shouts out from the crowd, in language reminiscent of Elizabeth’s blessing, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” To which Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” Similarly, Elizabeth’s blessing concludes by blessing her for believing the word that had been spoken to her.
This later episode helps us to understand what Luke is getting at, for Mary, in chapter 1 is shown to be someone who hears the word of God and obeys it. She accepts the responsibility of bearing Jesus, and we can assume that the angel’s mention of her cousin Elizabeth is a gentle nudge to get her to pay a visit. To put it bluntly, Luke depicts Mary as a model disciple, one who hears the word of God and obeys it.
But it’s easy to misinterpret what Mary’s discipleship means, how she is meant to be a model. The tradition has shaped her image in so many ways that’s hard to get back to what Luke is really about. We think of Mary as a passive recipient, someone who accepts what happens to her without complaint. The tradition has turned her into a model for a certain kind of discipleship, a femininity that is meek and mild, passive, receptive, quiet.
But that’s wrong. Listen to her song again:
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
These are not words of pious sentimentality, docility, or humility. The faith Mary proclaims is a faith in a God who takes decisive action on behalf of God’s people, a God who vindicates the righteous and condemns the wicked. The God to whom Mary sings is a God of liberation, a God who intervenes for the oppressed, the powerless, the poor and hungry. These are words proclaiming in a God who saves, but the salvation on offer is not for individuals, it is a salvation for all God’s people.
Indeed, so powerful is this God, so vivid the imagery in the song, that it is hard to imagine they are the words of teenager, a young woman who has just learned she is to be a mother by miraculous means. And the fact of the matter is that Mary’s words are not hers alone. They are also the words of another woman from the history of God’s saving acts, another woman who found herself with child, almost miraculously.
The Magnificat, Mary’s wonderful song, is a reworking of the Song of Hannah, which Hannah sang when she learned she would give birth to Samuel, a boy who would become judge, priest, and prophet over all of Israel. Like Mary after her, Hannah sang in praise of her God, confident of her people’s salvation through God’s continuing care for Israel, confident that God would bring justice and righteousness to the world.
Hannah’s words were put in the future tense. Her song of praise was a song of hope that God would one day make things right. Mary’s song is in the perfect tense, suggesting that God’s liberating action has already begun to take place, but that it is not complete. God’s reign, with its promise of justice for the poor and the oppressed still lies in the future, though Mary can see signs of that reign in the world around her.
God has scattered the proud in their conceit, cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has sent the rich away empty and filled the hungry with good things. It’s hard to hear these words without thinking of our own society and economy where income inequality is greater than at any time in a century, where the elderly and the poor risk losing what few benefits they have, where money equals power and our political class seems oblivious to the deep need in our nation. And that’s not just true on a national level. We have seen here in Madison how the homeless have been a political hot potato tossed between mayor and county executive, City Council and County Board.
When we sing or reflect on the Magnificat our tendency is to see these words as Mary’s words, not our own. We lack the imagination and faith to make these statements ours. But if we believe in a God who comes to us in a manger in Bethlehem, it shouldn’t be beyond our capacity to believe in a God who acts in history on behalf of the poor, powerless, the hungry and the oppressed. But more than that, we need to do more than sing the song, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Luke reminds us that a true follower of Jesus is one who hears his word and obeys it. This Advent and Christmas, this year and beyond, we should proclaim our faith that God is acting in history to vindicate the oppressed, and we should do all in our power to usher in God’s reign.