Advent 4 • Luke 1:39–45 (46–56) • December 20, 2015
By Travis Scholl
[Advent’s historical] character was that of a joyous looking forward to the Parousia. . . . The fact that Christ has come does not quench this hope; it intensifies it. The historical life and work of the Christ gives us all the more reason for expressing a lively and joyful hope.¹
Is there a more emblematic moment of Advent hope than this encounter between Elizabeth and Mary? Two unexpectedly expectant mothers give voice to all that had gone before and all that is yet to come, even as the Savior of the world and his prophet are being knit together with the tissues of their own DNA in their wombs. Their conversation, and Mary’s subsequent soliloquy, simultaneously looks back to salvation history and its fulfillment in the Christ child, while looking forward to the making of all things new in the coming reign of God, an already-not yet moment if ever there was one.
There is something profoundly full of grace in the genuine friendship between women. Anyone who has spent time at an LWML convention knows exactly what I’m talking about. There is a sense of empowerment to it, solidarity, a knowing countenance, a generosity of spirit. We hear it in the exclamation of the elder Elizabeth to Mary, her junior: “And why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (v. 43). Already, God is lifting up the lowly, in the perceptive wisdom of one woman to another. It is enough to make one wonder what all was shared between these two women in the three months Mary spent in Elizabeth’s hill-country home, with nary a mansplaining word from the struck-dumb Zechariah to interrupt them.
Of course, for both women, their words are stunning expressions of sheer faith, the leap of any human heart at the hearing of good news. No small wonder that it finds its ultimate voice in the hum of song. Mary’s song echoes the Old Testament song of another unexpectedly expectant mother, Hannah (1 Sm 2:1‒10), but the true magnificence of the Magnificat is in how it brings to culmination the various vocabularies of the Psalms, the Prophets, even the recorded history of ancient Israel, “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, / to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (v. 55). Is it too much to say that Mary’s song is the culmination of the whole lexicon of the Hebrew Bible, giving first expression to how the subsequent New Testament will interpret its Hebrew scriptures in the light of the One she bears in her womb, our Savior and Lord? And is this not the sublime expression of our Advent hope in the God of great reversals, who “scattered the proud” and “filled the hungry with good things” (v. 51, 53). Mary’s faith is so sure that she can express this hope in the past tense, speaking of what God will yet do as something he has already accomplished.
The lectionary gives us a choice as to whether or not Mary’s song is included in this week’s reading of the Gospel. But it strikes me that the lectionary gives us a unique liturgical opportunity. It gives us the chance to sing Mary’s song together. There are so many great adaptations and settings of the Magnificat for congregational singing (LSB 933‒935 give us but a glimpse) that it would seem a lost opportunity to not sing it here together, our voices joining with Mary in a leap of faith at the hearing of good news. For the assembly to break into song at just this moment in the reading of the gospel would mimic how it breaks forth in the pages of Luke’s own Gospel, how poetry breaks forth from the pages of its history.
For us to sing Mary’s song together not only gives communal voice to her words of promise. The singing “intensifies it” into “a lively and joyful hope” of all that is yet to come.
¹ Frank C. Senn, “The Meaning of Advent: Implications for Preaching,” Concordia Theological Monthly 42, no.10 (November 1971): 657, 659.