And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name; 50 indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has come to the aid of his child Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Before I begin, I must provide an important caveat. I am trying to find a way for us to enter this story. The problem is that this beautiful piece of writing was written well after the fact and we have no knowledge of what Mary actually went through. As is often the case with biblical narratives, it is easy to lose the person Mary to the wonder of the story. I will speculate about her ordinary life, but that is all it is. But hopefully, it will evoke parallels in our own lives.
This scripture, along with Mary’s response to the news that she is pregnant presents Mary as a paragon of faithfulness. She leans into the Lord without reservation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” As recorded, her faithfulness is stunning. But very few people in real life do not come to such faith without struggle. We can only imagine what it was like for an engaged teenage girl to discover she was pregnant. In real life, any teenager in this predicament would need counsel the same was true of Mary. She is directed to visit Elizebeth. Elizebeth is a relative and an older woman who was also experiencing an unexpected pregnancy. Mary takes this advice to heart and she “ went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (Luke 1:39-40) She needed to get away. She needed to get counsel and she needed to get her head straight.
The other important character in this story is Joseph, her betrothed. His story is recorded in Matthew but we don’t know how the stories fit together. We do know Joseph struggles with the news of his betrothed’s pregnancy. Should he follow his first instinct—”…being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. (Matt 1:19) or should he claim this child as his own. The consequences of his decision for Mary would be enormous. If he knew of the pregnancy early, his decision would surely be a comfort to Mary. If however, he learned of the pregnancy later, Mary would be in gut wrenching stress. The ‘public disgrace’ of an unwed mother was severe.
Though we cannot actually know when Mary tells Joseph of the pregnancy nor when he decides to claim the unborn child as his own, I think it is more probable that she spoke to him after her visit with Elizebth. This makes practical sense. In real life sense Mary would be overwhelmed with mixed emotions. In real life, unexpected pregnancies are disorienting for anyone. Great joy and great anxiety can exist side by side. In Mary’s case, she would have both the joy of being especially chosen alongside the ordinary anxieties of a first pregnancy made more difficult by the risk of the social stigma attached to unwed mothers. That is a lot to process.
Finding a way to enter Mary’s story is fundamental to our entering the Advent season. We are so used to the anticipation of Christmas, we often lose touch with the uncertainty and darkness that goes with waiting. On a national level, Israel was a vassal state. The people had been invaded and conquered multiple times. The glory days of David and Solomon were distant memories. The people were oppressed and the nation was a far cry from the ancient promise to be a light to the nations. How do any of us hold hope in the midst of such disappointment? Where is God? Is the ordinary question.
In many ways advent is holding hope when it is hard to imagine hope. It means giving up how we thought it should and dealing with what is. It means living in the hope of facing what is. It means giving up how we thought it should be and dealing with what is in front of us. Mary embodies this predicament in a very personal way. She had to deal with the unexpected. She had to accept the promises when they didn’t make much sense. She had to decide to welcome this child—even when that child could make her life incredibly difficult. Don’t jump ahead to Jesus. Stick with this young girl and you will get a taste of advent.
WAITING AND HOPING
Mary was directed to Elizebeth because we can’t deal with intense and contradictory feelings alone. We need to share them. In a very ordinary, real life way, the incarnation is foreshadowed. We believe God saves by joining with us and with that knowledge and support, we will find ways to deal with the uncertainties of real life. That is what Elizebeth offered Mary. The biblical narrative tells us Elizebeth met Mary’s pregnancy with joy. And we know Mary stayed with Elizebeth for three months before returning home. This encounter could have gone south in a heartbeat. But, at least in my mind, Elizebeth was so grateful for her own pregnancy that she could only see joy rather than the many practical problems of life after birth. I want to believe she looked at Mary and said: “Sweetheart, I don’t care how you got pregnant. This child is a miracle. Treasure him.” We need to be reminded of what is important in order to keep focus.
Who knows what those conversations were literally like? But we do know Mary returned home and kept her focus on her unborn child—regardless of how she was seen in her community. Instead of dealing with a thousand ‘what ifs’ or getting disabled by what others might think, she returned to her village to deal with her real life. That could not have been easy. Mary held on to the hope that her life and her child’s life mattered. Her ‘lowly’ status–as a woman, as a relatively poor woman and as an unwed mother—was the way of the world—not the way God saw her. I believe that promise became real in the relationship with Elizedbeth. It is that undergirding promise and support that allows us to live day by day. It was that incarnate love that allowed Mary to return home.
HOPE IN REAL LIFE
In our Faith in Real Life groups I asked what people hoped for. For many, they hoped to live out their lives usefully and hoped to die when they no longer could be so. Some of us will have that well timed death but many of us will not. But in real life, living till we die is a day to day proposition. I don’t know what that will mean for my mother who now lives in another decade and only occasionally visits ours. I know she delights in being hugged—whether she remembers me or not. I know she must cope with any number of people checking on her and providing for her most basic hygienic needs. I know that as a younger woman she would have hated the dependency and indignity. perhaps her dementia is a gift. I would not have thought of it as such until I lived some of it with her. We don’t get choices about how we die. Most of us will have to deal with life as it comes—not as we wish it would come. How do any of us hold hope when age starts taking our memory and mobility? How do any of us hold hope when people we love are suffering? While still hoping for a miracle, one woman hoped she could hold on to her wavering faith—for herself and as an example to her grandchildren. Without ever claiming it, she was hoping to be Elizebeth as the family faced the unimaginable.
Our lives are filled with the unexpected. Life is often disappointing and far from what we would have chosen. We must give up what we think it ‘should be’ in order to cope with what is. It is a remarkable faith that we hold on to. It was Mary’s faith and it is ours. Hold on to hope.
Let it be so.