“My soul doth magnify the Lord – my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. From henceforth, shall all generations call me blessed.”
The great song of praise which Mary poured forth, which we know as the Magnificat. Mary says all generations shall call me blessed – and so today on this last Sunday of Advent, we honor the Virgin Mary, and we call her blessed.
Those of you who have visited the Holy Land may know the small village of Eir Karem . Four miles from Jerusalem , and set high up above a lovely wooded valley, is the ancient church built over the traditional site of the home of Zachariah and Elizabeth. And that’s where Mary went as fast as she could, as our Gospel reading tells us today, straight after that extraordinary meeting with the Angel Gabriel. She must have been terrified and amazed. She had to go and talk to her cousin Elizabeth. The angel had said that Elizabeth, who was old and barren, was now 6 months pregnant. Mary knew her Scripture. She knew that when old, barren women conceived, in the history of Israel , it was a sign that God was about to perform some great act. Just as when Abram’s wife Sara gave birth of Isaac in her old age, and Hannah gave birth to Samuel.
Not only that, but Mary, this very young woman, needed to talk to her older relative about this utterly amazing news that she had been chosen to be the mother of God’s son, Jesus.
“She arose and went with haste,” Luke tells us, and then we have one of the most beautiful, most poignant passages in all Scripture. Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth . And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me!”
Old, barren women conceiving children was one sign of God’s activity – but there was to be an even greater sign: the rebirth of the prophetic voice. There had been no prophets in Israel for 500 years – 500 years is a long time – no prophets since Malachi – had God abandoned his people? But now not only was Elizabeth given prophetic insight, but her son, still in the womb, who was to be the great and final prophet, John the Baptist – even in the womb, he sensed, with prophetic insight, that the Lord, the fruit of Mary’s womb, was in their midst. “And the babe leapt in her womb.”
This extraordinary meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, known as the Visitation, has a parallel in the Old Testament. In the 2 nd Book of Samuel, Chapter 6, we read of how the ark of the covenant was brought into Jerusalem . Now the ark was a rectangular box which contained the tablets of the 10 Commandments. The Jews believed that the ark was the container for God’s presence on earth. So when the ark came into the City of David , it was God himself who was coming in to take up residence in the holy city of Zion . And as the ark was brought in, we read that David leapt and danced before the Lord with all his might!
And from very early in Christian history, Mary has been seen as a type of ark of the covenant. Just as the ark contained and shielded the presence of God, so Mary’s womb contained and protected and nurtured the Lord. And when she entered Elizabeth ‘s house, Elizabeth ‘s child John leapt in her womb, just as David had leapt when the ark entered Jerusalem .
But Mary is not just a passive receptacle, not just a sort of surrogate mother, not just a convenient womb used by God in his plan of salvation. No. We honor Mary because she took an active part in God’s plans. She was a consenting partner.
Elizabeth recognizes this when she says “Blessed are you among women” – blessed not only because she has been chosen to be the mother of our Lord, but, Elizabeth goes on to say, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary is praised by Elizabeth because she believed. Maybe Elizabeth was remembering how her own husband Zachariah had not believed the message given him by Gabriel, and was made mute.
Mary was the first to believe in her son, and in that sense was the first Christian. And in believing, she said yes to God. “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary is the first and archetypal Christian.
It was her faith and trust, her consent, which allowed God to send his son into the world. Mary’s faith allowed God to make her the ark, the bearer of God’s son.
And it is for these reasons that Mary is important for us. Firstly, as she believed and trusted in God, so we are called to believe and trust in God’s promises, and to say yes, when he calls us.
Secondly, as she bore within her body God’s son, so we, too, are called to bear God’s son. As Christians we are arks, or as Paul prefers it, we are temples of God’s Holy Spirit. What an amazing thought: God lives in you – makes his home in us.
And actually, as I read this story again I saw something I hadn’t really seen before. The whole story is irradiated with joy – sheer joy! Listen! Mary runs to see Elizabeth . “The child in my womb leapt for joy,” Elizabeth says with a loud cry, “blessed are you” and Mary breaks out into a glorious song of joy, “My soul doth magnify the Lord!” For me, the picture of these two women, knowing what they know, no doubt embracing each other – the sheer joy of it. I bet it wasn’t only the child that danced!
Well, there are just four days left before we celebrate the birth of Jesus. As you read the Scriptures and hear them read over the next few days, listen out for the joy – it’s everywhere! “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy! The angels say to the shepherds. The wise men on seeing Jesus were overwhelmed with joy: Joy to the world!
“Your heart will rejoice,” Jesus promises us in John. “Your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
So, how much joy do you have in your life? It is a gift and a promise. Maybe this Christmas you could ask God for the gift of joy. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel has come to you.
Joy could transform this Christmas for you – something extraordinary could happen. Who knows – you might even catch yourself – DANCING!
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