I do sometimes wish that we knew more about Mary, Jesus’ mother. We just have these few stories in Luke’s Gospel about Mary as a young woman discovering she is pregnant with the Saviour of the world. There’s the story in John’s Gospel where she encourages Jesus to get going with his ministry by using his power to turn water into wine at a wedding. And then we get a few references to Mary’s presence at the end of Jesus’ life, as she faces every parent’s worst nightmare – to see the suffering and death of her own child.
Much of the Christian tradition about Mary portrays her as a sweet, kind, and obedient young woman. It doesn’t imagine her as loud, angry, passionate, or willful, but rather as someone who (after only a few clarifying questions) responds to the Angel Gabriel by calmly saying, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
But even if Mary accepted God’s plan for her without a lot of fuss, I still think she must have been quite a strong, bold, and out-spoken woman of faith who was not afraid to shake things up. And it’s the song she sang during her visit with Elizabeth that really highlights this aspect of Mary’s personality.
We sang a contemporary paraphrase of Mary’s song together this morning – one in which Mary doesn’t come across as meek and mild, but where she is confident, courageous, and full of hope because of what she believes God is doing to turn the world around. Her song is the proclamation of a prophet who both recognizes the problems of the world and knows that God has the power to make things right.
Perhaps we should hear it straight from the Gospel text as well. This is the New Revised Standard Version. As I read it, I invite you to listen for what Mary tells us God is doing in the world. What is God turning around?
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with his arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
First of all, of course, God is turning Mary’s life around. God interrupts her plans and expectations for what might have been a quiet life, and invites her to be deeply involved in the world-changing mission of Christ in the Incarnation.
The fact that Mary cooperates with God’s plan is spectacular, but not just because she was obedient, but rather because she said “yes” to participating in what she understood God was about to do. She saw it as a blessing to work with God in turning the world around, and she embraced the sudden turning in her own life in order to do it.
And then Mary sings about what God is going to do to turn the world around: scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, and lift up the lowly; fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.
Very much like we do today, Mary is keenly aware that nothing seems to be right in the world. Those in power are greedy and selfish; the gap between the rich and the poor is vast and insurmountable; only certain people – who are the right gender or nationality – have full privileges of citizenship; there is war after war after war – and children are the ones who matter least and suffer most.
But she also believes that God – this strange and merciful God – is going to turn everything about this so-called world order on its head: bringing good news to the poor, letting the oppressed go free, beating the swords into ploughshares, binding up the broken-hearted.
Mary sings of these promises in her song of reversals, where the proud are upturned by the low estate, the mighty by those of low degree, and the rich by the hungry. The reign of God interrupts the earth’s realities to bring about justice, peace, and equity. Mary wants to be part of God’s work and trusts that the Holy Spirit, who hovers over her, disrupting her life, will make that possible.
There is much in our world today that needs to be turned right-side-up as well. There are certainly tyrants to be brought down and unjust systems to be taken apart and reformed. There are so many people around the world and within our own community who need to be lifted up, supported, and given a chance at life. At times, there seem to be so many problems that we may get discouraged, wondering if our warring world can be redeemed.
Mary’s song today encourages us to hold on to hope, to trust God, and to believe that God’s reign of justice and peace is coming. Mary believes it so strongly that she expresses it as if it’s already been accomplished. She doesn’t say, “I hope that God will make things right” or “I pray that God will help the poor.” No, she proclaims: “God has brought down the powerful. God has lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things.” God’s new kingdom of love has been inaugurated in the child who will be born of Mary, and she is sure that it will be completed.
The last thing that Mary proclaims in her song is that “God has helped God’s servant Israel, according to his mercy.” The fact is that Mary’s ancestors have been trying to walk with God and live according to God’s ways for a long time. And it’s hard. As much as God’s people then and now want to live in love with God and one another, we struggle to put it into practice consistently.
But Mary sings of God’s mercy and love. God comes to us in Jesus, forgives our sins, teaches us to love, shows us how it’s done, and gives us the Holy Spirit to help us along the way. It is through us – God’s people in the world, Christ’s body on earth – that God will work to turn the world around, just as God did through Mary.
During this Season of Advent, let’s hold onto the hope that Mary sang about for the world. And let’s keep our hearts open to the ways that God’s plans may interrupt ours and turn our lives upside down as well. What an adventure it will be to participate in what God is doing in turning the world around!