Notes and Observations
While this is obviously not what’s popularly called a psalm, it is Luke’s record of Mary’s song of praise to God upon learning that she’s pregnant by the Holy Spirit with Jesus. Since it’s quite familiar to most worshipers, those who preach and teach Luke 1:47-55 may want to think about some possible “entry points” into leading people through it.
In verse 48b Mary sings, “from now on all generations will call” her “blessed.” In doing so she rejoices in the place God has given her in salvation history. The Roman Catholic Church has long recognized and celebrated Mary’s centrality. However, Protestant Christians have sometimes shrunk back from that perceived veneration. So those who preach and teach this text might ask worshipers and ourselves how we might recover the idea of Mary as “blessed” by God. How might we restore her to the rightful place God has given her? And might God’s exaltation of Mary have implications for Christians’ own sense of vocation?
Christians rejoice in God’s exultation of Mary and other “lowly” people. Yet some seem to shrink back from the implications of the reversals about which she sings. We naturally wrestle with pride in our own “inmost thoughts” (52). Many worshipers are also numbered among the “rich of the world” (53b). So how might we think about this reversal of our own “fortunes” in ways that prepare us to celebrate not only Christ’s first coming, but also his second?
In verse 49 Mary rejoices in the “great things” God has done for her. Yet with those great things come likely also whispers and insinuations about her pregnancy out of wedlock. Mary also seems to experience at least some rejection by her son. She must also endure the unspeakable heartache of watching her relatively young son unjustly arrested, tortured and crucified. This might lead those who preach and teach this text to ask whether God’s “great things” always come as unmixed blessings.
Finally, there may be some fertile soil worth tilling in asking if God’s reversal of fortune for Mary and others at the bottom has implications for the way Christians treat those whom our world so often debases but God exults in our text. It might also be worth exploring how God’s reversal of fortune blesses not only those at the bottom of society’s heap, but also at its top.
Mary’s song itself moves from a focus on the individual that is herself to the corporate that is God’s adopted sons and daughters. She begins, after all, by singing, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … the Mighty One has done great things for me” (italics added). Yet in verses 42-44 she moves on to sing of how God has “lifted up the humble … filled the hungry [and] … helped his servant Israel.” So she recognizes that the amazing thing God has done for her has implications for all people.
The first thing Mary celebrates in her song is not her conception of a son, as we might expect, but “the Lord.” If you don’t think that’s unusual, ask yourself how often birth announcements begin something like, “God has done a great thing in our lives. God has given us a baby.” Yet that’s basically what Mary does. She, first, glorifies the Lord.
In verse 48 Mary celebrates God’s “mindfulness” of her “humble state.” This suggests that she’s a very ordinary person, perhaps a teenager, precisely the kind of person whom others sometimes overlook except when scolding or criticizing them. Even if people paid attention to her, they’d never think of unwed Mary as the world’s Savior’s mother. Yet God, sings Mary, has looked kindly on her. “The Mighty One” has done great things for her.
However, the Spirit has empowered Mary to recognize that she’s not the only ordinary person on whom God has smiled. After all, in verses 50-55 she reflects on God’s mercy to all sorts of vulnerable people. God has shown mercy, Mary sings, to those who fear the Lord. God is, in other words, kind to those who live in faithful and obedient respect for who God is. This mercy, Mary sings in verse 50, extends “from generation to generation.” So while human mercy is, at best, temporary, God’s mercy is persistent and multigenerational.
What’s more, at the end of verse 52 Mary sings of the way God has “lifted up the humble.” Scholars suggest that the “humble” to whom she refers here are those who are poor. The Psalms often refer to the “humble” as God’s children of Israel. These are the people who have little choice but to depend completely on the Lord. In speaking of God’s lifting of them up, Mary evokes an image of people who are flat on their faces in humble dependence on God for their well-being.
Yet Mary also speaks of God’s mercy that is the “bringing down” of those who are at the top of society’s heap. We don’t have to wait long to hear from Luke the names of some of those mighty people. When, after all, he announces Jesus’ birth, the gospel writer refers to Caesar Augustus and his governor Quirinius. These people who don’t have to bow down to anyone are precisely the kinds of rulers Mary sings God has brought down.
Mary also refers to God’s humbling of “those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” God, she sings, forces them to rely on God rather than their own devices by “scattering” them. She also sings of the way God has sent the rich away “empty,” forcing them too to rely on the Lord rather than their own formerly substantial resources.
The tenses of the verbs Mary uses in her song are interesting. All of them suggest actions that God has already completed sometime in the past. Yet how, as Stephen Farris asks, can we say all of the wonderful things about which Mary sings have already happened? The people with the most money, biggest arsenals and fullest pantries still seem to run the world. What’s more, the world still overflows with needy people.
Some scholars suggest that Mary’s use of aorist verbs points to what God constantly does. God is, according to that interpretation, always reversing fortunes. Others suggest that Mary’s so confident about what God will do in the future that she can sing as if it’s already happened.
Farris, however, suggests what he calls a more nuanced reading of those aorist verbs. He says that Mary looks back on her pregnancy that reveals God’s reversal of her own fortunes as a sign that God will keep her song’s other promises as well. Just as the Spirit has fathered Mary’s child, God will also raise up those who are humble, hungry and waiting, with her, on the Lord.
In the light of what Mary’s son Jesus has already done in his life, death and resurrection, Christians too can be confident that God will reverse human fortunes. In Christ the humble have already been exulted, the spiritually hungry have been fed and the spiritually poor have been made rich. What’s more, because all of God’s promises are “yes!” in Jesus Christ, one day in the new creation God will make all things new, including both those at the “bottom” and “top” of society’s heap.
In her Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories, Betty MacDonald writes about an upside down house. Children love to visit this amazing place because it floors stretch overhead, while its ceilings lie underfoot.
The piano that dangles from Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s house’s floor is difficult to play. People must swing from a trapeze in order to play it. Couches and chairs also hang from the floor above in this upside-down house. This, of course, makes it hard to sit in them.
People who want to open a cupboard, use the bathroom or even heat something on Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s stove must carefully plan how to do it. Nothing, after all, is quite where you expect it in this upside down house. Surprises wait for anyone who’s careless in it.
As Neal Plantinga has noted, the world about which Mary sings in our text is a bit like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s upside down house. Things in its world seem upside down too. Surprises also await people who are careless in it.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 14, 2014
Luke 1:47-55 Commentary