A Lectionary Sermon for 23 December (Advent 4 C ) based on Luke 1:39-56

And Mary said “My soul magnifies the Lord.”This phase from Luke today signals the start one of the great hymns of the traditional church, the Magnificat. Although it is true that this traditionally has more meaning for the Churches categorised as “High Churches”, every now and again it is good to let poetry speak for itself. It also serves as a reminder that parts of the Bible are valuable because they speak to faculties other than the ability to reason in an analytical sense.

There are of course some key theological insights in this passage. “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart”. I guess when we encounter Jesus via the gospel accounts, or for that matter encounter one of his more modern saints, there is a psychological truth in suddenly realising that the things we might previously have been striving for count for little beside such an example. Lifting the lowly, feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty was an excellent summary of Jesus in action not just here but right through the Gospel of Luke – and still retains the ability to inspire – or alternately haunt our conscience as we contemplate what our lives have become.

I remember once reading something reported by David Rhodes from his 1998 book The Advent Adventure where he expressed his frustration with the 500 representatives of the General Synod of the Church of England General Synod debating all afternoon the mystery of salvation with “not a hint that we should enjoy this astounding gift.” It was he said “Like a conference of undertakers discussing the price of embalming fluid”. But it would be unfair to imply this is just true of Anglicans. The mental picture of the dreary Church of England representatives in a Synod session worrying over points of meaningless trivia, put me in mind memories of equally dreary Synod discussions I have witnessed from time to time over the years in my denomination, or if it comes to that, a memory of an Advent service I once attended in Christchurch where I witnessed an elderly Methodist minister (whose name I won’t mention) leaning wearily on a pulpit and droning on in a monotone about “….the joy of Christmas”.

There is something about the academic study of the gospels that can easily cause us to forget that Good News is only good to our perception if it genuinely feeds our sense of well-being or promise of better things to come. And for that to happen, the gospel first has to connect with our lives.
The joy discovered in pregnancy is deep and primal it is true, but Luke is identifying much more in this passage. Elizabeth, already happy in her unexpected pregnancy is clarifying that Mary’s baby is the prophesised Messiah, and Mary’s response to be overcome with gratitude at what she identifies as God’s blessing, underlines her acceptance of the role as what we now think of as mother of the Lord. Luke identifies the baby leaping in the womb as the expression of joy. Perhaps we should note in passing that this passage was used in earlier times to show those who thought John to be the expected one that even John’s mother knew that Jesus was the greater. Second, we should acknowledge that Mary herself was not so much seeing herself as worthy of God’s blessing, but rather seeing herself as blessed as the humble recipient of God’s favour…a subtle but important difference.

Now for today’s question about today’s gospel story. Assuming Luke was not present when Mary met her cousin Elizabeth, who gave him the transcript of what presumably was a private conversation between these two women – the young one and the old one both unexpectedly pregnant? And for the bonus point –what was so significant about the meeting that the Catholics could now claim that each day a good proportion of their huge church can chant their Ave Maria (Hail Mary, full of grace.)

I guess, for me, the answer to the first question will have to remain open ended. Perhaps Mary or Elizabeth told someone who passed it on – yet if we are honest we would also have to concede that it was at least as likely Luke might equally well simply imagined what was said and told the story to make a point. What however is absolutely remarkable for Luke’s day is that he recounted this particular story in any form at all.

While we would like to think of present attitudes to women’s rights as being part and parcel of our religious tradition, a good proportion of our recorded history show that for centuries, women’s position in society has been so firmly so firmly embedded in past structures and customs that there are few places where the Church has taken the lead. If for example you look at the stories of the Bible, there are a small handful only which treat women as deserving the same respect as men. Many of the women for example remain nameless, and a number of the Old Testament laws appeared to treat women almost as property of the men.

Attitudes to pregnancy in the Bible again reflect long standing cultural values of the time. If a married woman is not pregnant she was described as barren – never the man as infertile. A barren woman was despised and pitied – and again in the Bible, we see that sometimes used as an excuse for the husband taking another woman. When it came to illegitimacy, according to some Old Testament teaching, if a woman conceives a child out of marriage, she and not the man was seen as the guilty one and was often stoned to death. In general another issue was that a woman did not have property rights and widows consequently were frequently destitute.

It is against this background of ancient values Luke elevates Mary and Elizabeth to centre stage which of course is why the Catholic Church has embraced the Ave Maria. Luke presents Mary and Elizabeth as key to the setting of John the Baptist and Jesus. In a way this is no more than Luke will do time after time later in his story. He notices the individuals and seems to take particular interest in highlighting what Jesus has to offer to the most humble. Perhaps we might also acknowledge that it was only in much more recent history that a similar recognition was afforded women by the church in general. Some might even argue that there is still some way to go as we contemplate the recent Church of England inability to agree to recognise women Bishops – or Catholics to accept women priests. I have in my bookshelves many books on theology written for a previous generation which refer to what Jesus has to offer men yet only rarely mention women, if at all.
But….back to the two women….. The notion of a pregnant unwed teenager like Mary taking shelter in her cousin’s house is certainly believable given the likely public disapproval.

I don’t know if you noticed, but Luke is not referring here directly to a Virgin conception. Of the gospel writers, only Matthew appears to make that clear connection. Although it may annoy some, particularly as I know the notion of a baby Jesus being born to a Virgin is accepted by millions, I would have to say, as one trained in science, everything we now know about biology makes that extremely improbable. Any higher animal born to a female without conception (parthenogenesis) is also female since the genetic arrangement is the same as for the mother. While I can understand the problem of rethinking this popularist view that Jesus was born of a Virgin, which I admit we still certainly say in some of the creeds, it may be worth remembering that the only Biblical text on which this interpretation is based is a prophecy Isaiah 7: 14 (which is also quoted in the Gospel of Matthew. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”) Quoting Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23 reads, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means, ‘God with us.'” Traditionally Christians have used this verse as confirmation that the Virgin birth was expected and further that if Jesus was the expected one it follows that the Virgin birth was necessary. These days most Bible scholars appear to agree that “virgin” is not the proper translation of the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14.

For the record, the Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 is “almah,” and its inherent meaning is “young woman.” not Virgin. Just for the record, “Almah” occurs seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:25; Proverbs 30:19; Song of Solomon 1:3; 6:8; Isaiah 7:14) and apart from the Isaiah quote none of the others refer to the Messiah. It is true that one of the early major Greek translations translated the word almah as parthenos – or virgin but again a number of scholars now suggest this was a mistake.

But don’t think that science is against the spirit of Luke’s passage for today. Again from modern science there is a growing understanding that from conception the developing baby is largely dependent on the mother and she is key to the baby receiving proper nutrition even in the womb. The developing baby is now known to sense sounds and even chemicals released by changes of mood into the blood stream. Conversely a mother who is worried, subjected to stress, or one who takes in harmful chemicals or inadequate good food, will adversely affect the early development of the child. There is a sense in which Luke was far ahead of his time in thinking the joy of the mother either mattered or was in the slightest sense relevant to the developing child.

But for now, leave aside the science, and even the debate about a Virgin birth versus a mistranslation. Luke here calls us to some words which speak to the heart as well as to the mind. May I suggest that, for once, we think about this passage – not so much for its analysis – as for how it speaks to us at a deeper level. Can we begin to sense the primal joy, the leap in understanding about what the coming Jesus might mean this Advent and then for our main task in finding meaning for our lives in the days ahead? AMEN

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