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Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

St. Mary Visits Elizabeth

Sermon / Homily on Luke 1:39-56

Lectionary Blogging: Luke 1: 39-56

by John Petty, Progressive Involvement

Scripture: Luke 1: 39-56

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Translation:

In those days, Mary arose (and) went with haste into the hills into a town in Judea, and she entered into the house of Zechariah and embraced Elizabeth. And it happened, just as Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the child in her womb leaped, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she exclaimed a loud cry and said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And from where (is) this to me, that the mother of my Lord might come to me? For behold, just as the sound of your greeting happened in my ears, the child in my womb leaped in joy, and blessed is she who trusted that there will be completion of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

And Mary said, "My life magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, that he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant, for behold, from now on, all generations will bless me, for the Powerful One has done great for me and holy his name, and his mercy (is) into generations and generations, to the ones fearing him. He has done power in his arm. He has scattered the proud ones to the thinking of their hearts. He has destroyed (the) powerful from thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry ones with good, and the rich ones he has sent away empty. He has laid hold of Israel his child, to be remembered with mercy, just as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed into the eternal." But Mary remained with her about three months and she returned into her house.
 


The text follows upon the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary (1:26-38). Immediately after, Mary "arose"--anastasa, a word of resurrection--and "went with haste" to the house of Zechariah. She goes to see not Zechariah, however, but Elizabeth.

All four gospels support the equality of women, but Luke is the one who is most obvious about it. The male in the story, Zechariah, had been visited by an angel, but he did not trust (1:20) and was made mute. His wife Elizabeth, however, who was an older woman, turns out to be the heroine of the family and she, in stark contrast to her mute husband, breaks into song.

It was about 70 miles from Galilee to Judea, more than that if you take the longer route around Samaria as Mary undoubtedly did. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans ran deep, and not without reason on either side. Jews would typically take the long way around Samaria rather than set foot there.

The text seems to indicate that Mary walked this distance by herself. This would have been a dangerous journey, especially for an adolescent female traveling alone. Mary is often lauded for her independence in questioning Gabriel, and for her faith in accepting Gabriel's word. That she walked 100 miles by herself to visit Elizabeth may be an even more vivid example of both her faith and her independence.

When Mary arrived, she "embraced" Elizabeth. The word is aspazomai, which means to draw to oneself, to salute, greet, or embrace. Elizabeth, of course, was also pregnant with a holy child (1:5-24) who would become John the Baptist. Let us take Mary's "embrace" in its fullest sense, i.e. that she drew Elizabeth to herself, that the mission of her son and Elizabeth's son are joined. I have an icon of this scene in which Mary and Elizabeth are cheek-to-cheek, embracing each other with both arms, conveying a sense of union and solidarity.

Even this early, Luke is careful to say that John will be subordinate to Jesus. Zechariah is visited by an angel. Mary is visited by Gabriel, the head angel. John will be "great" (1:15). Jesus will be "Lord" (1:43). Elizabeth is an older woman who conceives. Mary is a virgin who conceives. In every aspect of story, John, while truly exalted, is still less than Jesus.

"And it happened"--egeneto, not translated in NRSV--that when Elizabeth heard Mary's "greeting" her own child "leaped" and she herself was "filled with the Holy Spirit." John's "leap" is mentioned twice. In the first instance (1:41), he "leaped" at Mary's "embrace." In the second instance (1:44), Elizabeth, after referring to Mary's child as "my Lord," thereby establishing Jesus' precedence of that of her own son, says that "the child in (my) womb leaped for joy." It's as though Luke again wants to make sure that the rejoicing is over Jesus, not John himself. John doesn't leap "for joy" until it is established that Jesus is "Lord."

Mary's greeting is mentioned three times in today's text (40, 41, 44). Note the progression. In 40, Mary "embraced" Elizabeth, or, Mary "took Elizabeth to herself." In 41, this "embrace" is again mentioned and paired with John's first "leap." In 44, Elizabeth announces "behold!"--unfortunately not translated in NRSV--and then cites Mary's "embrace" as, again, the reason her child "leaped," this time "for joy." The implications of Mary's "embrace" are fully explored.

As Eduard Schweizer notes, Mary's greeting and John's leap represents "something like a first encounter" between Jesus and John. The leaping of John anticipates his role as the forerunner of the "one who is mightier than I" (3:16).

That Elizabeth is then "filled with the Holy Spirit" tells us the source of the inspiration that prompts her to erupt in praise. (See Brian Stoffregan who lists several occasions in Luke where an individual who is "filled with the Holy Spirit" then speaks boldly.) Suddenly "filled with the Holy Spirit," Elizabeth "cried out a great cry"--anaphonesen krauge megale--and praised Mary: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." (Women in ancient society attained honor by being the mother of a great son.)

As an older woman and the wife of a priest, Elizabeth has a higher social rank than Mary, an unmarried teenager. Yet, Elizabeth, crying out loudly, exalts Mary, affirms her role as mother, and proclaims Mary's child to be "my Lord" (1:43). Status reversal will mark the ministry of Jesus. It is anticipated here.

Elizabeth then lauds Mary's faith: "...blessed (makarios) is she who trusted (pisteusasa)..." When Elizabeth was speaking of Mary's role as mother, the word eulogeo was used. Eulogeo means "speak well of"--it's where we get our word "eulogy"--and may also mean "praise" or "blessings."

In verse 45, however, when Elizabeth speaks of Mary's trust, Luke switches from eulogeo to makarios. Both words may be translated as "blessed," but makarios may represent a higher rank of blessing. It is the word Jesus will use in chapter 6 when he gives his "sermon on the plain" and issues four "blessings"--one each for the poor, the hungry, those in mourning, and those who are hated. That the word is here associated with Mary not only exalts the "trust" of Mary, but also associates her with these "lowly" ones whom Jesus will bless in chapter 6.

Mary's song follows. We know it as the Magnificat. The Hebrew scriptures include several "songs," such as that of Moses (Ex 15: 1-18), Miriam (Ex 15: 19-21), Deborah (Ju 5:1-31), and Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10). Luke will add four of his own--Zechariah (1:67-79), Simeon (2:28-32), Mary (1:46-55), and that of "a multitude of the heavenly host" (2:15). These Spirit-inspired eruptions of praise punctuate the text with the numinous and add meaning and texture to the narrative.

As is typical for Hebrew poetry, Mary's song is marked by parallelism, both synonymous and antithetical. As an example of the former, see verse 47: "My life magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior." The second half of the statement echoes the first half. As an example of antithetical parallelism, see verse 53: "He has filled the hungry ones with good, and the rich ones he has sent away empty." In that case, note the strong sense of contrast in the two phrases.

Mary's song has two sections. In the first (1:47-50), Mary speaks of what God has done for her. In the second (1:51-55), she speaks of what God has done for Israel and the world. Certain themes occur in both sections. Mary describes herself as "lowly" (1:48), then later speaks of what God has done for the "lowly" (1:52). Mary is "his servant" (1:48) and so is Israel (1:54).

Comment on vss. 46-47: "My life magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior." I have translated psyche as "life" rather than "soul" primarily because the concept of "soul" is rather murky in early Christianity and is more a Greek concept than a Christian one. The word psyche has to do with "life-principle," or the seat and center of the "inner life." (We get our word "psychology" from it.) Mary is saying, "The essence of my being praises God."

Comment on vs. 48: "...that he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant, for behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed..." Tapeinosis means "lowering, humbling, abasing, humiliation." In first century Israel, one could hardly be more "abased" than to be a dirt-poor, unmarried, teenage woman. (As one second century rabbi put it, "The daughters of Israel are comely, but poverty makes them repulsive.")

Yet, "behold!", Mary exclaims. "Behold" is an important word. It signals: "Pay special attention." "From now on"--from hitting bottom onward--everyone "will call me blessed." Elizabeth had already done so, and repeatedly, but now everyone will.

Comment on vss. 49-50: "...for the Powerful One has done great for me and holy his name, and his mercy (is) into generations and generations, to the ones fearing him..." Mary concludes her own personal exaltation of God for doing "great for me." She then celebrates God's mercy far into the future.

Comment on vs. 51a: "He has done power in his arm." Moving from the personal to the political--or, to put it another way, moving from what God has done for her to what God has done for all humanity--Mary begins by invoking God's powerful arm. God's powerful arm is mentioned in several places in the Old Testament, and especially in Exodus 6 (1, 6) and Exodus 15 (6). In the use of this phrase, Mary is recalling God's specific action of leading the Hebrew slaves to freedom, and hailing that power in Israel's current situation of oppression and tyranny.

Comment on vss. 51b-53: "He has scattered the proud ones to the thinking of their hearts. He has destroyed (the) powerful from thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry ones with good, and the rich ones he has sent away empty."

Throughout Luke, the proud, powerful, and rich are the opponents of Jesus. They are portrayed as people who look to enhance their own social honor and prestige, and as people who are indifferent to those lower on the social ladder. In Mary's child, God has intervened on behalf of the "lowly" and the "hungry." God lifts them up, but "scattered the proud ones," "destroyed the powerful ones," and "sent away empty" the rich.

This is called God's "preferential option for the poor." God is always on the side of those on the bottom, those who are excluded, those left out. Yet, God does not triumph over their oppressors in a vindicative act, but rather a loving one. God wants them to change and join the mission of the kingdom. Leonardo Boff:

God flings the proud of heart to the earth, in the hope that they will be...delivered from their ridiculous vaunting and flaunting, to become free and obedient children of God and brothers and sisters to others. (Maternal Face, p. 199)

Comment on vs. 54: "He has laid hold of Israel his child, to be remembered with mercy, just as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed into the eternal." Most translations identify Israel as "his servant." The phrase is paidos autou--literally, "his child."

The verb in the first clause is antilambano, which means "to come to the aid of" or "devote oneself to" or "to lay hold of." All senses of the word are appropriate here. God "comes to the aid" of Israel. God "is devoted to Israel," and God has "laid hold of" Israel.

The word mnesthenai (remembered) is in the aorist passive infinitive form--Israel is "to be remembered" by God, and, moreover, remembered "in mercy." Mary had said the kind of mercy shown to her would be expanded into "generations and generations" (1:50), and indeed that is what she now proclaims for Israel in 1:55. Israel is "remembered with mercy" which is extended to the generations of Abraham forever. This is how God triumphs--not through violence, the customary pattern of the powers of this world, but through compassion and love.

See Also:

Sermons, Bible Commentaries, Bible Analyses on St. Mary's Visit to Elizabeth

Malankara World Special on St. Mary

Malankara World Special on Shunoyo of St. Mary

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