Lessons for Advent 4B: 2 Samuel 17:1=11, 16; Canticle 15 (The Magnificat); Romans 16:25-27; and, Luke 1:26-38.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
In its infancy narratives, the gospel according to Luke presents an anticipation of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God into our world. We call this the incarnation – the Word becoming flesh, to use the Johannine language. This inbreaking is, of course, has been our Advent anticipation for the past three weeks, and as we enter our fourth week of Advent the Church heightens our anticipation by presenting us with the angel Gabriel’s announcement and Mary’s song-response (called the “Magnificat” after the first word of its Latin translation). It is in Mary’s song-response, in particular, that we can hear what the inbreaking kingdom will be like.
Before we get to the content of the song, however, notice Mary’s prophet voice in the song. In the language, it is as if the kingdom is already present, an accomplished fact rather than a coming reality. Indeed, there is a predominance of past-tense verbs leaving the impression that, for Mary, everything is already accomplished. On one level, this should not be surprising given the angelic introduction noting that God has looked (already) with favor on his lowly servant and that the Almighty has done (already) great things for her.
But, as Mary’s song-response continues, it becomes clear that God’s favor upon Mary will have consequences beyond Mary, broadening to include the whole world. Even then, however, Mary proclaims prophetically of things already accomplished. Seeming to take a note from her yet-to-be-born son’s preaching, Mary proclaims that the kingdom of God is at hand.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
It’s an upside down sort of world! Two-thousand years later, are we living in the accomplished? Or do we still wait, anticipate, and hope? There might not be Caesar’s in the world, but power still resides with those who wield the might – whether political, military, or economic. Indeed, the lowly rarely get lifted up; the hungry continue to go hungry, and the rich just seem to get richer. And yet Mary speaks of the accomplished.
We shouldn’t look at Mary’s song-response as borne from a naïve worldview. No Jew living in Roman-occupied Israel would have envisioned the lowly being lifted up nor could she have imagined the mighty Caesar cast down from his throne. Instead, Mary’s song-response is a reflection of her assurance and hope in the faithfulness of God. Like in the days of her ancestors God will be faithful to God’s promise. Just as the divine promise of inbreaking redemption was manifest in Egypt and Babylon, God’s kingdom breaking into the world will be manifest because God is faithful!
In understanding Mary’s song-response it is important to recognize Mary’s worldview, especially as it relates to the age to come. We live in the present age (our present time) which includes all of time from creation until the end. Alongside the present age is the age to come, ushered in by the day of Lord, which will see the final consummation of the kingdom of God in Christ. The present age is working toward this end in a forward trajectory that pushes us toward eternity, but the two ages seem separate. However, through the Magnificat, Mary shows us that two ages might not be as distinct and separated as we imagine. It is possible, prophecies Mary, that the age to come can break into our present age, the inbreaking a foreshadowing of what is to come.
In the Magnificat, Mary reveals the birth of the Messiah is the sign of what God’s kingdom looks like. The Incarnation is the foreshadowing of the age to come.
In the incarnation, God became flesh! But God did not become flesh as Caesar or Pharaoh; but, rather, God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, son of a peasant woman in an occupied land. If this could happen then the mighty were as good as cast down from their thrones and the hungry were as good as fed. Yes, these were as good as accomplished because in becoming flesh God is in fact breaking the age to come into our world. Mary goes on to sing that this is not some new thing God is doing, but it is in fulfillment of all that God has promised Israel. The God of Israel is now acting in human history in such a way that it will not just break the kingdom of God into this age for the Jews, but for all humanity.
During his ministry, Jesus will affirm the very things his mother Mary now claims.
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)
“Whoever wishes to be greatest among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 20:26)
Jesus’ whole ministry lived out Mary’s words, showing how God’s kingdom is breaking into this present age and is radically different from it.
In the Magnificat, we see that the kingdom of God has broken into our present age, but ours is still clearly a flawed world. Yet, because of the incarnation and the other ways God has broken into the present age, we can glimpse a different world. In the life of Jesus and through those who truly follow after Jesus (the saints through the ages) we witness how wonderful the upside-down world of the gospel really can be. No one is too lowly or too weak or too undesirable for God. There are no outcasts in God’s kingdom!
Maybe we can use this last week of Advent to make more room in our lives, to recognize that we are favored and blessed just like Mary. I know that we might be tempted in this most different of years – in this tumultuous, heartbreaking, plan-altering, isolating year – to declare ourselves or others to not be favored or blessed. But listening to Mary, it seems clear that she understands that her divine favor and blessing are not dependent upon the circumstances of life. Favor and blessing is not determined by prosperity, wealth, or comfort. Favor and blessing is determined by God. Favor and blessing have already been shown to us in our being created in the divine image, by God speaking to us through the prophets in the power of the Spirit, and by God coming to us and dwelling among us – by God (to use the phrase from the John’s prologue) pitching the divine tent in us. In this moment of the Magnificat, Mary teaches us to look more deeply, and to find God’s favor and blessing within.
Then, the more we recognize God’s favor and blessing within, the more we will find ourselves seeing the same in others. The more we recognize God’s favor and blessing within, the more we will recognize the divine spark in our neighbors and in our enemies and the more we will speak the words that God speaks as if truth to power. The more we recognize God’s favor and blessing within and the more we allow God to take up a divine residence in our lives, the more we will love those whom God loves (that is, everyone). Every time we reach out to others to share God’s love, we bring the age to come to life into the here and now.
As Mary responded, “Here am I,” to the angel Gabriel. What will be your response this Christmas. Are you prepared to say, “Here am I!,” as a lived response to the gospel. When we live into our faith, reaching out to the lost and left out, and proclaim the Good News in both word and deed, then little by little we help turn the world upside down. When we side against the oppressor and speak up for the voiceless, we make the Kingdom proclaimed by Mary real to ourselves.