Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55
Women blessed by God accomplish the previously unimaginable.
“Silent Night, Holy Night!” – one of the most popular Christmas carols – describes Mary as “yon virgin.” Another, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”calls her “the virgin mother kind.” And “Once in Royal David’s City”tells us “Mary was that mother mild.” Then, “In the Bleak Midwinter” has Mary “in her maiden bliss” worshipping Jesus “with a kiss.” Finally, “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child” reveals in the title the assessment of Mary’s demeanor: gentle. It is no wonder then, when we envision Mary, we picture meek, mild, gentle, young and vulnerable. Artists through the ages depict Mary as either the maiden terrified by the angel at the annunciation or the new mother cradling her baby in bliss.
The Magnificat, however, paints a different image of Mary, the mother of God. So do the connections to other blessed among women in the Bible. Hannah, yes, the woman once so overcome with grief in the temple that Eli thought her drunk, holds her son Samuel and sings about laughing at her rivals, praising God for blasting enemies out of the sky and leaving them in a burning heap. Nothing meek or mild or gentle here. But also, Mary is in line with Jael and Judith. They, too, are called blessed among women.
Deborah sings in her song, “Most blessed of women be Jael,the wife of Heber the Kenite,of tent-dwelling women most blessed” (Judges 5:24). And how, you ask, do we know of Jael’s favored status? Well, because she fells Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army, with a tent peg hammered through his temple. Deborah sings, “She struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple.” This most blessed among women offers hospitality to Sisera, waits until he is asleep and the Bible recounts, “took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died.” (Judges 4:21) Mild? Gentle? I don’t think so.
Then we get to Judith. I know, I know, the book of Judith is not in our Protestant canon, but given that the book is included in the Septuagint, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons, let’s give her a look, this most blessed among women. Judith saves her people by tricking the enemy general Holofernes and beheading him with his sword while he lies in a drunken stupor. Here is the account from Judith 13: “She went up to the bedpost near Holofernes’ head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to his bed, took hold of the hair of his head, and said, ‘Give me strength today, O Lord God of Israel!’ Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head. Next she rolled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts. Soon afterward she went out and gave Holofernes’ head to her maid, who placed it in her food bag.” Uzziah, the magistrate of the besieged city says, “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies.” Sound familiar?
Women blessed by God tend toward the bold and audacious, the brave and risk taking. When God calls upon them to participate in the salvation of their people, they do not just acquiesce, they take charge. Hannah, Jael, Judith and Mary, all most blessed among women, through the calling of God are not bound by cultural constraints, nor are they merely passive vessels through whom the Spirit works. Mary’s souls magnifies the Lord as she sings about the coming great reversal where God scatters the proud and brings down the mighty. The world is about to turn and Mary, like Hannah and Jael and Judith before her, helps it pivot.
Nonetheless there are some profound differences between Mary and the most blessed among women who came before her. Mary’s soul which magnifies the Lord will be pierced when Jesus is crucified. Hers is not to be a military victory accompanied by the cheers of her people. She will ponder things in her heart. She’ll witness the murder of her son. Mary alone bears God, ushering in the incarnation that will save not just Israel, but all creation. Mary births the Prince of Peace, not a judge or prophet, earthly king or military leader. Mary exhibits her strength not through tent pegs or swords, but through giving her body to birth and nurture the one who will surrender his body on the cross. She is called blessed for generations not because she entices a military general into trusting her, but because she trusts God wholly.
John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth exclaims to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary knows her blessedness is inextricably bound to the blessedness of the Savior growing in her womb and the goodness of the God who chose her to bear him into the world. Hence, she gives the glory to God and God alone.
So what does any of this have to do with us on this fourth Sunday of Advent? Perhaps we should re-envision Mary and remember that she comes from a long lineage of blessed women who actively participate in the turning of the world, the saving of their people, the ushering in of justice. Perhaps we should remember that even today God is working through women (and men) to bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly. Perhaps we should be open to the possibility that God is calling us to do likewise. Perhaps we should cling to the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to John before his birth and Elizabeth at the sight of Mary, Mother of God, and all of Jesus’ disciples at his ascension. Perhaps we need to know that the One who is coming is the One of peace, who abolishes sacrifices and offerings once and for all, the One who feeds his flock and grants security, who redeems every centimeter of God’s good creation, and burst into songs of praise with Hannah, Deborah and Mary.
- What does it mean for our souls to magnify the Lord?
- Where do you see the world about to turn? Where do you see the need for the world to turn?
- How do you envision Mary? Did she have a choice in bearing Jesus into the world? Was she simply passive and overshadowed? How much agency did she have?
- What role did Elizabeth play in Mary’s life? Why do you think she went to see Elizabeth?
- Read Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Deborah’s song in Judges 5. How are they similar and different from Mary’s song in Luke 1?
- Mary’s song is chock-full of references to the Hebrew Scriptures from Genesis to Malachi. Use a study Bible that includes these and look some of them up. How is Mary’s song connected to those passages in the Old Testament?
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