Jesus' birth exalts the poor
by Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
Advent 4 –– Luke 1:39-45 (and 46-55)
20 December 2009
Our Lady headlines the Gospel this week, replacing John the Baptist who held center stage for two Sundays. Enduring, however, are the comparisons and contrasts between John and Jesus except they are made between their parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary and Joseph. Before Luke 2:1, the beginning of the “Christmas” story, Joseph has but one brief mention (1:27) and does not appear.
When Gabriel announces the birth of John to Zechariah, and Zechariah disbelieves the announcement, he is struck dumb (1:20). When Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus to Mary, she doesn’t disbelieve but asks “how” (1:34). And when she visits Elizabeth, she bursts into the Magnificat, the opposite of having her mouth closed for her.
The Magnificat collects some important Lucan themes, and I would hope that planners of liturgies would take the option of including it. Throughout Luke-Acts, the set piece of a song, a speech, or a sermon specifies and elaborates the meaning of the narrative in which it is placed. Certainly this is true of the Magnificat that elaborates the meaning of the birth of Jesus, just as the Benedictus (1:68-79) elaborates the meaning of the birth of John, Zechariah’s mouth having been opened upon John’s birth, just as Gabriel had said it would be.
Mary begins by magnifying or praising the Lord, rejoicing in God her Savior, for God, by Jesus’ birth, reverses Mary’s own lowliness, exalting her so that “all generations will call [her] blessed” (1:48). Let us not forget that Mary is among the powerless: she is young, female, and poor; she is without husband, child, or father, at least as far as Luke tells us. Yet she has “found favor” (1:30) with God.
Her reversal from lowliness to exaltation will not be hers exclusively. The birth of Jesus brings “mercy…for those who fear [the Lord]” for all time, “from generation to generation” (1:50). Powerless and lowly, Mary thus figures all Israel and not Israel only unless by that is meant also all the faithful people of God for time and eternity.
And with the reversal that God grants her and all faithful people comes a parallel but opposite reversal for the “proud,” the “powerful,” and the “rich” (1:51, 52, and 53). Just as she has been exalted, they will be “scattered,” “brought down,” and “sent away.” And, further, this exaltation of the faithful people of God extends from God’s earlier promise made “to [her] ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (1:55). As arresting and breathtaking as this reversal is, it is continuous with God’s earliest promises and covenants. The fulfillment of these promises is new and old at the same time.
We see in the Magnificat, also, Luke’s consistent understanding of the rich and the poor. The rich figure those who have all that they need already: money, standing, position, and consolation. They do not know their need for God, and so they reject God, God’s messengers, and Son. And, they are brought down. The poor, on the other hand, figure those who do not have what they need: money, standing, position, and consolation. They are like Mary, powerless; and like Mary they find favor with God. They are the crippled, the lame, the deaf, the blind, the shepherds, and the eunuchs. They know their need of God, and that need is quenched in Jesus. The birth of Jesus exalts the poor even as it brings their betters down.