Friday, December 17, 2010


Luke tells us that immediately after Mary was told by the angel that she was to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38), Mary went “in haste” to the home of her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, with the child who would be named John.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting she pronounced a blessing on Mary and her child (Luke 1:39-45).

Mary’s response was the beautiful poem recorded in Luke 1:46-55:
46.  “My soul exalts the Lord,
47.  and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,
48.  because He has looked upon the lowly state of His slave girl.
      For behold, from now on all the generations will consider me fortunate,
49.  because the Mighty One has done great things to me,
      and Holy is His Name,
50.  and His mercy is for generations and generations
      to those who fear Him.
51.  He has done mighty things with His arm;
      He has scattered those who are arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts;
52.  He has torn down sovereigns from their thrones,
      and exalted the lowly;
53.  the hungry He has filled with good things,
      and the rich He has sent away empty;
54.  He has come to the aid of Israel His servant,
      in remembering mercy,
55.  just as He spoke to our fathers,
      to Abraham and to his seed forever!
I’ve been teaching a class on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and haven’t finished the Beatitudes yet.  This past Sunday we discussed the blessings and woes in Luke’s version of the Sermon (Luke 6:20-26).  (See: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, 4.)  Luke records not only “blessings,” but also “woes.”  I pointed out that Luke’s version seems to follow the theme of his Gospel, of a radical reversal of commonly accepted social structures, and that this theme was first taken up in Mary’s song.  There was some discussion, especially as to how these contrasts relate to us.

As I meditated this week on this theme, I felt I needed to get back to what Mary said (or sang) in her beautiful poem.  After all, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that some of what Jesus taught may have been learned at His mother’s knees.

I’m afraid that we who believe in the divine inspiration of the Scripture often forget its human element.  It’s easy to simply assume that these beautiful words and thoughts just sprang spontaneously from the lips of a teenage girl.  Perhaps they did, but that’s not how it usually worked. It is more likely that they are the product of some deep thinking about God and His promises.

The context doesn’t allow for a long period for its composition between the announcement of the angel and Mary’s utterance – just the time of travel from Nazareth to the Judean hill country – a week perhaps?  Possibly Mary was composing, even writing her thoughts as she traveled.

But the poem shows a familiarity with the Scripture – not only with a few verses, but with its great themes.  If Mary composed “in haste,” she must have already had many of these thoughts firmly in her mind.

It’s clear that the poem is patterned after the prayer of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10).  It carries similar themes.  Hannah’s prayer was uttered at a time of great crisis in the nation of Israel.  The Theocracy had degenerated into near anarchy, as a reading of the last five chapters of the Book of Judges demonstrates.  The prayer looked forward to the coming of a king – God’s Messiah or anointed one (2:10).  It exalts the LORD and speaks of great changes that He was bringing to pass, especially His salvation and exaltation of the poor and lowly.  Mary must have seen the parallels between Hannah’s day and her own.  Israel in Mary’s time was occupied by a foreign oppressor and ruled by an evil puppet king.  But Mary was to give birth to a new King – God’s final Messiah (Luke 1:31-33).

But Mary’s song was not a cut and paste version of Hannah’s prayer.  Mary picked up the theme of God’s ancient Covenant promises.  The word translated “mercy” in verses 50 and 54 is the Greek word eleos, the word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament – ca. 200 BC) to translate the Hebrew word HESED, which meant much more than mercy; HESED (translated “lovingkindness” in the NASB) speaks of the LORD’s loving loyalty to His Covenant people.  Verse 50 is a quote from the first line of Psalm 103:17.  The rest of that verse and of verse 18 speak of:
      “His righteousness to children’s children
      of those who keep His Covenant
      and remember His precepts to do them.”

Mary had in mind those Covenant promises that the Lord had made to Abraham and his seed and the eternality of the promises (verses 54, 55; Genesis 12:1-3; 17:7).  The word “remember” (verse 59) is another Covenant word.  When “The children of Israel cried out” in their bondage in Egypt, “their cry rose up to God.  So God heard their groanings and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Exodus 2:23, 24; 6:5).  The reference to the Lord’s “arm” (verse 51) also takes us back to their deliverance from Egypt with a “strong hand” and “an outstretched arm” (Exodus 6:1, 6; Psalm 59:10).

Mary knew that she stood at the beginning of a new era in God’s dealing with His people – a beginning that recalled those other beginnings – the call of and Covenant with Abraham, the deliverance from Egypt, the inauguration of the monarchy.  Perhaps she saw their culmination in the birth of her Child.

And she saw the radical reversal of the social structures of her day when “the arrogant” and “sovereigns” would be brought down, when “the lowly” would be “exalted” and “the hungry” would be “filled with good things” (verses 51-53).

Her Son lived out her song in His life and ministry.  He died to set things right, not only between God and man but between man and man.  He is returning to complete the task and reign as King.  He has left us with His message and His task till He returns.

So at this season of the year, when we celebrate the birth of Mary’s Son who was also the Son of God, why aren’t we who claim to be His followers busy with the task and the message?  Why are we so concerned with maintaining customs and traditions of the holiday – customs and traditions which have little to do with His birth and even less to do with His task?  And why have we narrowed our concern to the title given to the holiday?

For more thoughts on Mary, see: MARY’S PAIN.


Anonymous said...

You have some interesting why questions there. I hope I have it right that they are literal. People are often a complete mystery to me.

I'm not as learned in these things as you, but I do see parallels between fullfillment of the ideals of Jesus' life and the commercial acts of gift-giving at Christmas - and the values of capitalism as a whole. Admittedly, the connection is a little distorted.

I think the sudden gift-giving and unusually generous use of money at Christmas is a symbolic consolation for the things Jesus taught: offering brotherly love; loving our neighbour; giving of oneself to others in service; releasing the ideas we have about what truly has value. Of course,the distortion crept in when we removed the idea that God was to assign these tasks, rather than us choosing the when and how and who. You have to be impressed with the cleverness of commercial Christmas culture, though. It has turned a symbol like the Tree of Life into a cutesy image of snow covered pines decorated with baubles, birds and angels - not an inverted corpse in sight!

To me, the rituals of commercial Christmas are expressed like the early stages of a new faith; the new disciple apes the culture of the church they attend, hoping to fit in, hoping to find what they came for. Later, they develop their own relationship with God. The rituals they once performed mechanically, gain a deeper meaning.

I can understand how unsophisticated and misguided behaviours would offend those already deeply involved with God. Arguing about Xmas, Christmas, or Happy Holidays is a waste of breath on many levels, but to people who feel something similar to patriotism in relation to their religious beliefs, the argument is a demonstration of identity and dedication. Watching a group of religious patriots influence the direction of a church could be a worrying experience. Individuals have the choice to stay and enter politics, or go and lose fellowship, but disciples can't run. The Christian God says he will not abandon them, regardless.

As a deeply flawed non-christian, but as someone who also recognises god, I observe Christmas from a distance. There is no tree in my house and no consumer gifts - even though I enjoy the idea of having an excuse to buy gifts for my wife. In mega-marts I hear the carols about love and peace and goodwill on Christmas day and comment out loud that every other day of the year we're happy to kill, maim and hate each other. As human's, we've lifted the expression of hypocrisy to an art form.

In my opinion, sometimes it's best to ask any question except the one that asks why - especially when it begins to draw lines between peoples. It may be better to act; to do whatever we should do for the season, date or situation.

I've been reading some other articles on your blog. I like the result from your mix of realism and faith. My experience is that you have a rare perspective. It should not surprise you that people respond with 'Yikes' or 'Ouch'. While they say that, people like me are agreeing and appreciate your courage. We're probably not your intended audience, but we're listening.

Best wishes for your efforts in the New Year...

(yet another distorted holiday?)

oh and keep writing with pen and paper for later transcription. It's a different game to tip-tapping on a keyboard and creates a distinctive rhythm.

Bill Ball said...

NP1: Thanks for your comments. I appreciate them. I don't know exactly who my "intended audience" includes, but you are definitely a member of that audience. As a "deeply flawed" christian I recognize a kindred spirit.

Anonymous said...

Very good info. Lucky me I ran across your blog by chance (stumbleupon).
I have bookmarked it for later!