39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." 46 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Where Less Is More
The way into this lection lies in the opening sentence of Mary’s song, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” My A Theological Word Book of the Bible tells me that no way, no how can anyone of us creatures, even the mother of Jesus, add to the magnificence of God. So the magnifying must have something to do with Mary’s situation vastly enhancing our perception of God.
But contrary to the reflexive thought of most church-going Christians, the virginity of the birth of Jesus doesn’t figure much in the magnifying. Parthenogenesis may seem like a big deal (or, to a few of my friends, a bit of pious nonsense); but, as another friend reminded me, more than a few children nowadays are conceived without the usual biological procedures, thanks to the genius of modern obstetrics.
No, Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord not by her virginity, not by her piety, not by her beauty, not by her faithfulness, though all these excellences may fairly be attributed to her. It is her status in this world, as of little account, like almost all of us. It is the meanness of her situation which is the foil to God’s generosity. It is her ordinariness that accentuates God’s extraordinariness. It is her worldly humility that beautifully frames God’s own humility in laying aside heavenly grandeur for love of us.
Just think: heaven in a stable… God in our arms… eternity in a moment in time. The juxtapositions demand our attention. They tell us where on earth to look for God, not up but down. That’s God’s primary direction in Jesus. Down into the midst of life, where we toil and rest and laugh and sing and exchange the day’s greetings; where young lovers hold hands and old lovers know with a glance what the other is thinking; where chocolate chip cookies are eaten and the sweetness of life is shared, cookies and money, with neighbors next door and across the hungry world; where the stranger is welcomed and his story heard until he is no longer a stranger but a friend; where the tough circumstances which find everyone of us, no one excepted, are met and countered and accepted and overcome with courage and faith and more than a little help from our friends; the long and sometimes tedious stretches of days with which our lives are mostly made. There in the middle of life, life as we know it and live it, the ordinariness of it all, there is where heaven touches earth. In our humanity, our often broken, sometimes absurd, sometimes delighting, but always our, humanity: that is where God comes in. And it’s Bethlehem revisited. Every time.
Mary magnifies the God of who finds us where we are.
But watch out, Mary’s Magnificat, seems to declare. Be ready for surprises. God is a god of upheaval and reversal. The proud will get put down; thrones will be toppled; the wealthy will go begging. But the hungry will be fed and the humble will be exalted. Mary’s son gives a reprise on this theme in his mature years. You will remember, assuming you are familiar with his teachings: the meek will inherit the earth; the first will be last and the last first; the greatest of all is the servant of all. Nor can we forget he lived what he preached, making a despised instrument of execution God’s throne.
Imagine, for one of the the grandest surprises of all from the God of many surprises, that a baby, wrapped in shreds from his mother’s undergarments and cradled in her arms, “Holy child so tender and mild,” holds the promise of peace, peace which Caesar’s armies will never purchase with swords and cannons.
A friend captioned his family’s Christmas letter with a quote from Paul Tillich (professor at Union Theological Seminary during our years there): “One of Luther’s most profound insights was that God made Himself small for us in Christ. In doing so, He left us our freedom and our humanity.”
Those gifts, freedom and humanity, are what wise men and women of every generation take away from the manger.