Luke 1:39-56 – Mary’s Song of Hope
Mary proclaims what God has done in the past because she understands that what is happening in her now is a continuation of God’s faithful saving acts toward his people. It gives her hope for the future.
Through this lessons students should:
Understand that Mary’s song is a testimony concerning God’s past faithfulness
Understand that remembering God’s past saving actions gives us hope for the future
Be encouraged to constantly remember God’s saving acts in hopeful anticipation of Jesus’ final coming
Catch up on the story:
In the very early stages of this narrative, Luke has been weaving together two separate yet connected story lines. The first story line is that of the elderly couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah. They are from the priestly line of Aaron and yet are unable to bear children. Zechariah, while working in the Temple one day, gets a visit from an angel proclaiming that the couple will soon give birth to a son. The son’s name will be John and he will be no ordinary person. He will be the one who will prepare the way for the Messiah. Zechariah fails to believe and so loses his ability to speak until the baby is born.
The second story line is that of Mary, a young woman who is engaged to be married to a man named Joseph. Mary, who is a virgin, is also visited by an angel telling her that she will become pregnant, too. Only, this pregnancy will not come about by the normal way, but will be a blessing from God. Again, the boy she will bear, Jesus, will be no normal son; he will be called “Son of the Most High” and will sit on the throne of his ancestor David (1:32-33). Mary receives the news with more faith than Zechariah does, yielding herself as a servant of God.
Of course, Mary and Elizabeth are related and the angel informs Mary that Elizabeth is pregnant as well. These two initially separate story lines are now about to come together.
The Journey and Greeting: 1:39-45
It is not long after Mary receives the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that she sets out to visit her. In those days, young women did not travel once they had been engaged to be married. Normally, an engaged woman would remain secluded in her home until she entered the bridal chamber. She certainly would not have left unaccompanied on what was possibly a seventy-mile trip (Green, 94-95). We are given no specific reason for Mary’s trip. The angel did not command her to go. Nevertheless, her journey to visit Elizabeth fits with Luke’s general journey motif. Narratively, it also helps the reader get a clearer idea of how these two story lines intersect and who the true hero of the story is. Or, perhaps her hasty visit was an attempt to flee some of the shame that came with being a young unmarried woman who was with child.
Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth and offers a greeting. Upon hearing Mary’s greeting the child that Elizabeth carries in her womb begins to leap for joy and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. We can assume that what fills Elizabeth now fills John, too. The Spirit’s filling of Elizabeth and John enables them (and us now as witness to this event) to discern the significance of Mary and the child she carries. As we will hear in Elizabeth’s speech, there is no doubt about the hope that is about to be fulfilled.
Elizabeth’s Spirit-guided discernment also turns social custom on its head. In her world, those of lesser standing, because of age and the like, travel to and visit those of greater standing. The initial greeting is offered by the lesser person, too. For her part, Mary acts accordingly, which causes Elizabeth to wonder why she has done so. Elizabeth questions why such a good thing, that the mother of her Lord would come to visit her, has happened to her. Elizabeth recognizes that due to God’s graciousness toward Mary, Mary is the one who is now the greater person in the relationship. As a general rule, Luke’s gospel will constantly turn social norms and customs upside down. This instance is but one of many.
Elizabeth also offers Mary a blessing. The word used here, “blessed,” is the same word that Jesus will use in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a word that is “spoken over those who are judged to possess what is necessary for a joyful life and especially over those who are the recipients of God’s gift of redemption” (Green, 96). Mary has truly been blessed by God as she carries this child who will be the savior of the world.
Mary’s Song: 1:46-56
In response to Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary sings a song that takes the form of a declarative psalm of praise (like Psalms 8, 33, 47,100, 135 and 136). Mary’s song uses bits of psalms, hymns and scripture that she would have been familiar with since young childhood. The song itself functions a bit like the songs in a Broadway or Disney musical. Songs in those types of productions do not usually advance the narrative, but they do help the viewer understand what has already transpired and, perhaps, offer a bit of foreshadowing. Thus, Mary’s song does not advance Luke’s narrative, but helps us understand the significance of the events that have already taken place.
Mary’s song begins with Mary stating that, on the deepest levels, in her “soul” and “spirit” she is filled with joy. Throughout the Old Testament, the idea of joy is bound together with God’s future saving events. As we have already seen with John’s prenatal leap of joy, the expectation is that God is about to act in a decisive and positive way for his people.
As is normal with psalms of praise, there is the declaration of praise and then the reason is given for the praise. Mary’s reason for being filled with joy is that God has looked on her (and her people) favorably in the midst of their “lowliness.” Lowliness in this context has to do with Israel’s position as an oppressed country at the hands of the Romans. Luke also uses the term in significant connection with “the poor” in both his gospel and in Acts (Green, 103). What is clear is that Mary sees her self and her people as being oppressed, poor and in need of God’s saving hand. Now, she believes, God’s hand is going to act in a mighty way to reverse the situation.
Beginning in verse 48 Luke begins to use a series of verbs (looked, done great things, shown strength, scattered, brought down, filled the hungry, sent away, lifted up) that in Greek are in the aorist tense, or a past tense that is undefined. In some places this means the result of the action of the verb has continuing consequences into the future. In the context of Mary’s song and Luke’s gospel, this string of verbs ties together a testimony about God’s faithfulness with the events that are now taking place. Additionally, these verbs link what has transpired in the past to the hope for what God will do in the future. The subject for each of these verbs is God. God is the one doing the action.
Mary is proclaiming God’s faithfulness in the past. Great things have been done. He has shown mercy for those who wish to follow him. God has shown the strength of his arm, he has brought down the powerful and lifted up those who have no power. He has kicked the rich out while filling the poor with food. All of this God has done because of the promises he has made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses, to David and to those who returned from the Exile. All of this God has done because of his faithfulness.
It would be easy to read Mary’s song as a complete reversal of fortunes where the rich become poor and the poor become rich. “This is not to obliterate the powerful so that the lowly can achieve the positions of honor and privilege to which they previously had no access. Rather, God is at work in individual lives (like Mary) and in the social order as a whole in order to subvert the very structure of society that supports and perpetuates such distinctions” (Green, 105).
Taken as a whole, Mary celebrates God’s work in the past and identifies that what is taking place in her and Elizabeth’s wombs is a continuation of those mighty acts. Salvation, which God brought in the past, is now present in Jesus.
Advent should be for us a powerful time. It should be powerful for us because we are reminded of all of the ways in which God has acted on our behalf in the past and the effects that those acts have on our present and our future. The song that Mary sings, she sings because she remembers all that God has done, in covenant loyalty, for her and her people. Her remembering helps her make light of what God is doing through her now. Mary’s story is our story. We are children of Abraham. We are children of the covenant and God’s faithfulness to it. God has shown mercy to us from generation to generation. Mary’s song is our song too.
Our celebration of the birth of Jesus is just a few short days away. It is a celebration that rejoices in what God has done through the past work of Jesus. At the same time, however, it is a celebration that rejoices in the present work that Jesus is doing in our hearts, lives, and community here and now. When we, as individuals and as a community of faith, focus on the past and present saving works of God our eyes are cleared to see the possibilities for the future saving works of God. It sets aside the fear that we might have for the way our world is going and places in our line of sight a bright picture of what is to come, the Kingdom of God in its fullness. And what is to come rests securely in the arms of the one who is coming again, Jesus Christ.
Advent is a powerful time for us because in remembering the past our fears are casts aside and replaced with hope, and as the Apostle Paul reminds us, hope that is from God does not disappoint us.
Critical Discussion Questions:
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
God is continuing his plan of salvation for his covenant people. What God has done in the past, bringing about salvation for those who are faithful, God will do in the present and the future.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
For both Elizabeth and Mary, their salvation and subsequent holiness is tied to their constant remembrance of the faithful acts of God on behalf of their people. This allowed them to live in hope and the hope allowed them to be faithful and obedient servants of God.
So often we forget what God has done in the past and our vision gets clouded by fear. The fear steals our hope and faithfulness to God and keeps us from being obedient and hopeful about the future.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
We should be a people who constantly retell the story of God’s faithfulness in the past, both through the biblical narrative and through the stories of our own lives. God has been and continues to be faithful to us. The phrase, “remember when God did this…” should always be on our lips. It leads us to have hope and believe that what God has done in the past God will do again.
Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Mary sets out on a perilous three-day, seventy-mile journey to visit her relative Elizabeth. Why would she do this?
Why does the yet to be born John leap for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary arrives? What does this say about who John will be in relationship to Jesus?
Elizabeth offers a blessing to Mary and wonders aloud why it would be that someone so important would come to visit her. Why would Elizabeth wonder why Mary would come visit her?
Mary’s song begins declaring that her soul and spirit are filled with joy. The rest of the song outlines why she is filled with joy. Make a list of all of the things that she describes in the song that God has done. What portion of those things are done for Mary and what portion of those things were done for God’s people?
Why would one who is miraculously pregnant with the “Son of the Most High” recount all these things that God has done in the past? What connection is there between what God is doing through Mary and what God has done in the past as related in the song?
In Advent we not only celebrate Jesus’ birth but we expectantly wait for Jesus’ coming again. How does remembering what God has done in the past (like Jesus’ birth) help us view and understand current events in our life and give us hope for future events?
As a group, try and compose a poem or song which outlines all that God has done for you in the past. Keep it as a reminder that as God has worked in the past, God will work in the future.
Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, Sixth Impression edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997).