May 31, 2016 Tuesday: Feast of Visitation
The Humility of Mary (Luke 1:39–55)
How do you feel when you have a lot on your plate? I know when I have much to do, I can be tempted to close in on myself—focusing on my projects, my problems, my concerns—and not be as attentive to those around me. But Mary was not like that.
The passage from Luke’s Gospel—a scene known as the Visitation—reveals that in spite of all that has been entrusted to her, Mary does not turn in on herself. She remains focused on God and on other people. After hearing the angel’s message, Mary goes “in haste” to the hill country of Judea to bring joy to her kinswoman Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist and to share with her all that God is accomplishing in Israel and in her own life. The one who received the angel’s message of the Messiah’s coming now becomes the first human messenger of the Good News.
Why the Hurry?
Luke informs us that Mary makes this journey “in haste,” meta spoudēs . It is worth noting that the particular phrase “in haste” also can be translated as “with thoughtfulness” or “with eagerness,” ‡ which may get more to the heart of the matter. In this perspective, Mary’s going in haste points to her joy and wonder over what God is accomplishing in Israel and in her own life by sending the Messiah-King. And this is a divine plan in which she and Elizabeth are now intimately bound through their experience of miraculous motherhood and the children they bear. Mary, thus, enthusiastically sets off to see the sign that Gabriel has given her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary believes the angel’s message and goes urgently to witness firsthand the great things God is doing in Elizabeth’s life. As one theologian explained, Mary’s haste “sprang from the joy of her vocation and from the hope that welled up in her. Mary, joyful, hopeful and ready, went in search of the signs from God.”
“The Mother of My Lord”
Elizabeth addresses Mary as “the Mother of my Lord.” In doing so Elizabeth hails Mary as the mother of the King. In the Old Testament “my Lord” was a court expression used to honor the king (see 2 Sam. 24:21; Ps. 110:1). Thus, Elizabeth is referring to Mary as the mother of the King. For Mary, Elizabeth’s words are a confirmation of what the angel told her in Nazareth. She is the mother of the Davidic king. But Elizabeth’s words also confer quite a significant honor on Mary herself, for in the biblical world, as mother of the King, Mary would have been understood to be the queen in her son’s kingdom. In ancient Israel the queenship in the Davidic kingdom was bestowed not on the king’s wife but on the king’s mother (see Jer. 13:18, 20; 1 Kings 15:13; 2 Kings 24:15; cf. 1 Kings 2:19–20). Most kings had large harems with many wives, but each king had only one mother, and the queenship was given to her. Therefore, when Elizabeth calls Mary “Mother of my Lord,” she is honoring Mary as the mother of the King, the queen mother. This background can shed some biblical light on Mary’s intercessory role today, for the queen mother in ancient Israel served as an advocate for the people. Members of the kingdom would bring petitions to the queen mother and she would present those requests to the king (see 1 Kings 2:13–20). If Mary is the mother of King Jesus, the queen mother in Christ’s kingdom, then it would make sense that she serves as an advocate for the citizens of the kingdom, bringing our petitions to her royal Son.
A Soul that Magnifies God
It’s hard to imagine Mary receiving any greater words of praise. She is blessed among women because of the child she carries, the blessed fruit of her womb. She also is “the mother of my Lord.” Most of all, she is blessed for her belief. How does Mary respond to all these accolades? With humility. She turns all the attention back to God, recognizing him as the true source of all these blessings in her life. She says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46–47).
Here we turn to the climactic part of the Visitation scene, where Mary’s hymn-like response to Elizabeth’s praise sheds additional light on Mary’s interior life. The verses of Luke 1:46–55 are commonly known as the Magnificat, a title taken from the Latin translation of Mary’s first words in these verses: Magnificat anima mea Dominum (My soul magnifies the Lord). The word magnify , in Greek megalunein , means “to make great, to extol or praise.” When Mary says that her soul magnifies the Lord, she is expressing how in the very depths of her being, she desires to praise God, to make God great.
Do you desire to praise God, to make God great, in your soul? If so, Mary exemplifies how to do that in the Magnificat. The first half of her song reveals that Mary’s soul magnifies God because of her humility.
And Mary said , “My soul magnifies the Lord , and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden . For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me , and holy is his name . And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation . (Luke 1:46–50)
Mary deeply understands that all these blessings in her life are not her own doing. She did not become “full of grace,” the mother of the Messiah, and “blessed among women” through her own effort or because of some innate spiritual talent. Mary recognizes her lowliness, and her song underscores that all she has comes from God’s grace. Mary understands how small she really is. She knows that on her own she is nothing, and that she is completely dependent on the Lord. Mary thus exhibits Christ’s teaching that the humble will be exalted. Only when we are convinced, like Mary was, of how little we can really do on our own and how utterly dependent we are on God can the Lord begin to act in magnificent ways in us and through us.
Walking with Mary : a Biblical journey from Nazareth to the cross