Continuing to think about the stories we retell during Advent and Christmas, this week focussing on Mary’s ‘Magnificat’. What does it mean for Mary to thank God for remembering His promise to Abraham and his descendants? What does Abraham have to do with Jesus’s birth? Well, let’s consider the story of Abram.
Reflections on Genesis 12-17 and Luke 1:46-55
The Story of Abram
Abram means ‘exalted ancestor’. This nobody was somebody. He had a wife, extended family, possessions and servants to carry all his possessions. Yes, Abram lived in tents, but he was not poor. He was a traveller. Following God’s lead.
God said, “Go from your country and your father’s house. I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1-2). And Abram did.
The journey wasn’t easy. There was a famine. Then that split with his cousin Lot. The land wasn’t big enough for the two of them – at least not for all their sheep.
God promised to make Abram’s offspring “like the dust of the earth” (Genesis 13:16). Have you ever tried to count dust? Remember Genesis 2? God can do great things with dust.
Then God showed Abram the stars.
Remember, God created the stars so that there would always be a way to tell the difference between light and dark, even at night.
The stars are always there, but you cannot always see them. Sometimes the clouds are so thick, the sky just looks dark, with no light except for maybe a hazy outline of the moon. But just because you cannot see the stars, doesn’t mean that they are not there. Even in the day, when the sun burns brightly, the stars are there in the background.
God showed Abram the stars. Abram was arguing with God (Genesis 15:2-3). Explaining to God that he was never going to be this great nation if he didn’t have a son. And he had no son. ‘God, how can I ever be a great nation? This is impossible!’
God said, “Look toward heaven. Count the stars. Can you? There’s a lot of stars, aren’t there? So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5).
Abram believed God. He believed God’s vision of Abram’s descendants.
Abram just could not see how this would be.
Although Abram could see the stars, he couldn’t see God’s plans.
Abram and his wife took matters into their own hands, tried to make God’s vision happen. Hagar and her son by Abram suffered as a result.
For Abram, the stars weren’t enough of a reminder.
So God visited Abram again. “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1). Abram was given the opportunity to be like a-dam in the beginning. A fresh start. That close relationship with God.
Then God changed his name. His name would no longer be ‘exalted ancestor’, but now he would be Abraham, ‘ancestor of a multitude’. Every time someone spoke to him, every time someone called him in for tea, he would be reminded of God’s promise. “I will make you exceedingly fruitful”, God said. “I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:6-7).
We say ‘seeing is believing’. But the story of Abram is the challenge to believe without seeing. To see the promise and to trust the one who made the promise. To hold onto that promise in challenging times. To know that when God makes a promise, God will do it. You need do nothing, except to be faithful to what God tells you to do.
In the Magnificat, especially Luke 1:55, Mary speaks of God’s promise to Abraham and to his descendants – which would include her family and descendants. Her child was evidence that God was still working, still faithful, still merciful. Although people could not yet see how Mary’s child would make a difference, they believed God.
Star Spotting with Mary
*Warning – I’m off-roading a bit here. Luke 1:46-55 is a song of praise that the Bible tells us Mary sings whilst she was visiting Elizabeth shortly after hearing from an angel that she will have the baby Jesus. This year though I saw something in the song that I haven’t seen before.
They say Mary was a teenager when she had Jesus. Luke doesn’t actually give us an indication of her age. We get the teenager idea from two places: church tradition and the fact she wasn’t yet married. Normal age of marriage for women at that time was sometime between 12-16 years old. She may have very well been an unmarried teenage mum.
This song though that we find in Luke 1:46-55– this magnificat – though I’m not so certain was written by a teenaged Mary. Let me explain.
Have you ever been around a teenager? Or do you remember being a teenager yourself? Teenagers are not known for responding well to BIG sudden change. There are hormones going on, it’s a period of self-discovery, new freedoms and responsibilities – a lot of change.
When I was a teenager, I had strong ideas of what the world was like, what the world should be like, and my role in it. If anything came along to try and knock me off my perceived course, my immediate response wasn’t usually: “Thanks Mom and Dad. Thank for completely changing my plans without consulting me. I see your wisdom and the overall big picture. Thank you.”
My response was usually: “That’s not fair!” Stomp stomp stomp. Slam!
But maybe that is an American thing? I’ve noticed teens in the UK tend to roll their eyes and groan, before ‘what’s apping’ their world to say how unreasonable the adults in their lives are being. Angry emoji face!
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying teenagers are unreasonable or that they can’t be reasoned with. I am saying that teenagers just by being teenagers usually haven’t developed a sense of the overall picture or that ‘long look’ at life. That ability to look back and say, “That’s why that happened at that time.” Not for any fault of their own, but simply because they haven’t experienced it yet.
The Magnificat in contrast is a long look. It is an overall picture. It speaks of a Mary that has looked back at her life and seen exactly what God was doing at that point in her life. It’s the song of a Mary who sees the bigger picture and can see how what God is doing in her life fits in with what God has been doing in the life of her people. This response of Mary speak to me of the response of a much older woman – maybe in her 60’s? Who has looked back on her life, remembered this point in her life – when everything changed suddenly – and can see the significance in it. She can see why God did it the way God did, and is just marvelling in it, completely amazed at God.
The Magnificat speaks to me of a lifelong reflection of this life changing moment – Mary’s personal reflection, but also the reflection of the Jesus following community. Remember her story was written down in Luke’s gospel a few years after Jesus died. Jesus died 33 years after this moment in Mary’s life. As she looked back and made sense of it with others in her faith community, they will have helped her to see things.
“He came to YOU, Mary. Little unknown you.”
“Just like when Jesus went to Bethsaida. Remember that? He healed that fella what couldn’t get up to get to the waters? Remember?”
“Or that woman at the well. Wasn’t she a Samaritan?”
“God does that, doesn’t He Mary? Doesn’t God just love reaching out to unknown nobodies and reminding them that to Him they are somebody?”
“It’s like Abraham’s stars all over again.”
When I read the Magnificat, I see an older Mary looking back at her life. She had had a plan for her life. And it was going to be normal. But God changed that by giving her a son, His son Jesus. Things were weird at first. Angels, stables, shepherds, wise men. And then they had to flee to Egypt. But then they came back home, and for awhile, things were pretty normal. I mean sure there was that time when Jesus ran off in the temple and she could have nearly strangled him when they found him again, but apart from that…
Mary watched Jesus grow up. She had the privilege of being ‘mum’. Of watching Jesus learn to walk, to speak. Watching him learn how to express his feelings. Hearing him learn to read and memorise Torah. She shared the faith stories with him – Abraham, Noah, Passover, the Maccabees. She prepared the food at the festivals they shared, where as a family they remembered God’s goodness and faithfulness to them. She watched as Jesus followed Joseph around the carpenter shop, learning everything he could about making all kinds of things. (I wonder if they had made any of the boats that Peter and Andrew had used for fishing?)
For Mary, things would have seemed pretty normal, until that day in the synagogue when the people turned on Jesus. I mean sure Jesus was baptised. A lot of people had been going out to his cousin John the Baptist. She would have heard about it. But I think from a Mum’s perspective – that day in the synagogue when the people turned on Jesus – that would have sent her Mum alarm bells ringing. He was an adult though. She had to trust. At this point, she had to hold tight to the promises God had made when Jesus was placed in her belly. This was the point, I believe, that she had to get that overall big picture. That sense of God’s long game plan.
What God was doing included her, but it was so much bigger than her.
She watched Jesus do some amazing things. She heard him teach Torah with not just authority but with a sense of God’s character – God’s compassion and righteousness and justice that the prophets spoke of. She knew God was with Him, not just because of the miracles, but because of the person He was becoming, the life that He was living, the compassion He showed. He didn’t seek to please the powerful as most do. He sought to care for those who had no power to give him in return – the outcasts, the widows, the poor, the lepers, the Samaritans, the nobodies from Galilee.
She watched as the people responded at first with excitement of what God might be about to do for them.
But then she saw the powerful constantly challenge her son. She heard the nasty comments, the insinuations, the rumours, the charges of blasphemy! They accused him of breaking Torah. They accused him of not loving God, of trying to convince people He was God. And when they couldn’t get that gossip to stick, they accused him of trying to be the Roman Emperor. But they couldn’t get that to stick either. Rome wouldn’t buy it.
Ultimately, it came down to the people. To public opinion. The people decided Jesus’ fate. Was Mary in the crowds? Had she seen the vote? Had she heard the crowds that had once followed him with eager anticipation turn on him so quickly and violently, calling out “Crucify Jesus!”
Did she watched her son carry his cross beam? Was she in the crowd that followed Jesus, the crowd that spit on him and shouted insults at him as he made his way to the place called the Skull? Did she see the nails being driven into his hands and feet? And watch as the Roman soldiers lifted the cross up, slamming the cross into position, ensuring it was going nowhere?
The gospel writers tell us that she was there. That even on the cross, Jesus looked after his mum. “Woman, here is your son. Mate, here is your mother.” I think this was the point she knew that her son wasn’t coming down off that cross. The love and the pain of these words must have pierced her heart, as sure as the staff had pierced her son’s side.
The three long days that followed seemed like a hopeless future, like Jesse’s tree trunk. All the hope, all the promises seemed to disappear into a thick fog somewhere.
But then things changed suddenly again. Jesus was alive! He appeared to his friends. And everything changed. A new perspective, a new understanding on everything he had taught them began to emerge. His followers could see what God had been doing. Things started to click. This was a struggle yes, but there was no obstacle, not even death, that God couldn’t overcome!
And when Mary looked back on everything, in that moment of reflection – yes, what God was doing was so much bigger than her, but God had included her! Her of all people! And not just her but a whole bunch of so-called nobodies.
I would like to invite you to imagine something with me. Something that is not in the Bible. Think for a moment of a much older Mary – maybe in her 60s. She has seen all these things and pondered them in her heart. Imagine her sat with the next group of eager new disciples at her feet listening to her story, letting her be the rabbi to them. Maybe one of the new disciples asks, “Mary, what was it like being Jesus’ mum?”
Maybe the disciple charged with looking after Mary like she were his own mum is sat over in the corner, with a knowing smile? Maybe he has heard this before and enjoys hearing Mary say it?
In an instant, Mary remembers everything. She has pondered her life’s events many times. And then she leans forward on her staff and says to these eager new disciples these words found in the gospel of Luke:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
(Luke 1:46b-55 NIV)
And as she looks at these young disciples, does Mary wonder if they will ever fully understand her story the way she does? As she looks each new disciple in the eye, I wonder, did Mary see Abraham’s stars?
If we were to look back on our lives and our faith journeys, what would our Magnificat look and sound like?
Can we see God’s promises taking place not just in our lives but in the life of the community around us? When we look into the eyes of another, do we see Abraham’s stars?