Fourth Sunday in Advent

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:30-38)

Detail of Fra Angelico, "The Annunciation"
Detail of Mary from Fra Angelico’s painting of the Annunciation (1450) – Creative Commons (Vanderbilt Divinity Library)

Luke’s gospel has always been my favorite, if only because it starts with a statement of historical methodology. I like to imagine him starting his careful investigation by interviewing the first eyewitness and servant of the word: an aging Mary, who has spent her life pondering her role in God’s story.

But I also imagine Luke, like most men, not caring that much about some details that likely meant a great deal to Jesus’ mother. For example, even the doctor-evangelist largely skips over her pregnancy in order to get to birth. We hear nothing of the mix of expectation and fear, hope and doubt, joy and pain that Mary must have felt in the long months leading up to Nativity.

It’s a shame. Imagine how those memories could deepen Christian reflection on Incarnation, from someone who could bear witness to earliest moments of the Word being made flesh. Imagine how her treasuring of those months could have enriched our celebration of Advent, a season of waiting fundamentally oriented around the most basic, most powerful human experience of waiting.

But we do have Mary’s encounter with her pregnant relative Elizabeth, whose own child “leaped in her womb” — even before he was born, John yearned to fulfill his vocation and “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” And Mary responded with one of the most famous songs in Scripture: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:46-48).

They’re words we’ve all heard many times, in many different settings of the Magnificat. But this last day of this Advent, let’s hear that detail of the first Advent a bit differently:

Imagine Mary singing those words not as a maiden early in pregnancy, but as an older woman recounting that moment for Luke: not with the exuberant innocence of youth, but the weathered wisdom of age.

Imagine the lifelong faith of a woman who had somehow overcome her confusion and terror to tell a heavenly messenger, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” but now approaches the end of her life continuing to trust in God’s promise “to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Imagine her singing for the ears of however many would read Luke’s account, teaching us across the centuries that God’s “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”

Imagine her singing those words not in eager expectation of her son’s birth, but in the complicated recollection of his life, death, and resurrection. Does her voice catch in her throat as she sings again of a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly”? Does that image evoke the terrible coronation of a carpenter’s son on Calvary, as a thorn-crowned king was lifted high on a cross? Or what might have been her last glimpse of that same son, raised from death then weeks later “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” — not yet to be seen again?

In the few hours before this shortened last week in Advent turns into Christmas Eve, imagine that we are not just remembering Mary’s wait for Jesus’s birth, but joining her wait for Jesus’ return.