Background Scripture: Luke 1:46-56. Devotional Reading: Psalms 111.
I probably appreciate the idealized Disney-esque depictions of Advent and the Nativity as much as anyone. But I’m also aware that those depictions are most unlikely representations of the people and settings. Jesus, after all, was born in a feed trough for the animals of the stable. The bright yellow hay was much more likely a dull amber color and Mary was not adorned in a fine pastel robe. The sheep and cattle were not likely perfumed and smelled like – well, like cattle and sheep. Mary and Joseph had arrived in Bethlehem after a difficult, tiring journey from a little Galilean town that was either unknown to most or, if known at all, was likely known in disrepute.
I say this not to diminish the profound importance and wonder of this event, but to indicate that the birth of our Lord in a Bethlehem stable was even more notable because it had none of the showbiz trappings that we today might consider necessary. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over the simple and stark cave room which tradition reveres as the birthplace of Jesus. I remember well my own attitude when I first entered this simple chamber: “This is it?” In time I have come to realize that these modest circumstances and surroundings make the Incarnation even more inspiring, rather than less. A press agent’s touch is not required.
Regrettably, many people miss the amazing change in Mary as, caught up in something that is beyond her understanding, she delivers a message – surely not of her own making – that is as revolutionary today as it was then: “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree” (vs. 51-53). Actually, it is because humble Mary who is speaking, we may hear those revolutionary words and regard them as just so much nice-sounding poetry. Fear not!
The Angel Gabriel informs Mary of what God has in store for her. Understandably, Mary doesn’t see how this message can refer to her, but Gabriel reassures her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (1:30). This is a frequent message in the Bible in both testaments: “Fear not!” I found more than 30 texts with this message, including Gen. 15:1; 2 Sam.13:28; Isaiah 41:10; Mt. 10:31; Mk 5:36; Lk. 12:07; Jn. 12:15; Rev.1:17.).
William Barclay says that the Magnificat proclaims not one, but three revolutions. First, a moral revolution for the Gospel will be the death of pride. Christ enables us to see ourselves without the bogus trappings of what we think is our worth and achievements. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says that in God’s kingdom the “first will be last and the last first”(Mt.19:30).
So, Mary humbly submits to God’s will: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” (1:38). Gabriel makes it clear that this is not something she will achieve by herself, but with the power and will of God: “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 called holy, the Son of God” (1:35). Mary is a rare example of humility. Bernard of Clairvaux held that “It is no great thing to be humble when you are brought low; but to be humble when you are praised is a great and rare achievement.” Such was the humility of Mary, the mother of Jesus. True humility
Some think this is a state in which we realize that we are utterly worthless. But Phillips Brooks said: “The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is.” I’m afraid that at times in my life I have been secretly proud of my humility. An old adage says: “A mountain shames a molehill until they are both humbled by the stars.”
The second revolution In Mary’s Magnificat is a social revolution: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Lk.1:51,52). Jesus was a revolutionary because he proclaimed that the kingdom of God would be quite unlike the kingdoms and power structures of this world. The most powerful in the kingdom of God would be those who served others. The most successful will be those who do the will of God. In other words, Jesus challenged the values of society, indeed, turned them upside-down. All too often our churches have reflected not the values of the kingdom of God, but the society in which we exist. In his epistle, James warns that we cater to the rich and turn away from those who are poor ( Jas. 2:2). Is it not ironic that the particular tendency to which he points is still with us today?
The third is an economic revolution: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away” (Lk. 1:53). In 1923 at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago there was a gathering of the most powerful financial leaders in the world. By 1948, 25 years later, those same leaders’ fate was quite different: Arthur Cutten and Charles Schwab had died abroad penniless; Richard Whitney spent a period of time at Sing Sing; Albert Fall was released from prison so that he might die at home; Jesse Livermore, Ivar Krueger, and Leon Frazer had all committed suicide. Two thousand years after the ministry of Jesus, we still measure success with dollar signs and the poor, the hungry, the destitute are the recipients of hostility from far too many who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. But in the kingdom of Christ it is not to be so.