Looking East from Hilltop Farm towards Gladstone South Australia

Hill Country Happiness

Week of Sunday 20 December: Advent 4
Gospel: Luke 1:39-45

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

The tiny, densely packed story of Mary going to visit Elizabeth rewards slow reading and meditation.

Mary does not simply go to Elizabeth’s house, she hastens... to a Judean town... in the hill country. There is urgency, and John’s pedigree is reinforced by his origins: he comes from a Judean town in the heartland-hill country of the nation.

Before birth John and Jesus are already related, by blood and by calling.

Already John’s coming as the forerunner, but subordinate of Jesus is being subtly reinforced. His birth is foretold first, but by a nameless angel; the chief angel Gabriel visits Mary. He is to be born to Elizabeth, an elderly barren woman. Even more remarkable, Jesus is to be born to a virgin. The mother of John blesses and affirms the mother of Jesus, her social inferior, and Jesus himself. John leaps in the womb in recognition of and deference to Jesus.

Petty neatly observes that

As an older woman and the wife of a priest, Elizabeth has a higher social rank than Mary, an unmarried teenager.  Yet, Elizabeth, crying out loudly, exalts Mary, affirms her role as mother, and proclaims Mary's child to be "my Lord" (1:43).  Status reversal will mark the ministry of Jesus.  It is anticipated here.

Mary stays for the birth of John. As her son will serve others, she also serves those who are her inferior in the old social order which is coming to an end.

The anticipation of what will come permeates every part of the story. NRSV translates that Mary set out to the hill country. In the Greek she arose, which is anastasa, a word of resurrection.

Mary and Elizabeth’s story is an amazing blend of the domestic and the cosmic, subverting our expectations. Two women, subordinate and inferior in their society, as most women still are, are at centre stage. In this unlikely pair, the central event in our humanity is growing.  Yet it happens in an ordinary house, which could be ours! The ordinary is not profane; it holds the sacred. Salvation happens at home.

Salvation does not stay at home. Although there is something very comforting in the companionship of the two women, the story is not allowed to become romantic. It includes The Magnificat. Mary’s going home does not happen until after the Magnificat is sung. (verse 57)

The Magnificat rejoices in the blessing Mary’s receives, which we might expect. But it takes the ‘little’ status reversal seen in the roles of the two women and shows us the wider intent:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

No Israelite could hear the story of Elizabeth without remembering the story of Samuel, (1 Samuel 1-2) but it is Mary who echoes Hannah’s song, not Elizabeth. Jesus is the new and greater Samuel. The greater Samuel is not about private piety which retreats to the house. His intention  and calling goes into the whole world, to the root of the way our nations and cultures are constructed.

One of my colleagues does a kind of ‘clergy spot’ on the radio. Chatting about an upcoming slot, the program host asked him what Christmas is about. Speaking with Luke in mind he said, “It’s a politically subversive story, aimed at turning life and society up side down.”

He said she was surprised!

When my first child was born, I wanted to carry her everywhere. Even when she was sleeping, I would take her from the cot and carry her around the house. It is deeply appropriate to feel the primal joy and sentiment of birth when we tell the nativity story on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It is where we begin. Salvation begins at home.

Even the sheep and oxen which wander in from outside the text, reflect something of the promise of Isaiah 11:6-9, and the significance of God's salving of all creation.

We must remember salvation is not ours alone. It is the salving of the whole world. It is not sentimental. We need the surprise of the Magnificat. We need the change and salvation it promises. We are called out of the house.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Would you like to comment?
I have turned off the feedback module due to constant spamming. However, if you would like to comment, or discuss a post, you are welcome to email me using the link at the bottom of this page, and I may include your comments at the bottom of this article.

Copyright ^Top