In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to a young girl named Mary, who lives in the small, backwater town of Nazareth. The angel announces the birth of a son, to be named Jesus.
Not surprisingly, Mary is at first fearful and then doubtful. “How can this be,” she says, “since I am a virgin?” In response, the angel offers an obscure answer. “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Then, as if to remind Mary of God’s power, he says, in effect, look at what God has already done. Her cousin, Elizabeth, is already pregnant, says the angel, even though the elderly woman was thought to have been unable to conceive. “For nothing will be impossible with God,” says Gabriel.
Seemingly satisfied with this answer, and overcoming her initial fear and doubt, the young woman assents. “Let it be with me according to your word,” Mary says.
This passage in the Gospel of Luke, called the Annunciation, is one of the most beautiful in the entire New Testament. It is also one of the most mysterious. Like many passages from Scripture it seems to raise as many questions as it answers. For example, did an angel appear to Mary in precisely this way? Perhaps. After all, nothing is impossible with God. (If God could create the universe from nothing, then sending an angel to a young woman and having her conceive miraculously seems relatively easy.) Did her encounter with the transcendent mystery of God happen in another way—say, in a dream? Or was a meeting with an angel the best way that Mary could communicate an incommunicable story?
Who can say? We do not have access to Mary’s inner life. As the esteemed Scripture scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., wrote about this passage, “What really happened? We shall never know.” The story of the Annunciation, beloved as it is, can seem completely removed from our human experience.
The next part of the story, however, is far easier to understand. “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” She is going to visit her cousin Elizabeth. This part of the tale, which I would like to focus on, is called the Visitation.
Why is Mary portrayed as traveling to the hill country? Several reasons suggest themselves. First, Elizabeth is elderly and so will probably need some help in childbirth. It would be natural for a young woman, once she has heard news of her cousin’s pregnancy, to visit her. Perhaps Mary’s parents even encouraged her to visit Elizabeth as part of her familial duties. On the other hand, the last verse of the passage, which says that Mary stayed for only three months, implies that she apparently left at the time of Elizabeth’s greatest need—though perhaps Mary left as her own pregnancy was progressing.
Another possible reason for her journey: Mary may have been frightened. Perhaps terrified by this strange encounter with the divine (in whatever way it occurred), she may have sought out the advice of an older woman. She may have had a close relationship with Elizabeth and felt the need to discuss her situation with her older cousin. Perhaps she even felt closer to Elizabeth than to her parents. Who knows how Mary’s parents responded to her situation? In Jewish law, Joseph, to whom she was betrothed (a formal arrangement somewhere between engagement and marriage), would have been within his rights to divorce her upon hearing of the pregnancy. Likewise, Mary’s parents could be forgiven if they were not thrilled by her news, at least initially. Perhaps Mary’s parents sent her away for her own good, until any scandal died down. Or, the young woman may have feared her parents’ reaction to what she knew would sound outlandish, ridiculous, even blasphemous.
Both concern for Elizabeth and her own fear may have motivated Mary’s “haste” to visit “the hill country” of Judea. You can imagine her journeying to help a relative; or eager to meet someone who might help her make sense of her mysterious encounter and strange predicament; or simply seeking counsel from a wise, older woman.
But there is another possibility: joy. For the first words out of Mary’s mouth when she meets Elizabeth is a jubilant song of praise. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” says Mary, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior....” There are few more beautiful words in the entire Bible. The following verses have often been set to music and are known by the first word of the Latin translation of Mary’s song: Magnificat. Magnificat anima mea....
Mary is happy. The young Galilean woman, like most women then and now when they hear such news, was filled with joy at the prospect of giving birth to a child. And she is filled with joy at greeting Elizabeth, who is also expecting a child. Both of them are joyful at God’s activity.
This is not so far from our own experience—man and woman alike. Think of times when both you and a friend, or you and someone in your family, have received good news at the same time. Is there anything more joyous? Perhaps you have both passed a difficult course in school or gotten into the college of your choice or received a promotion. How exciting it is to celebrate together! You want to be with your friend, to rush right over and share your dual joy. So Mary sets out “with haste.” And on greeting Elizabeth she opens her mouth in praise.
Mary is filled with joy, first, for what God has done for her. “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” she says. “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” Like many of us in times of good news, we feel like we are bursting with joy and want to declare praise to God. If we receive a promotion or fall in love or find out that we are going to become parents or get a good diagnosis from the doctor, we want to sing, with Mary, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” On a literal level as well you might say that she is “filled” with joy: filled with Jesus.
But Mary is not happy simply for herself; she is happy for what this means for Israel, for God’s people. Her song now widens noticeably to include the larger community. God has reversed the fortunes of those who were suffering. God has heard the cries of the poor, those who were hoping for some sort of salvation. “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” she says. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Who isn’t joyful when they finally see things set right?
Mary’s Magnificat is often used by Christians who work with the poor and advocate on their behalf, as a way of pointing to another reality: what the Kingdom of God is like. In the Kingdom of God, one of Jesus’ favorite themes, things are finally made right: the lowly are lifted up, the proud are cast down from their thrones and the rich are sent away empty. In Jesus’ ministry, a similar reversal of fortune happens, one that he himself brings about on earth: the blind see; the lame walk; the deaf hear. God reverses things and upends our usual expectations, so that those who had been on the bottom are on the top. God has fulfilled his promises to his people. So Mary, a poor woman, is joyful.
And Mary praises what God has done. Often the Jewish and Christian Scriptures point to a hopeful future, based on the past. God has done this, and so God will do this in the future. The angel Gabriel says something of the same to Mary. Look what God has already done for Elizabeth. Fear not!
Scripture scholars note that the Magnificat is based largely on Hannah’s prayer in the First Book of Samuel (1 Sm 2:1-10). Mary’s praise hews very closely to Hannah’s, often called “The Song of Hannah.” Hannah, thought to be barren, has given birth to Samuel. “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God,” she says. As in the Magnificat, Hannah goes on to praise God for reversing the fortunes of his people. “[The Lord] raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”
What then are we to make of Mary’s Magnificat? Did Luke place those words in her mouth at that point in his story, to link the story of Jesus to that of Samuel, an Old Testament figure? Perhaps. Some scholars even posit that the story was originally associated with Elizabeth, the older woman in the story, thought to have been barren. But there is also the distinct possibility that Mary (and Elizabeth) knew the song of Hannah. A devout Jewish woman might have known of the story of a strong woman from her religious tradition. So perhaps it was natural for her to make use of familiar images and language in her daily life, as it would be today for someone familiar with Scripture.
Mary is not the only one who is joyful. Elizabeth too seems overwhelmed not only by her own unexpected pregnancy but by this amazing visit. When she first hears the voice of Mary, she exclaims “with a loud cry” the following: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.”
The child leaps for joy! Mothers know of the experience of a child moving—sometimes, mothers say, it feels like jumping—in their womb. What a beautiful image is presented to us in Luke. At the sound of Mary’s voice, something literally stirs within Elizabeth. The child of course is John the Baptist, the “cousin” of Jesus, who will later prepare the way for Jesus.
The baby’s leap is a marvelous response to anyone who thinks that religion is about being gloomy. The Greek word used here is agalliasis, sometimes translated as “exaltation.” As Luke Timothy Johnson translates it in his book on Luke for the Sacra Pagina series, the baby “leaped with gladness.” It is the same word used by Mary a few lines later, when she says that her spirit “rejoices.”
“The context makes clear that by leaping John recognizes his Lord, Jesus,” says Robert J. Karras, O.F.M., in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. “John’s joy is the most appropriate response to God’s fulfillment of promise in Jesus.” Joy is the response to the Good News.
Mary is joyful. Elizabeth is joyful. Even the baby John leaps for joy. Joy virtually leaps off the page in this story of the Visitation and in Mary’s great Magnificat. Other Bible stories will also reveal joy, if we just know where to look for it.
The Visitation and the Magnificat
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said:
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.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.