As I write this, my wife is six months pregnant with our third child, about the same age Elizabeth was when her cousin Mary came to visit. It is hard for me to imagine either Nora or I saying to another pregnant woman what Elizabeth in effect said to Mary: "Your baby will be greater than mine."
It is hard to imagine any prospective parent saying such a thing to another parent. True, we may rejoice together. The joy of each couple is enhanced by sharing in the joy of the other. But we would not say anything to imply that our baby has to take a backseat to another baby. Part of our job as parents is to help our child realize his or her intrinsic dignity and to stand as an equal with others.
Perhaps Elizabeth felt the worth of her child even more than others. Having suffered the disgrace of being barren, she is now blessed with a baby in her advanced years. But when she heard Mary's greeting, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and loudly exclaimed, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb" (Luke 1:42).
Mary responds with one of the great hymns of praise of the New Testament: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior." Mary does not boast of being the Mother of God. Rather, she passes Elizabeth's praise on to God. God is the author of this great deed of my pregnancy, she claims.
Then she launches into her song of God's reversals: the powerful will be brought down and the lowly lifted up; the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich will be sent away empty.
Interpreted in worldly terms, this prayer is patently untrue. While he healed or improved the circumstances of many people, Jesus did not bring down the powerful or send the rich away empty. Political domination continued after Jesus and continues today. The rich are getting richer and there are more hungry people than ever.
But God did confound much of the religious expertise of Israel. Widespread was the view that the rich and the healthy are virtuous and that the poor, the sick and the handicapped suffer because of their sins or the sins of their ancestors.
This is a bad news faith. It leads to the poor and the sick being systematically excluded from the life of the community and it provides a rationalization for a lack of compassionate treatment of those people.
To be sure, there was also another, contrary strain of Jewish thought and action. The prophet Zephaniah, for example, talks of "a people humble and lowly" who are "the remnant of Israel" keeping alive the nation's hope for liberation. The prophets constantly remind the people that true religion is to feed the hungry and let the oppressed go free. Love, not wealth, ought to be our goal.
It is this strain of Jewish life that Mary sees fulfilled by her pregnancy. For she is one of God's little ones, the anawim. It is these people with no resources of their own who are utterly dependent on God for their liberation. They put themselves at God's feet because they know they cannot stand on their own.
Yet God enables them to stand. By putting her whole trust in God, Mary's "soul" has magnified the Lord; it has made God's presence more evident in the world. It is the trusting faith of the poor in spirit which reveals God. Mary is "highly favored" because she accepts her total nothingness before God and thus most clearly makes God's presence evident.
Here is a most astounding thing. The weak are raised up. They are raised up precisely insofar as they see and admit their weakness. They are the chosen ones because they depend on God.
It is we who are caught in the futile quest for worldly wealth who live in spiritual poverty. It is we who seek to dominate others, rather than surrender to God, who are in trouble. We are living on a treadmill, constantly active, but going nowhere.
Mary shows us how to get moving in a meaningful direction. Let God lead us. Allow God to be magnified through our souls by refusing to magnify ourselves. Act as children, not as slaves.
The great Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez wrote that "The canticle of Mary combines a trusting self-surrender to God with a will to commitment and close association with God's favorites: the lowly, the hungry" (We Drink From Our Own Wells, p. 127).
Elizabeth caught that spirit when she came within earshot of Mary. Two great women, two humble women, each showing us how to pray. One bearing a child who would diminish so that the child of the second would increase; the second making herself as nothing so that God could be everything. Each living a prayer of selflessness.
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