Updated: Apr 7, 2019
Lesson: Luke 1:39-56
I’ve been in several conversations this year about favorite Christmas movies. What movies would you put on your “It isn’t really Christmas unless we watched it” list? You can find any number of articles listing the ten or twelve or twenty best Christmas movies of all time, and the winners on these lists range from the predictable “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas” to the surprising “Die Hard” and “Bad Santa.” Well, there’s no accounting for taste. If it never even occurred to you to rank Christmas movies, there are lists of Christmas movies for people who hate Christmas movies. You can even find short lists of Christmas movies that pass the Bechdel test.
What, you might be asking, is the Bechdel test? In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel published a strip titled, “The Rule” in which one woman explains to another that she’ll only watch a film if it meets three requirements:
· It has to have at least two named women in it.
· They have to speak to each other.
· The topic of the conversation has to be about anything other than men.
That’s the Bechdel test. Some people say the conversation has to be more than fleeting – 60 seconds at least. If a film passes the test, it doesn’t mean it’s a good movie; it’s just a guide to measure the role of women in films. Only about half the movies ever made, Christmas or any other kind of movie, pass the Bechdel test, and as you might imagine, older movies are less likely to pass than newer ones. So it probably comes as no surprise that our 2,000-plus-year-old Bible has very few scenes that pass the Bechdel test. But today’s passage in Luke does.
Luke Chapter 1 tells the story of two women who are pregnant, but shouldn’t be. There are men in their lives, but they’re silent in this story. Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, was struck dumb because he doubted the messenger who told him his wife is pregnant. Joseph is only named as Mary’s betrothed, and then he disappears until the next chapter. The Bechdel test came into being because throughout most of history and literature women are seen only through the eyes of men and as an accessory to men. So just imagine how subversive, how unexpected Mary and Elizabeth’s conversation was in the patriarchal world of antiquity. Not only do Mary and Elizabeth chat, Mary follows their conversation with the longest set of words spoken – or sung – by a woman in the New Testament – and a poor, young, unmarried pregnant woman at that.
This morning’s verses come after the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear a child, and that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant as well. Mary rushes to see Elizabeth. When Elizabeth greets Mary, her unborn child recognizes Mary’s unborn child, and turns a somersault. Elizabeth exclaims that Mary and her unborn child are blessed, and then Mary begins to sing. We know her song as the Magnificat, named for the first word of the song in Latin.
The Magnificat doesn’t make it into most Christmas carol collections. I don’t think Nat King Cole or Barry Manilow ever recorded the Magnificat. Now, I love Christmas carols. They’re familiar and comforting. But perhaps while we’re singing “tidings of comfort and joy” or “all is calm, all is bright,” we might remember that it’s Mary’s song, a song about turning the tables, that is the overture not only to the Christmas story but to all of Luke’s gospel. As with any overture, it’s where we first hear the important themes we’ll hear later. Mary’s song promises that God brings about wondrous reversals in the world: showing favor to the uncredentialed and ignored (“the lowly”); rendering ineffectual the maneuvers of the arrogant (“scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”); bringing down those who exploit their positions of power; lifting up the poor. The Magnificat isn’t the cozy, comforting Christmas carol we’ve come to expect, but it is the Bible’s Christmas carol. It points to the coming of an unexpected Savior.
I’m going to show you a movie from my Favorite Christmas Movies list. It’s only 5 minutes long, and it’s called, “An Unexpected Christmas.”
VIDEO: “An Unexpected Christmas” produced in 2012 by St. Paul’s Church in Auckland, New Zealand, a church with a ministry called St. Paul’s Arts and Kids. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM1XusYVqNY.
This charming little video captures precisely what Luke intended in the first two chapters of his gospel, in the story of Elizabeth and Mary and in the Christmas story. “Brilliant! They won’t be expecting that!” Although, to be fair, Luke’s version is much edgier. Luke gives center stage to these two women, ordinary women chosen by God and unhindered by men. Luke has God sending the rich away empty, and bringing down the powerful from their thrones; you can imagine how well that goes over. There have been times and places when the Magnificat was been banned from public reading. Luke’s Christmas story names Augustus Caesar and Quirinius, governor of Syria, for a reason. It’s kind of like one of those long pan shots in a movie. In the Christmas story, the opening shot includes the whole Roman Empire, and the camera zooms into the little stable in Bethlehem because Luke wants us to see the contrast between the power of the Roman Empire and the power of God through Christ. What people wanted was a king like David who would unify the nation, rally the troops, and drive out the occupying forces. That’s what a Messiah is supposed to do, right? That’s what they were expecting.
But the power of God does not look like the power of Rome. When the Christmas angels sing of peace on earth, they sing to shepherds, people on very bottom rung of the social ladder; and they raise the question: Is it the Emperor in Rome and his Pax Romana who will bring you peace, or is it God? Is it coercive, fear-driven power, or is it God’s power – the power of vulnerable love? Is it the kind of power that curries favor with wealth and status, or is it the kind of the power that listens to the voices from the margins: women, shepherds, peasants, migrants, people of color, people oppressed and ignored and forgotten by the Emperor, and by all the 21st century versions of the Emperor?
We hear the Magnificat and the Christmas story every year. In the sentimental glow of the season, it’s easy to forget that when the angels sang about good news of great joy for all people, what they meant is this: God wants justice, peace and well-being – shalom – for everybody, and so God comes to us in a vulnerable baby born to non-white, non-English-speaking, non-Christian, nobody parents in a backwater village in the Middle East, in a stable surrounded by mess and bad smells, with “no crib for a bed,” and the first people to hear about it, those shepherds out on a hillside, are the kind of people you’d never invite to dinner and you’d pray your daughter wouldn’t marry.
Which means that God can reach everyone; anywhere at any level, even when things are messy, or all messed up; even when our best laid plans go awry; even when we find ourselves at the bottom of the heap, whatever heap we’re in. It means it is just like God to be at work in uncelebrated or unexpected ways in other times and places, too.
Even in us. Which, my friends, is truly brilliant. They won’t be expecting that!
Amen, and merry Christmas.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Bechdel later said that the idea came from her friend, Liz Wallace, and so the test is often referred to as the “Bechdel–Wallace test.”
 D. L. Mayfield, “Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ in the Bible Is Revolutionary. Some Evangelicals Silence Her,” The Washington Post, December 20, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2018/12/20/marys-magnificat-bible-is-revolutionary-so-evangelicals-silence-it/?utm_term=.14f0a0d877a4.
 Luke 1:24-36.
 According to Luke, Elizabeth’s son will grow up to be John the Baptist. So even before they were born, John the Baptist heralded the coming of Jesus. Luke 1-2.
 Biblical scholars tell us that these words are not original with Mary. The song is remarkably similar to the song of Hannah, mother of the Old Testament prophet Samuel. 1 Samuel 2:1-10.
 Carolyn Sharp, “Luke 1:39-56: Magnificat for a Broken World,” December 14, 2011, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/carolyn-sharp/luke-13956-magnificat-for_b_1146988.html.
 “An Unexpected Christmas” was produced in 2012 by St. Paul’s Church in Auckland, New Zealand, a church with a ministry called St. Paul’s Arts and Kids. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM1XusYVqNY.
 D. L. Mayfield, ibid.
 Luke 2:1-2.