My friend Lisa Larges likes to point out that this conversation between Mary and Elizabeth is one of the few places in the Bible where we see and hear two women talking – on their own – outside the presence of men. Think about it. I can think of one other. Can you? In the Hebrew Scriptures: Ruth, Naomi, and Orpah figure things out together in that liminal space in the wilderness. But that’s pretty much it. All the other conversations in Scripture have male voices.
Lisa also notes that Jane Austen only wrote conversations where women are present – women in conversation together – women and men in conversation – always at least one woman there. Jane Austen said that she didn’t write conversations among men only because, she said, she had absolutely no idea what men talk about when they are on their own.
Here, in Luke 1, we get a rare glimpse in Scripture of a space filled only with women’s voices. After the angel comes to Mary and invites Mary to bear Christ into the world, we get to hear what Mary and Elizabeth say to each other when they are on their own. These two women. Bearing good news. On the margins of power and empire. They have a conversation. And what they say – is nothing short of revolutionary.
Our scripture today picks up where we left off last week. Mary considers the angel’s strange greeting and call, and says, “Yes, may it be so with me according to your word.” Still stunned, Mary heads to her cousin Elizabeth, whom she has just learned is also with child. Mary walks through the door, and Elizabeth prophesies. The baby (who will be John the Baptist) leaps in her womb – and Elizabeth shouts out in a loud voice. She declares Mary blessed among women and favored by God. She proclaims Mary, “Mother of my lord!” She names and affirms the joy in the room, and the faithfulness and courage of Mary’s “Yes!”
And then: Mary speaks. Mary sings out – Mary proclaims God at work in the world and in her. But notice the first thing she does. First, she identifies herself with those considered lowly – with those who have been brought low by the powers of oppression. Mary – named by the angel – Mother of the Most High, Mother of the Son of God. And now by Elizabeth – Mary, Mother of my Lord. For the second time, Mary then calls herself “the servant or slave of God.” Mary locates herself with those on the margins – and then from that place – she announces nothing less than the reversal of every power in the world:
o God is toppling the powerful, and lifting up the lowly.
o God is scattering the proud, and strengthening those who have been humbled – pushed down by the systems of power.
o God is feeding the hungry, and sending the rich away empty.
God’s mercy is at work in the world dismantling every power of oppression – so that those who have been held low might be lifted up – and live.
It’s hard to imagine a more revolutionary text. Mary is proclaiming an entirely new world order – what one scholar calls God’s “New Creation” – what Mitzi Smith describes as the total “restructuring and redistribution of power, position, and wealth.” As Smith says, “Mary imagines a reordering of society where she is no longer on the bottom.” The Empire is coming down, and corrupt religious powers, and unjust economic systems. All coming down.
And as remarkable as any reversal she announces, Mary audaciously says this: And what God is doing in the world, God is doing in me – and in people like me – in those who have been held down low. My whole being magnifies God. In this conversation of women, in their bodies, in their flesh, this is where God is at work.
Mary and Elizabeth are both women living at the margins of power in a patriarchal world – one who had been labelled as barren, one who will be an unwed mother – scandalized and marginalized by the powers of their day. But in this space in Scripture, they are given voice. This conversation is not only safe space for voices long-silenced to speak; it is brave space where what they say should make the powers tremble.
But it’s even more than the reversal of every oppressive power in the world. The real revolution here is in the very nature of power itself. Mary is announcing a fundamental re-understanding, re-visioning, and re-imagining of power. You see, the power at work here – in all these reversals – in the coming of the Christ – is God’s mercy. Not the violence of oppression. But also far from meek submission. Mercy in the Greek – eleos – is more than just compassion –more than a feeling -- mercy is “compassion embodied in concrete saving actions.”
The violence of oppression and all its systems – the violence that disregards the dignity of persons – all that is being torn down – dismantled. God is doing that – in God’s tender mercy, from generation to generation.
o God’s tender mercy that saw Hagar, when she had been cast out into the desert, and made of her a nation and a people.
o God’s tender mercy that heard the cry of God’s people in slavery, and brought them out into freedom.
o God’s tender mercy that seeks out those who are in exile and at the margins, and brings them back home.
On into Luke, Jesus will invoke mercy/ eleos when he heals those who cannot see or walk; when he teaches love even of enemy; when he points to the Good Samaritan – the outcast – who transcends social barriers to protect the life of another.
Mary proclaims God’s revolutionary tender mercy more powerful than any act of oppressive violence – a revolutionary tender mercy characterized by
o a feeding of the hungry;
o a lifting up of those pushed down low;
o a gathering of those who have been shoved out;
o a relinquishment of power by the privileged;
o and a dismantling of all the structures and systems that oppress.
Womanist scholar Wil Gafney describes it like this:
“[Mary] professes a God whose mercy transcends time and is not limited to her and those who see the world exactly as she sees it. She proclaims a God who is partial to the plight of the poor and is a terror to the tyrant... The Magnificat speaks of a memorial to God’s mercy in the text. That memorial was not a monument of stone, but the love of God poured into human flesh, woman-flesh, scandalously passing through scandalized flesh.”
This is Lauren Wright Penman’s vision of Mary and Elizabeth’s conversation.
"Mary & Elizabeth” by Lauren Wright Pittman|A Sanctified Art LLC
Artwork used with permission.
She describes her work like this: “I wanted to depict the creative energy, communication, and power that was taking place in Mary and Elizabeth’s wombs in this moment. Mary’s womb swirls with the knitting together of the One through whom all things came into being, while Elizabeth’s womb radiates joy with the leaping of the one who will spend his life directing attention, awe, and reverence to the One in Mary’s womb. When we draw near to one another, we can recognize and proclaim God’s movement in one another’s lives and be encouraged in our own journey. When we draw near to one another, we live more fully into who we were created to be.”
When Mary rises to sing the Magnificat, this is how Ben Wildflower envisions it:
"Magnificat" by Ben WildflowerUsed with permission,
prints available at https://benwildflower.com
There’s Mary with a raised fist – “Cast Down the Mighty” – “Send the Rich Away” –“Lift Up the Lowly” – “Fill the Hungry.” When he first published this work, Wildflower got some pushback. Folks wrote him saying that the work was un-Christian. Wildflower wrote back to explain – that these were actually words from Scripture. He then said this: “There are enough images out there focusing on the lowliness and meekness of Mary. I wanted to make one that highlights her holy rage and her indictment of an economic system built on idolatrous ideas about what kind of people do or don’t deserve things like food and shelter. I like that Mary.”
This is an icon of Mary by Rev. Mark Doox, who is on the ministry team at the Coltrane Church in San Francisco.
"Our Lady of Ferguson," by Rev. Mark Doox.
Used with permission; prints of this and other icons
available at https://markdoox.com
Just yesterday, the New York Times ran an article about the Coltrane Church, featuring a number of his icons. I’m so grateful for his permission to show it here.
Doox has titled this icon “Our Lady of Ferguson.” Mary and Christ are black. Doox explains: “Christ is a silhouette in Mary’s womb area and is targeted and threatened with death as many African-Americans are by the police, the justice system, and even casual citizens like in the Ahmaud Arbrery case. The targeted life mirrors Jesus’ life... he was not esteemed; he was targeted, beaten, lynched on a cross, and not given justice.” Doox points out that both figures have their hands up, not just because they are threatened, but because they are "praying and praising the God who will judge the systems and persons who do them harm."
This is a prayer icon – you can find Rev. Doox’s icons for purchase and prayer on his website.