We arrived at the village and were greeted by the headman and the welcoming committee. As the honored guests, we were made to sit on chairs under the mango tree. The only others who sat on chairs were men. The women and children sat on mats or on the dusty ground amid the chickens that had free run of the village.
While the important people sat “enthroned,” the clear leaders of the celebration were the women. They had come dressed in their best clothes, shiny and clean. They raised their voices in song, loud and bright. With call and response, joyful ululation, and bodies moving in vibrant celebration, these poor rural village women in Zambia gave voice to God’s victory over disease, hunger, and death.
In many times and places, it is the women who best celebrate the triumph of God.
Elizabeth’s profound greeting and Mary’s transcendent song echo the triumph songs of ages past. Miriam sang of Yahweh’s victory over the horse and the rider who had pursued the Hebrews into the sea. Hannah sang of Yahweh’s victory over her barrenness borne in the gift of Samuel—a sure sign of Yahweh’s coming victory over Israel’s barrenness in the time of the judges. These women’s words herald God’s powerful deliverance of His people.
But what are Elizabeth and Mary celebrating? Elizabeth has experienced a Hannah-esque conception. “Mary” is the Hellenized rendering (Mariam) of the name of Moses and Aaron’s sister. But where is the victory? Where are the dead charioteers and horses? All that is in view, it seems, are a couple of women sharing good news about their unusual pregnancies, and one of them sings. Their sons, as mighty as they will be, are not even born. Yet, these women are celebrating as if the victory had already been won. What’s the fuss? Nothing has happened yet.
But Mary lives in anything but a fantasy world. Luke has her singing her song “in the days of King Herod” (1:5). More than a vague chronological marker, Luke’s reference to the reign of the original King of the Jews carries nearly as much freight as “after 9/11.” Herod the Great was notoriously great at killing off his wives and sons. The gloriously beautiful temple in Jerusalem Herod built was underwritten by the crushing taxes borne by his subjects. Mary lives in time of acute political tension. “The proud,” “the powerful” on their thrones, and “the rich” have a face that fills the poor and marginalized with dread.
Mary, however, is as capable of overthrowing Herod and the empire he represents as the village women in Zambia are of pulling down a global economy that devastates their farming through drought and market forces. Instead of revolutionary fervor, what Mary models is how to live in the hope of Advent, how to live in between the ages. Instead of taking matters into her own hands, she sings. Instead of seizing power, Mary rejoices.
The already is small; the not yet is vast. Yet Mary can cling to the words of promise God has entrusted to her. The leaping of the yet-unborn John and the blessing pronounced by Elizabeth confirm Mary’s miraculous conception and equally miraculous vocation as the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. A virgin conceives and a poor peasant girl from a backwater village is named great. In these small signs unnoticed among the rich and powerful, Mary sees the outlines of a divine revolution. Her song identifies God, and not any human agent, as the one launching a decisive reversal of all of our power equations:
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.
At last, God will fulfill His promise to bring forth a King who will shepherd His people with mercy and justice. “And he will stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” (Micah 5:4). He will judge tyrants like Herod and redeem a broken creation. In fact, Mary declares these decisive events as already having happened. God’s mighty reversal is all in the past tense. It is as good as done!
We who despise small beginnings and insist on seeing everything before we get on board will miss out on joining what God is doing. This is God’s way of working: backwater village, peasant girl, manger, mustard seed, and cross.
Mary models a hope that doesn’t begin with us or our ability to see. It doesn’t even begin with the Church. It begins with a revolutionary God who is true to His word. God will put the world right. Mary models the Church’s hopeful vocation and Her dangerous joy.
To echo Elizabeth: Blessed are they who believe that the Lord will fulfill what He has promised. Let us rejoice!