Crafting the lectionary requires highly refined skill. We need balance in the readings to cover most of the bible but still focus on well-known texts. Subtle links should be made between the OT, NT, and Gospel readings that highlight one another but that don’t repeat the exact same theme. The readings need to be of reasonable length so that we can make it all the way through them in worship. Usually, I’m more likely to complain about how the lectionary has been put together, but today I am impressed.
It’s the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin. This is the day when Mary went to see her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. The Gospel text is set. We must, of course, read the story of the visit itself. The NT reading is a wonderful little blurb from Romans, in which Paul exhorts the community to which he writes to “rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep,” which seems fitting for the meeting of two women who are sharing holy pregnancies. And then we get to the OT lesson, which surprises me.
Hannah’s song at first seems repetitive. It is the textual basis for Luke’s Magnificat, which becomes the song of Mary. Hannah also had conceived a child as a gift from God, and the reading from 1 Samuel is her celebratory poem. Like Mary’s song, it is a wonderful text about God’s triumph, and it shows how the birth of Samuel reminds her that God will always take care of his people: “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.”
When I read the lessons today, I was at first unimpressed. Why would they give us two lessons so very close together? We don’t need to read the same thing twice. But then, as I was reading Mary’s song, I noticed a change in tense. I’m not a student of Hebrew, and I’m told there aren’t as many verb tenses in that language as there are in Greek or English, so this may be an unfair comparison, but notice how the expectant language of Hannah’s song becomes fulfilled in Mary’s: “The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap” becomes “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That same pattern continues through both texts. Hannah’s general statements about God are answered in the particular in Mary’s conception. I think the lectionary shows us that all of the hopes and dreams of God’s people, which were expressed so beautifully in Hannah’s poem, are finally brought to reality in the gift of God’s son, which is the subject of Mary’s song.
How is it, then, that all of our hope and dreams become reality in the gift of Jesus Christ to the world? In him, the lowly have indeed been exalted. In him, the rich have been brought down, and the poor have been raised up. In him, God has shown his remembrance of his servant Israel. In him, God has fulfilled the promise he made to Abraham and his offspring. Jesus is the answer—not just for Mary but for the whole world. Her song would be ridiculous in any other circumstance. Who could ever be bold enough to say, “from now on all generations shall call me blessed,” unless it was God who was blessing the whole world through her?
Mary’s visit with Elizabeth is a reminder of what the world receives when God visits it through the gift of his son Jesus Christ. It’s more than two women celebrating pregnancies. It’s a celebration of what God is doing and now has done for the world. God’s promise of salvation is no longer a “some-day” promise. It’s reality now. We no longer wait to see how God will answer the promises made to his people. They have been fulfilled. The world doesn’t need to look for reminders that God will take care of his people. He has declared that once and for all.