What would our celebration of Christmas be if the Virgin Mary were only a “bit player” in the drama? When we think about Mary, two stories come to mind almost immediately: the Annunciation and the Visitation. Who can forget the account of an angelic visit promising a child who would inherit King David’s throne? Who can forget Mary’s beautiful response, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38)? And who can forget the Magnificat, Mary’s soaring prayer of praise when she visited her cousin Elizabeth (1:46-55)?
But in between these two encounters, something else took place: the very first Advent journey. Scripture tells us that after the angel left her, Mary “set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:39-40). This journey, a distance of about one hundred miles, probably took Mary about a week. That gave her a lot of time to pray and reflect, and now she invites us to journey with her. So let’s imagine ourselves walking with Mary and think about what might have been going through her mind.
Pondering God’s Promises. Of course, we don’t exactly know what Mary thought about, but we do know that she was a prayerful woman (Luke 2:19, 51). Surely she spent at least some of the time pondering everything she had just experienced. Surely she would have begun trying to make sense of it all.
Perhaps Mary recalled the angel’s words and prayed, “Lord, you promised to give me a child, a son, even before Joseph and I have come together in marriage. I said yes to you then—even though it might mean losing Joseph—and I will continue to say yes, no matter the consequences. Lord, please help me to grasp more fully this calling I have just accepted.”
The Magnificat. As soon as her journey came to an end and she had greeted Elizabeth, Mary offered a prayer of her own making, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). This prayer of praise must have flowed out of all she had thought about as she traveled, a reflection of all that God had helped her understand on her journey.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” Mary begins; “my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46-47). It’s amazing that Mary would be so joyful and confident. Her life had just been turned upside down. With the news of an unplanned pregnancy, her marriage to Joseph was at risk, and she even faced the possibility of being stoned to death. Yet joy seems to bubble out of her.
Why was she so joyful? Among the many possibilities, two stand out:
• First, Mary could see that God was fulfilling his promises to Israel. When Elizabeth greeted her as “the mother of my Lord,” Mary’s faith must have swelled within her (Luke 1:43). The angel’s words were true—God’s salvation was at hand! Perhaps Mary was recalling one of the psalms: “He has remembered his mercy and faithfulness toward the house of Israel” (98:3). So Mary rejoiced in the faithfulness of the Lord: “He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers” (Luke 1:54-55). Mary sensed that her own son, who was in fact the “Lord,” would fulfill God’s age-old promise to rescue Israel (1:43).
• Second, Mary rejoiced at the unexpected way that God works. His kingdom was coming through the weak, not the powerful. She had witnessed arrogant Roman “rulers” abusing God’s people (Luke 1:52). She saw how their soldiers used threats and violence to keep the peace in Israel. She knew of the paranoid and murderous King Herod. And yet God chose her, a poor woman from Galilee, to humble “the arrogant” and raise up “the lowly” to a place of honor (1:51, 52). Mary knew that somehow God was going to use her son to make this happen.
Like Isaiah and many of the prophets before her, Mary saw that God had a special love for the humble: “I dwell in a high and holy place, but also with the contrite and lowly of spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). She knew that God held the lowly and the hungry close to his heart. So it must have given her great joy to see that God had looked upon her “lowliness” and that her own son would fulfill God’s promise to bring comfort to those in need (Luke 1:48).
Mary’s song is a prayer of wonder and awe at the fact that God is making his salvation available to everyone, rich and poor, powerful and weak alike. God doesn’t make any distinctions between people. He doesn’t favor the rich or look down on the poor, as some in her time believed. No, God loves all of us equally. He wants to help the proud learn to receive grace that they could not earn on their own, and he wants to show the lowly how deeply he loves them and desires to heal them.
Promises That Endure. All of these thoughts must have been in the forefront of Mary’s mind nine months later as she and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem. When they arrived in the town, they were just another poor couple from Galilee, invisible to most of the people there. What’s worse, no one would take them in; no one would show them any consideration or compassion. More than ever before, they were among the poor and lowly.
When the time came for Jesus to be born, all they had was a manger, some swaddling clothes, and a few shepherds. Surely Mary understood how appropriate it was that the One who would lift up the humble would come to us in the humblest of ways. Surely this brought comfort to her despite her difficult surroundings. Surely she could see the faithfulness of God in the face of Jesus.
Mary probably remembered these words years later as her son began preaching “glad tidings to the poor,” “liberty to captives,” and freedom for “the oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Imagine how it must have felt for her to see him healing, delivering, and forgiving all kinds of people.
Finally, imagine Mary, three years later, seeing her son crucified. As his mother, of course, she was filled with terrible grief. But as a woman of deep prayer, she saw how humbly he went to his death. She heard him cry out, “Father, forgive them,” a prayer that perhaps she had taught him (Luke 23:34). She saw that her son was giving himself for everyone. He was lifting up the lowly—every single person bowed down by sin. Raised high on the cross, he was casting down the tyranny of sin that had kept every one of us in bondage. There, in his words of forgiveness, he was lifting up everyone and removing the burden of our guilt. There, he fulfilled God’s promise to save his people.
Mary’s Story Is Our Story. Mary’s song is our song. It’s the song of the Church. It’s the song of anyone who has experienced God’s overflowing generosity and grace. Even though Mary herself was free from original sin, she sings the song of every person who has faced up to his sin and found a God of mercy and forgiveness, a God who welcomes us and cleanses our consciences. It’s the song of everyone who begins to see that God loves them individually, personally, and unconditionally. “God has chosen me. Despite my sin and weak faith, he still loves me and values me. Yes, my spirit does rejoice in God my savior!”
Not only is Mary’s song our song, but her story is our story as well. She lived most of her life hidden away in a small town. Her days were filled with laundry, cooking, and caring for her family. Similarly, most of us live quiet, “hidden” lives. We go about our days taking care of our responsibilities and trying to live in peace with the people around us.
But as hidden as Mary was, she played a vital role in God’s plan. Every time she acted in love, every time she witnessed to patience or mercy, every time she prayed, her words and actions taught her son and helped him grasp the special calling God had for him. Just so, every time we pray with our families, every time we choose mercy over resentment, every time we give rather than take—all of these actions influence the people around us. They help bring Jesus’ presence into our homes and workplaces. Every time we magnify the Lord, especially when we humbly share our faith with the people around us, we change the world a little more.
Come Journey with Mary. Through her song of joy and gratitude, Mary shows us that each of us, no matter how lowly, can bear Christ into the world. So imagine yourself walking with Mary this Advent. Share with her your reasons for rejoicing. What aspects of your life cause you to magnify the Lord? Tell her also about the “lowliness” in your life right now that can reflect her humility. Finally, see if you can imitate Mary’s lowliness a little more in your family relationships or at work or in your parish.
Go ahead and share this with Mary. Then listen to what she has to say to you. Let her words in Scripture, the example of her life, and her yes to God teach you how to rejoice in Jesus, your Savior.