Maybe some of you have had a similar experience––and for others, this might sound ridiculous––but I cannot read the genealogy of Matthew 1 without being moved to tears. The reason is that Matthew highlights the “mothers of Jesus” in his genealogy. And when we consider the story of these women, we see the great depths of God’s character and His work of redemption. In the stories of each woman, we see longing, loss, heartache, oppression, and abuse, but we also see, by the hand of God, redemption and hope. Their stories show the extent to which God lifts the heads of the downtrodden, has compassion on the forgotten and abused, and brings joy where there is sorrow. And more to the point of the Advent season, God uses these women in ways the world would never assume: to bring forth the Redeemer of the World.
That said, the stories of these women, and in particular the story of Mary, also become a confrontation for many of us. In fact, in many ways, the Advent season is a season of confrontation.
In a soaring proclamation of God’s redemptive power, and as if she is making such proclamation on behalf of all those who came before her, Mary sings her famous song recorded in Luke 1:
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
In his commentary on Luke, church historian Justo Gonzalez––showing the ways Mary’s song is reflective of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2––says this about Mary’s song,
“Since it is based on the song of Hannah, it too is a song of vindication. Hannah saw in her act of conceiving as a divine vindication of her sorrow and humiliation. Mary sees in her own act of conceiving, and in the child who is to be born out of that act, a sign of the way in which God works. Her song is not like many of the “praise” songs of today, proclaiming how great God is. It is a hard-hitting proclamation of how God overturns the common order of society. Mary begins by declaring how God has done this in her: “he has looked with favor on the loneliness of his servant,” and as a result “all generations will call me blessed.” But in this again, what is happening to Mary is a sign of how God works in history; “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.”
In placing these words on the lips of Mary, Luke is letting us know that the story he is about to tell is the culmination of the history of Israel, and that this history––and certainly its culmination––is of a great reversal in which the lowly are made high, the high are brought low, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty, the last become first, and the least become the greatest.
Until this point in the biblical story, we have glimpses of what Gonzalez called the “great reversal,” but now, in Mary and her giving birth to Jesus, we see the culmination of all that was longed for by those who have come before. The Redeemer, the Savior of the world, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises, the One through whom and for whom all things were made, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinty, is entrusted to a poor, teenage girl and her carpenter husband, both of whom lived in an occupied land amongst an oppressed people. This “great reversal” is the hope and joy of Christmas––a hope too often lost, ignored, or rejected.
The True Hope and Joy
At the risk of being “that guy” who balks at the commercialization and sentimentality of Christmas, allow me to do so just for a moment. First, I love Christmas and the emphasis on family and friends, gifts, and feasting. But when those become the holiday's central message, Christmas is robbed of its essence, which is a Savior at the margins.
The mothers of Jesus, and through Mary’s song, we learn that the hope and joy of Christmas are not to be primarily found amongst the delights of family but amongst the fatherless, the widow, and the barren. The hope and joy of Christmas are not to be primarily found amongst the feasting but amongst the hungry. The hope and joy of Christmas are not to be primarily found among gifts and celebrations but amongst the poor and forgotten. The hope and joy of Christmas are for the lowly, the forgotten, the unloved, and the unseen. The hope and joy of Christmas are found there because that’s where Jesus is.
When we realize all we have is Jesus, we realize Jesus is all we need. While the blessings of life ought to lead us to praise, too often, they become opportunities for self-righteous assumptions that we deserve and have earned what we possess. But when we realize we have nothing of ultimate value, that God is with the humble not the proud, and that He is the One who lifts the head of the downtrodden, Mary’s song becomes our song. And the mothers of Jesus, highlighted in Matthew 1, remind us of how true that is:
Sarah was an elderly and barren woman.
Rebekah was a foreigner far from her home.
Leah was the unloved wife of a selfish husband.
Tamar was a forgotten woman who sold her body to survive.
Rahab was a sex worker from a people who were under the judgment of God.
Ruth was a widow and immigrant with no hopes for survival.
Bathsheba was the prey of a predatory king who murdered her husband.
Mary was a poor teenager from Galilee.
Those are the mothers of Jesus, and they are the ones who can most identify with Mary’s song: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me - holy is his name.
May their song become our song.