Scripture for the fourth Sunday of Advent: Micah 5:2–5a; Canticle: Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55; Hebrews 10:5–10; Luke 1:39–45
When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I met a young woman with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I saw her for five weeks in hospital. Just before she was discharged, I spoke to her about her condition, and she described it as a “grace disease.” She said: “It gives time. Every day is worth something.” She had a powerful faith that sustained her: her soul really did “magnify the Lord,” to quote Mary in the Magnificat.
In the first century, such an illness would have been a cause of shame or disgrace: the victim was often blamed for their misfortune. Both Elizabeth and Mary endured shame and disgrace, Elizabeth for not being able to be pregnant, and Mary for becoming pregnant. Thirty years later, their sons similarly seemed to have drawn shame and disgrace, executed for subversive crimes. On Good Friday, the memory of her words of promise must have seemed hollow. But God tends to have the last word.
In the context of the resurrection, the Magnificat becomes a powerful anthem, but one that can be seen as subversive, inverting conventional views about prosperity and blessing. We hear it often, and might be inclined to miss its nature. But it has actually been banned by various governments because its words are so radical!
Nevertheless, out of shame and disgrace, a young woman was inspired to glorify the God who seemed responsible for her desperate situation and to voice hope for a different world order. Here, as elsewhere in the gospels, the stories of Jesus’ birth are not about affluence, prestige, or power, but about faith, obedience, patience and trust in God’s values and God’s purpose.
We are challenged to emulate the young woman whom I met in hospital, valuing life, living to the full, perhaps trying to live out the words of the Magnificat. If that sometimes draws shame and disgrace, we might remember that God’s views about what is shameful and disgraceful do not always coincide with conventional wisdom.