39 Without delay, Miryam set out and hurried to the town in the hill country of Y’hudah 40 where Z’kharyah lived, entered his house and greeted Elisheva. 41 When Elisheva heard Miryam’s greeting, the baby in her womb stirred. Elisheva was filled with the the Holy Spirit42 and spoke up in a loud voice,
“How blessed are you among women!
And how blessed is the child in your womb!
43 “But who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 Fo r as soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy! 45 Indeed you are blessed, because you have trusted that the promise the Lord has made to you will be fulfilled.”
46 Then Miryam said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord;
47 and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior,
48 who has taken notice of his servant-girl
in her humble position.
For — imagine it! — from now on, all generations will call me blessed!
49 “The Mighty One has done great things for me!
Indeed, his name is holy; 50 and in every generation
he has mercy on those who fear him.
51 “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm,
routed the proud in heart,
52 brought down rulers from their thrones,
r aised up the humble,
53 filled the hungry with good things,
but sent the rich away empty.
54 “He has taken the part of his servant Isra’el,
mindful of the mercy
55 which he promised to our fathers,
to Avraham and his seed forever.”
56 Miryam stayed with Elisheva for about three months and then returned home.
The visit of Miryam to Elisheva is doubtless an invention of Luke who wants to bring the two families of the two messianic figures, the prophet and the messiah himself, together. And as the feminist interpreters have pointed out, the atmosphere of the encounter is specifically female, with an emphasis on the physicality of pregnancy and the centrality of the womb. The child John who leaps in the womb is an image of the conviction of Israel, or at least of the true Istael, that her Messiah has arrived. It is hard not to see Miryam the slave girl as herself an image of the true Israel, so often humbled but now blessed as the mother of God’s anointed. The words of Elisheva remind the reader that the quality that allows God to do his work is trust, the trust of both women in the promise of God.
Again I think that although this story may have no historical content, it is nevertheless a convincing enough portrait of the kind of family from which Jesus may have sprung. The strong female leadership of this messianic family is also convincing. Luke may have known women like these in the Christian communities for which he was writing.
The song of Mary generalises Mary’s experience of God’s goodness to include the experience of her people in the world. Israel, the true Israel, the poor people who wait for God’ justice, has been humiliated time and again, but now her faithfulness to God and God’s to her, culminate in the birth of the Messiah. This event turns the world upside down: the proud, the rich, the powerful are ignored while the modest, poor and oppressed are lifted up. The fierce conviction that God’s justice is revolutionary and disturbing cannot be erased from this song, not even by hundreds of years of pious Catholic virgin worship and cosy Anglican evensongs. There is a story that when Constantine, the first Christian Emperor heard it, he immediately denounced it; but on being told it was scriptural, grudgingly allowed it to be recited within his palace, though not amidst the common people. Just in case….
It is of course a jigsaw of pieces from the Hebrew bible, notably from the song of Hannah the mother of Samuel, as well as many psalms. Many scholars think that Luke was using source material from a radical Jewish – Christian source, that emphasised God’s favour to women and the poor. I think that Luke was influenced by such a movement, but quite capable of fashioning his birth narrative without specific sources. His story is always picking up words and phrases from the Jewish bible, while all overtly Christian language is avoided. Luke wants to show the attentive reader that Jesus and his communities are God’s revolutionary fulfilment of his plan for Israel.
And yet there is nothing in Luke’s radicalism that is bitter, sectarian or violent; his revolutionaries are peaceful, if feisty.