Insignificant, but she’d been chosen! Just a girl, but “highly favored”! Not yet married, but soon a mother! Never slept with a man, but now pregnant! Thoughts kept swirling but one was recurring: Elizabeth was married but had always been barren Until now, the angel said – but could it be? The journey was long but Mary took the trek. Now, another confirmation but this time unexpected: the unborn child testified but not with words! He leaped, Spirit-filled but not yet vocal. Elizabeth felt the joy and shared the truth!
I had never realized how isolated a town Nazareth is — see the photo above, taken in 2005 when we visited Israel. Nor had I known how long a journey it would have been for Mary to go visit her relative Elizabeth, whose home was probably in the hill country of Judea, between 80 and 100 miles away. She would have walked for four or five days to get there, and even if she accompanied a caravan it probably took three days. She had to be truly desperate to follow up on the angel’s news and be with this trustworthy person who was also experiencing a miraculous pregnancy, though of a different kind. Maybe she would understand!
And yes, there was the startling exclamation from Elizabeth as soon as she saw Mary. The angel that had appeared to Zechariah had said that the baby would be filled with the Holy Spirit before he was born (Luke 1:15)! When he leaped within her in a whole new way as Mary entered the house, Elizabeth was also filled with the Spirit and spoke truth that she could not have already heard (no phones or email back then!): that Mary was pregnant and the mother of Elizabeth’s Lord, blessed because of her faith that the Lord would do what he had promised (Luke 1:41-45)!
I’ve always been startled that Mary then burst into song, or at least a poetic testimony, in response. How did she put that all together? Maybe that long trip south had been a time for deep reflection.
The song’s first theme is Mary’s personal praise of God, her Savior. She recognizes her own insignificance, a young maiden without social status, but somehow noticed and honored by God himself. She calls herself a bondslave to him (“servant” in most English translations), offering herself wholly to him for his purposes. And for her, this is not a denigrating term but one that shouts out special standing with the Mighty One. An observant Jew, she will not pronounce his name, YHWH, but acknowledges how powerful and holy he is, and that he has done so much for her that his blessing will be evident throughout history (1:46-49)! Maybe her wonder could be compared to the awe one might feel today of being chosen by the President or Prime Minister of a country to be on his staff, with a unique assignment. But her position meant even more than that, so Mary goes on to point out how great her King is and what astounding things he has done (1:50-55).
She was probably just a young teenager. How did she know so much Scripture? She obviously had learned not only the key stories of her nation’s history but also the deeply meaningful truths about God’s character, displayed through his acts.
When you read her song, you will probably note in your Bible that there are cross-references to some psalms. Genesis and 1 Samuel. They refer to allusions rather than to actual quotes, but Mary’s familiarity with those Old Testament texts shows up in her wording. I had suspected that girls and women would not have had as much exposure to the Scriptures as men in those days, but most researchers agree that girls were taught at the synagogue along with boys during what would be considered grade-school years in our age; after that they were expected to help at home. and only the best-performing boys would even continue to the higher levels. So she had been taught her people’s history, much of God’s Word and had probably memorized part of the Torah. Women also freely attended Sabbath worship in the synagogue back in the first century.
It strikes me that Mary not only went to school and attended the services but also absorbed the teaching into her heart. She believed and followed the God who speaks, and now he had spoken to her. That long trip from Nazareth to the hills of Judea probably served as time to process the angel’s words, the evidence of a new life in her womb, and what she knew God had said and done that had been preserved in the Scriptures. She was particularly fascinated by the way God had cared for the downtrodden, the hungry and the “humble,” all of whom were of low social status, like her. God had dislodged the arrogant rulers from their positions; these actions brought hope. He was showing his mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever, in keeping with his covenant.
In the use of the word “mercy” in our translations one can see the effect of the language transfers that would have been involved in the final version of Mary’s “song.” It most likely had been spoken in Hebrew, then translated to Greek. Many references note that “mercy” in this text is a translation of the word hesed in Hebrew: God’s “unfailing love.” The evidence of this love, and God’s promise to extend it to each generation (1:50. 54.55), meant everything to Mary: it included her. The One who had helped those who respected him, and those who were neglected, was the same reliable Mighty One who had deigned to choose her to carry his Son.
There is lots of socio-political commentary in her words; after all, this child was going to be King. Everything would be changed under his rule. At the same time, even before that would happen, Mary knew she could trust God to do what he promised to do. He had done it in the past, and he would be doing it now, for her and for the nation.
We can trust this forever King to keep his promises to us, too. Mary was blessed, but instead of bragging about it she chose to boast about how great her God is and to praise him for his faithful love. Those of us who have responded to God’s calling, and are blessed in knowing him, need to take Mary and her humility as our model. We must acknowledge that he has done great things for us (1:49), yielding our entire selves to him to be his completely devoted servants – his bondslaves. This is indeed a tremendous blessing, to be all his, letting him accomplish his purposes through us.
Mary was indeed chosen for a unique purpose and experienced a miracle far beyond anything she could have imagined. As we know, this son would be the Way, the Truth and the Life, and through him alone people can come into God’s family. At this stage in her story, Mary knew very little about that, but she did know that she could trust the Mighty One, her God, to do what he had said he would. And he is the same yesterday, today and forever!
 That the World May Know: with Ralph Vander Laan. “Rabbi and Talmudim” https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/rabbi-and-talmidim