By Heather Walker Peterson

Thanksgiving Turned to Longing: Mary’s Song

In Thanksgiving celebrations I’ve been a part of, a host asks, “What are a couple things you’ve been thankful for this year?” And before we pass around the plates of turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes, we each answer. It’s an awkward moment, my mind racing to summarize the complexity of the year’s events into one or two items. And yet it’s a holy one because I’m praising God.

I feel a little like Mary, newly pregnant, listing God’s acts in her life when she answers Elizabeth in Luke 1: “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49a, NIV).

Mary’s thanks illustrate not only her gratification for bearing the Christ child but her expectancy. Pregnant Mary rushes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who is heavy with John the Baptist. Elizabeth’s babe in the womb jumps, causing his mother to burst out filled with the Holy Spirit:

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear. . . . Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her! (Luke 1:42b-45)

Mary responds not with just what God has done for her in her pregnancy but for all descendants of Abraham.

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.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors. (Luke 1:46b-55)

As I read over her song, the English professor in me notes that the translators interpreted many of the verbs in a similar form: God “has performed,” “has scattered,” has filled,” and so on. This combination of a present helper verb has and a main verb with an -ed ending is called present perfect.

One of my favorite explanations of present perfect is that it is “used to express an event that happened in the past that has present consequences. This tense is used to show a link between the present and past.” If the translator had interpreted the verses in past tense, the consequences would have been completed, but the consequences were not completed for Mary. They were present and also expected — not just for herself — but for all descendants of Abraham as he “promised our ancestors.”

This year, a Thanksgiving celebration will be held at my house, hosted by my husband and me. This home, spacious enough to welcome many of my extended family, was unexpected when we were house-shopping a few years back. I hadn’t wanted to move into this neighborhood unless —  as I told God — he wanted us to be near dear friends who lived here. Those friends begged us to look at this house “so they could see it.” It was the only house available that my husband and I both liked. When we lowballed to avoid going over our budget, we were delighted our offer was accepted.

This is the house that God gave us. And yet, it’s also the house that God has given us. God’s gift has present consequences for today. We get to live here, and we feel compelled to steward this gift by showing others hospitality.

As God’s living word, Mary’s song from Luke 1 has consequences for today. His mighty deeds have and are occurring but will occur more. His scattering of the proud is occurring but will occur more. His bringing and lifting, filling and sending, his just plain helping of his people has and is happening but will happen more.

Moving into this house, we were encouraged to find that we were in a highly-rated school system. But as one of our daughters began to struggle academically in first grade, we saw the system’s weak points. Some kids get help. Others don’t. The reasoning feels convoluted and complex. Good intentions abound but skew because of prideful idealism coupled with limited resources. 

In other words, there’s no perfect system, no perfect institution. Mary dealt with her own imperfect institutions. She lived in a time when the people of Judea were wearied by the rule of Rome. A purity code was proliferating through the Pharisees and Sadducees. She yearned for the consequences that she was beginning to experience in the pregnancy of God’s son.

My husband and I also long for more positive consequences. But in the current state of the world, there’s only one fulfilled promise, and that promise is Jesus. He came as a baby, lived, died, and was resurrected, but he has given his Holy Spirit — a present consequence — and is to come again.

We say our thanks through the Spirit and then we ask for more good things. We can be grateful and keep seeking more. We ask for Jesus.

The week before Christmas, the traditional church surrounds Mary’s song with words of longing calling for Jesus to come — the “O Antiphons.” If you did not grow up in a church community where you sang each O Antiphon on a different evening, you might recognize them from the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Calls to a different name representing Christ begin each line of the hymn:

“O come, o come, Emmanuel”
“Thou Lord of Might”
“Thou Rod of Jesse”
“Thou Dayspring”
“Thou Key of David”
“Thou Wisdom”
“Thou Desire of Nations”

We are the descendants of Abraham, God’s people, mentioned in Mary’s song. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be the host asking for everyone to share what God has done in their lives over the previous year. We’ll mention past acts of God with present consequences. Entering the season of Advent a few days later, we will long for Christ to return again — for creation’s redemption and for God’s institutions instead of humans’. As the prophets spoke to Mary’s ancestors through the words of the O Antiphons, we’ll plead for God’s further action.

About the Author

Heather Walker Peterson is a writer, mother, and assistant professor and chair of the Department of English and Literature at the University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.

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