54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’
56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. (Luke 1:54-56)
As Mary concludes her song, she continues to dwell on God’s past character, which continues into the present. She recalls God’s help for Israel. The verb used (antilambano) is relatively rare in the New Testament, but it signals that God is involved and not detached. He has helped Israel in the past, saving them from all manners of affliction; and, here in Luke 1, he provides for all in sending Christ. Interestingly, in Romans 8:26, Paul uses a related verb (sunantilambanomai) to talk about how the Spirit helps believers in weakness. God has always been a God who helps and is not remote, like so many of the pagan deities that people worshipped at the time.
We continue to need God’s help in the same way Israel did. Just as Israel frequently rebelled against God, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes more subtle, we continue to rebel against Him, thinking we are in control and that it is all about us. God helps us by remembering mercy. This notion appears elsewhere in Scripture – for instance, with the prophet Habbakuk. When Habbakuk realises God’s plan behind the events of the time (Israel being captured by the Babylonians, which will cause the Israelites to turn back to God in repentance), he asks and believes that in the time of wrath, God will remember mercy (Habakkuk 3:2).
This is precisely what God has done throughout history: shown mercy. More literally (and properly, I believe) v.55 is translated: “(remembering mercy), just as he spoke to our forefathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever”. This includes us here today; we are all related to Abraham (cf. Romans 4:16). Our role is to join in God’s work: helping to usher in the kingdom, and reminding those around us of God – his love and mercy. This is the conclusion to a fabulous song – a beautiful window into the three months that Elizabeth and Mary spent together (v.56).