Thursday, December 17, 2015
December 20, Advent 4, The Songs of Advent #3: The Song of Mary
Micah 5:2-5a, Song of Mary, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55
Our gospel story today is called The Visitation. It follows on the story of The Annunciation. That’s when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive the Messiah in her womb. She replied, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and then added the news that her elderly cousin Elizabeth–she who had been barren–was sixth months pregnant. And that extra news is what sets up our story for today, The Visitation.
Mary races to visit Elizabeth. You can imagine why she wants to. She needs some confirmation. She’s a young woman of faith and even daring, but of course she still needs some confirmation. And you can imagine what will happen to her reputation: pregnant and unmarried. A sinner, a slut, or just a victim, but traditional cultures blame the victims in such cases. I’m guessing that Mary could sense from the start what she would be against to carry this child, so she races to visit Elizabeth.
Elizabeth will be showing at six months, while Mary is just a week or two pregnant. But she does not have to show for Elizabeth to know, because of her own baby who leaps inside her. He will be John the Baptist. He’s a prophet already—a messenger, a herald, an announcer. The Holy Spirit makes his mother prophetic too, in what she says to Mary. Prophecy is as often about the present as the future, when you can tell out what is unseen in front of you. Both of these women speak prophetically. Their two sons take after their mothers.
I love the emphasis on women in Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth gets to speak while her husband Zechariah has been silenced from his lack of faith. Let me remind you. He will get to speak again when his boy is born, and he will sing his song, the Benedictus, but that won’t happen till three months after this Visitation, so his wife here is ahead of him. And so the old priest’s song is not the first of the four songs in the Gospel of Luke. That honor goes to Mary, with her Magnificat.
In Latin: Magnificat anima mea dominum. In Greek: Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον. Literally, “Magnifies my soul the Lord.” The Greek original and the Latin translation are both terse and compact, but the modern English translations tend to be wordy and diffuse, and they underplay the femininity and the sexuality. In the last line, she doesn’t say “descendants.” What she says is “seed,” as in “σπερμα,” and if you can’t figure that out I’m not going to tell you. She’s singing about her body no less than about her soul. She is singing about her womanhood. She is young and pregnant, and she’s got some God inside her uterus.
The song is feminine, but it’s for all of us. Because in Greek, your soul is feminine, no matter your sex or gender or orientation. It’s for all of you, especially at prayer. You can repeat this Song of Mary everyday, if you follow the church’s traditions of prayer, especially at Evening Prayer. I repeat it every day. The Magnificat is part of my prayer life every day. It never gets boring, I always look forward to repeating it, for it to change my mind from me to her, and to give her voice to my soul. My soul gets to speak like this young woman every day, this pregnant young woman.
She magnifies God. That’s daring talk for a girl. She acknowledges that God’s done great by her, and she magnifies God right back. As if a human being could increase God’s greatness. Who does she think she is! That’s the wonderful thing about this canticle, compared to say, the Benedictus, it’s as much about herself as it is about God. She gets empowered by her obedience to God.
She says, “All generations will bless me.” Yes, we will, because of what God has done in her, but isn’t it presumptuous of her to claim it? Maybe in certain religions and for certain Biblical authors, but not for Luke. She needs to claim her own experience as a demonstration of all the rest that she’s singing of. God casting down and raising up. God filling and emptying. And when God gets done with all of this, especially with her, then God is even greater than God was before, if not philosophically, then at least historically. God is great in her, she is the Blessed Virgin Mary, essential to our Faith.
The very last line of the canticle has a spring in it, something paradoxical. She says that God has remembered the promise God made to Abraham, “to Abraham and his seed forever.” But there was no seed of Abraham in her. She conceived the child as a virgin. And the mystery of the virgin birth was even more impossible back then than it is for us, for they believed that the whole life of the fetus was in the seed that came from the man, and the woman’s part was merely to be a fertile garden.
She has no seed inside her, so the seed of Abraham that she mentions is herself. She, and not some man, is the inheritor and carrier of God’s promises. This was daring and presumptuous. Who does she think she is! So greatly does she conceive herself. And this is for you too. When you repeat her words and you praise God in her voice, you are claiming a greatness and a status that is daring. You are great, because of God in you.
Your greatness is not in the conventional categories of the world, for in the eyes of the world you may remain a nobody, and even a scandal, like an unwed mother or a child who is illegitimate. But you are great in your own personal portion of obedience, and great in your embrace of what God is doing among the lowly and the hungry.
This is a revolutionary song. “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones.” Well, that word thrones was famously changed to seats in the official King James Version of the Bible, by order of the British Crown. It’s a revolutionary song.
Yes, there is some Cinderella in it, the lowly handmaiden made the consort of the king. There is in it some “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, a girl exulting in herself even in the midst of looming tragedy. But it isn’t Katy Perry singing “Hear Me Roar,” or a woman warrior like Katniss Everdeen. It’s more like Rosa Parks on the bus, or like first-grader Ruby Bridges walking into that school every day by the power of her prayer.
Mary has no weapons, she does no violence, even for the cause of good. She’s pregnant, and all the drive within her is for life, for the preservation of life and the protection of life. She works no vengeance, and she is full of grace. Her only weapon is her little infant needing love. This revolution is of grace and love.
I love the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her devotion to do God’s will cost her greatly but it means no declension or diminution of herself. She is our model. We are made greater when we make God great. How much God asks of you. And yet how much you get back from giving what God asks of you.
And Mary was a model for her son as well. She who gave him birth also taught him his religion and his identity. And what she taught him was what she herself had done, for he must do that too. When he offers himself, when he says, “See, I have come to do your will,” what is he doing but repeating what his mother had done? Mary must have taught him that his revolution must be one of love.
We come back to Elizabeth. It’s thanks to her, I think, that Mary can say these things. It’s thanks to her affirmation and confirmation and her confidence that Mary can open up and sing her song. Mary has a secret, and must have her doubts and second thoughts. She knows her own experience but who would believe her? Elizabeth does. So what we have in this story of two women with their two unborn babies in their wombs is the first four members of the Community of Jesus.
You in this Community of Jesus do for each other what Elizabeth did for Mary. You encourage each other, you believe in each other, even when you have your secrets. You relate to each other prophetically. "I can see the presence of God in you. It will cost you, yes, within the world, but it will not cost you me. If you come to me in need, I will bless you and bless whatever is inside of you, so that you can stand up and sing your song and make God great."
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has regarded his handmaiden’s lowliness. And look, from now on all generations will bless me. For the mighty one has done great by me, and holy is his name. His mercy is on them who fear him in every generation. He’s shown strength with his arm, and scattered the proud in their designs. He’s cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He’s filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He came to help his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.