I am moved by every line of the Magnificat, by its every phrase and every word. I felt it again so strongly the other day, I decided we should devote one Sunday of Advent to each stanza, and Dr. Elizabeth signed on with me. The Four meditations on the Magnificat (Luke 1:39-56) will go like this:
Nov. 29, Advent I--My soul magnifies the Lord. Dec. 6, Advent II--God has scattered the proud. Dec. 13, Advent III--God has lifted up the lowly. Dec. 20, Advent IV--God has helped his servant Israel.
If the Magnificat had dropped out of the sky without context or source, I would be moved by it. To me it amounts to a flash of brilliant sunlight breaking through the opening clouds. I am still moved, after how many decades since I first read it, by the calm, by the utter certitude of it.
What a start to the story of our Jesus—his mother, surprised by pregnancy, sings, she sings out, but to whom, to the baby? to her older cousin Elizabeth who is also surprised by a pregnancy? To God? to us?-- Along the natural course of human life, these two women, Elizabeth and Mary, share a common experience, and like any new mothers-to-be, both are full of delight and wonder at what has descended upon them.
I, being male, can only imagine the extent of such feelings, the first steps of a journey taken by every mother and yet which is owned uniquely by each of them!
But I do get it, when Mary begins and sings, My soul magnifies the Lord--!
Spontaneously, up rises this burst from Mary’s soul--from where? --her soul! --from the eternal part of her which animates every human being, that part of her responds to this news, as from like to like—the corresponding part of herself responds to God—I do get it.
I was in a fix once, one I was not going to get out of, and I was really worried. A friend asked me, “Don’t you trust life?” Until then, no one had ever put it that way to me, I had not even thought of my Christian faith that way. It’s so that clear what is called for in life is to trust it, life being God-given, all the way from the furthest thing that telescopes can see to the smallest that microscopes magnify.
There’s that word--magnify, to make larger, make plainer, make more real.
Now comes this surprise which, humanly speaking, suddenly puts a woman’s foot on another path, and her soul tells out the greatness of her God-given life which she embraces. And she is one with it, come what may—she will accept her vocation, not just as a natural fact but as one more subject of the kingdom of God, her spirit is at one with God’s saving purposes. All the different things that can possibly happen, Mary is prepared to own, for better or for worse, but she trusts in God her Savior, she trusts life because it is God.
And Mary says so, by Luke’s inventiveness, in exactly the words of another woman, Hannah, a formerly barren woman who gives birth to Israel’s first prophet, Samuel, and whose song begins, “My heart exults in the Lord” (I Samuel 2). No one could have recorded Mary’s words, so Luke provides appropriate ones well known in Israel’s traditions that line right up with Mary herself, and he does a little editing to personalize the theft when he writes “from now on all generations will call me blessed,” referring to herself, Mary.
What Luke plagiarized was familiar to him through two related sources: one, Hannah’s hymn, and two, the repeated singing of this hymn by small bands of Temple hangers-on in Jesus’ time who adopted it as their hymn, alternative Jewish communities who had found a way to live out of no way by living in the Lord. Scholars today (Raymond Brown, E.P. Sanders) know who they were—the aniwim, meaning the poor ones, so designated not just for the SES level of limited means but also for their piety, meaning their intentionally religionless piety. Some of them eventually gathered in Jewish-Christian clusters after Jesus’ death.
Their piety stretched back into Israelite history a long way, to Israel’s very origins. They understood God not to be the God of the religious professionals, nor the greatest God among other gods, but a God beyond God, something we call “God” but is Other than the anthropomorphic being that usually comes to mind. It was revealed to Israel that the Creator God forms common cause with humanity, with all creation, with the cosmos—and Israel caught that. At that point, humanity went from worshiping “god the void and god the enemy to God the fellow-sufferer who understands” (Alfred North Whitehead).
How meaningful that the childbirths of three women of Israel—Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary—witnessed to a different kind of life than governed by priests, a life partnered directly with the giver of life. God for Israel is the “mothering matrix of existence,” (Henry Nelson Wieman), whose “judgment” we feel when we worship created goods rather than the creative good. Despite its anthropomorphic stories about an angry and jealous God, Israel still got it across that they worshiped some Other beyond the human characteristics attributed to “him.”
The post-Easter Christians saw in Jesus one who embodied this faith. The gospel writers, like Luke, then wove a story around all the supporting cast, like Mary, which brings us to the Magnificat to which we have become inured by pious overuse. Mary’s calm and her utter certitude is everywhere in the gospels, but it really jumps out at you in her incandescent words.
Luke was never worried about plagiarism—all four gospels are a patchwork of gleanings from tradition and borrowings from legend. Nor did Luke worry about prolepsis—all kinds of things are said in the nativity story that a character would not have known at that juncture. The Nativity story is the original Christmas pageant, with grand entrances, villains, surprise appearances, marvelous doings, and grand speeches like the Magnificat.
I want to warn you away from two particular disputes over Mary that are irrelevant distractions Christians have followed down destructive rabbit holes--
Her purported virginity was a requirement of the Israelite story-teller to meet the standard of purity that qualifies Jesus as messiah, so an after-the-fact fabrication was imported.
Her perceived passivity was applied as grounds for subordination to male-favorable social norms.
So with these things in mind, I hope you are moved as I am by every line of the Magnificat, by every phrase and every word. What a start to the story of our Jesus--his mother, surprised by pregnancy, sings, she sings out, but to whom, to the baby? to her older cousin Elizabeth who is also surprised by pregnancy? To God? --to us?
Or could it possibly, actually be our own song?
Mary’s Magnificat should alert us—awake, wake up! Don’t miss your vocation. Perhaps it is calling you from within what you are already doing, or from around a corner you haven’t quite turned yet. Most important—don’t underestimate your divine partner.
This week, at your table, read out loud the poetry of the Magnificat—you will experience how progressive liberal Protestantism is heir to Mary’s creative waiting. It’s not like waiting for the bus which your app tells you is coming but you can’t hasten, but rather waiting that is involved and engaged in the unfolding future.
You will know the love, joy, hope and sublime peace of Advent. Now you know why always and everywhere, in the Lord I’ll be ever thankful!