“Joining Mary’s Song”
You know, it’s not only Catholics who like to name their daughters Mary. It was a very popular name in first-century Palestine also, when a remarkable number of Jews were naming their daughters Mary – after the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, and in defiant memory of Mariamne, who was murdered by her husband, Herod the Great.
Mary’s name suggests that her family was among those in first-century Palestine who longed for God to free them from Rome. The name Mary is unambiguously political, brave, and resistive. Jesus was born into such a family.
We can imagine that Mary’s family and others in their community were remembering the words of the prophets like Micah, and praying that their hopes would be fulfilled again in their own time.
Seven hundred years earlier, Micah expressed hope for a better future for the people of Judah who had endured much devastation (likely the invasion of Sennacherib in Judah in 702-701 BCE). The source of the hope was the suggestion of new leadership for the people. Micah furiously criticizes the Jerusalem king and the elite, and he calls for a new ruler who will bring security and peace to the people.
His words could be interpreted as calling for a ruler in the line of King David. We remember that David was born in the little town of Bethlehem, and we remember that he started out as a shepherd, so that would make sense.
But Micah also says that this new leader will be one “whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” And God is the one who is described as acting in ancient days and times of old, not the Israelite kings. It’s unlikely that the prophet is affirming the Davidic line by mentioning Bethlehem, but he’s probably suggesting that they need to start over with a new king. “Go back to the drawing board. Go back to Bethlehem and find another line, one that will not resort to violence so easily.” Micah’s hope is rooted in change ‘at the top’!
Commentator Daniel Smith-Christopher explains that when the Israelites were having difficulties with unacceptable leadership, the prophets often present one of two solutions: either a new king will come, or God will change the terms of the agreement and take the job God-self.
For example, in Ezekiel 34, God declares God’s disgust with previous shepherds and then announces that God will “take back” the sheep from the shepherds. God declares: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.”
Micah was not looking back to shore up existing structures and powers. He was looking forward – and looking forward to a dramatic change. The ruler to come must not simply be a descendant from, but actually a corrective to, the violent and flawed David. The promised ruler will come from David’s birthplace, but God will call him as a new beginning, a departure from the existing history of kings.
And now we come to Mary – a young woman in a small town, living under an oppressive regime – who was named in honour of a woman prophet of freedom and another woman who was killed by her powerful and corrupt husband.
What happens to Mary is both strange and spectacular. An angel comes to her and announces that she will conceive and bear a son, and she will name him Jesus. “He will be great,” declares the angel, “and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
This is a lot for a young woman to take in. Even if she was living in hope and expectation for God to bring freedom and peace to her people, she couldn’t have expected to be so personally involved in the process.
Hearing from the angel that her relative Elizabeth is also expecting a miraculous child, Mary goes quickly to visit her. Perhaps to confirm that this is really happening. Perhaps to talk to someone who might understand.
As soon as she arrives and Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the child in her womb (John the Baptist) leaps with joy. And we hear that Elizabeth herself is filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims with a loud cry: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Somehow, Elizabeth recognizes that her young relative Mary is the “mother of her Lord,” and Mary responds to this affirmation with a song of praise to the Mighty One who has done great things for her and for all who are lowly, poor, and living under oppression.
Mary’s song of praise is the one we know as the Magnificat – the Latin word that means “magnifies.” Mary’s song expresses her faith that God is now doing something new through her that won’t only change her life, but will turn the whole world upside down.
As Micah hoped, God is beginning again, raising up a new ruler whose origin is “from ancient days,” from God-self, and “he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.”
Both Micah and Mary speak of the future, but Mary does so using the past tense. She sings, “The Mighty One has done great things for me… He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
But in the Greek language, the verbs used are not in the simple past tense as we hear them in English. They are in a past aorist tense unavailable in English. It is a “timeless tense,” expressing what is true in the past, the present, and the future without differentiation. Mary is so sure that God will do these things that she sings as though God has already accomplished it!
I came across an interesting piece of information about the Magnificat this week that I had never heard before. Apparently, some manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke attribute the Magnificat song to Elizabeth instead of Mary. They’re the less reliable manuscripts generally, so biblical scholars are very much in agreement that it’s Mary’s song, not Elizabeth’s.
Still, it’s an interesting point to ponder as we remember the impact of their meeting one another and Elizabeth’s encouragement to Mary as she embraced her calling to participate in the amazing thing that God was doing in the world through the birth, life, and ministry of Jesus, our Saviour.
Even if it was only Mary who sang the song of praise, it certainly arose from the faith and courage of these two women who trusted God, who hoped for a better future, and who were ready to join with God in the work of making justice and peace flourish in the world.
There is a sense in which the song belongs to both Mary and Elizabeth – and beyond them, to all women and men who long for redemption, who chafe at the perdurance of poverty, warfare, injustice, racism, and oppression, who call on God to keep ancient promises and fulfill God’s own purposes in creation.
The longing we experience in this Season of Advent is rooted in the obscene contrast between the way things are in the world today and the way God would have them be. And when we join in the song of Mary and Elizabeth, we join in their expression of faith and hope that God has, and God is, and God will turn the world upside down through the life and love of Jesus to make justice and peace for all people. And when we sing with them, we declare that like them, we are ready to participate in what God is doing.
A few weeks ago, I came across a new set of words to the popular Christmas song, “Mary, did you know.” They were written by Jennifer Henry, a Canadian social justice advocate and former Executive Director of the Churches’ ecumenical justice organization, KAIROS.
I love the way that Jennifer’s new song honours Mary as a bold, courageous, and faithful prophet. And I love the way that Mary has inspired Jennifer, and so many women and men of faith, to give their lives in service of God’s purpose of making justice and peace a reality today. May we also be so inspired.
Mary did you know,
that your ancient words
would still leap off our pages?
Mary did you know,
that your spirit song
would echo through the ages?
Did you know that your holy cry
would be subversive word,
that the tyrants would be trembling
when they know your truth is heard?
Mary did you know,
that your lullaby
would stir your own Child’s passion?
Mary did you know,
that your song inspires
the work of liberation?
Did you know that your Jubilee
is hope within the heart
of all who dream of justice,
who yearn for it to start?
The truth will teach, the drum will sound, healing for the pain
The poor will rise, the rich will fall. Hope will live again
Mary did you know,
that we hear your voice
for the healing of the nations?
Mary did you know,
your unsettling cry
can help renew creation?
Do you know, that we need your faith,
the confidence of you,
May the God that you believe in,
be so true.
Lyrics by Jennifer Henry
(inspired by the popular song of the same name by Mark Lowry [lyrics] and Buddy Greene [music])