By Ched Myers, for the 4th Sunday in Advent (Luke 1:39-55)
Note: This is part of a series of Ched’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2015-16.
Luke 1 is the prolegomenon to the nativity story, and is structured around the stories of two women who, for radically different reasons, cannot conceive. In a nutshell, Elizabeth is too old, and Mary is too young. Their stories are narrated in staggered parallel:
- Annunciation to Elizabeth (1:5-25) Annunciation to Mary (1:26-38)
- Elizabeth’s Response (1:41-45) Mary’s Response (1:46-55)
- John’s birth (1:57-66) Jesus’ birth (2:1-20)
The Zechariah and Elizabeth story is clearly patterned after the Abram and Sarai tale in Genesis 17-18. But this time it is the man who is upbraided by the heavenly messenger because of his incredulity at the promise of a child (1:5-25; in Genesis it was Sarai). Even more scandalously to the patriarchal tradition, he is a priest! Zechariah is struck silent; his wife Elizabeth, on the other hand, embraces the vision and becomes the center of the story.
Mary is no sooner introduced as a “young woman pledged to be married to a man named Joseph” (1:27) than her husband disappears for the rest of the annunciation narrative; its’ all about Mary! Moreover, while Zechariah is silent and Joseph invisible, both Elizabeth and Mary find their voices in significant pronunciations. We should not discount how subversive such a gendered narrative was in the patriarchal world of antiquity, or for that matter, still today.
Both women are visited by the angel Gabriel, after which they conceive sons who, we are told, will become prophets who will change the course of the nation. These annunciations suggest that God sneaks into the world not only on the margins of the physical and political landscape, as in the case of the stories of John the Baptist, but of the somatic and social landscape as well.
At only one point do the two characters at the center of the Luke’s parallel stories meet, and that is in our reading for Fourth Advent. It is an extraordinary moment: two women—one old, one young—both pregnant with prophets, greet each other. It seems that their fetuses recognize each other in a magical leap that one theologian has called a “theology of the womb.” (Right: “Visitation” by Mariotto Albertinelli, 1503.)
Just as significant is the fact that these are village women, of no significant estate. The biographical literature of Roman antiquity, much like the “infotainment” media in our culture, focused almost exclusively upon rich and famous personalities as its subjects. The gospels, in contrast, feature poor folk as the true protagonists of history.
This unlikely “chosenness” is underlined in Luke’s account by Elizabeth’s response, which utters a triple blessing upon womanhood:
And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (1:41-45)
This is, by any measure, a profound break from patriarchal mores and the male domination of narratives. In Luke, it is women who recognize the blessing, mystery, and conspiracy of life. Which is why they are God’s preferred vessels to get the most important things done.
The long tradition of singing carols during Christmas is rooted in Luke’s Advent narrative, which is composed around three canticles: Mary’s “Magnificat” (Lk 1:46-55); Zechariah’s “Benedictus” (Lk 1:68-79); and Simeon’s “Nunc Dimittis” (Lk 2:29-32). These liturgical titles are derived from the opening words of each song in Latin.
Each of the three canticles anticipate social upheavel and the liberation of oppressed Israel, most evident in Mary’s chant about the Lord who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (Lk 1:52). When Zechariah (Lk 1:79) and Simeon (Lk 2:29) sing of “peace,” therefor, it is not the peace of the “Pax Romana,” under which Jewish Palestine suffered military occupation, but the subversive healing mission of a marginalized Messiah. The birth of this “Savior and Lord” (Lk 2:11) is accompanied by an angelic host chanting “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace” (Lk 2:14). But Luke’s language here—despite its persistence today as a favorite Christmas card greeting—could not have been more political. For in his world these terms were applied exclusively to Caesar Augustus! No wonder Luke concludes his Advent story with Simeon’s “reality check”: this non-imperial gospel will be opposed by many, and will have a cost (Lk 2:34-35)!
The most famous of these songs is the Magnificat, which is still chanted at high Mass and sung in high society by professional choirs. Yet a more revolutionary tune could not be found in world literature or music! And it is the focus for this Sunday’s gospel reading.
The first part of Mary’s song is personal: She has been recognized (1:48). As a servant girl, she is as astonished as the reader. It is still extraordinary that God works through the least, unnoticed by all those whose gaze is preoccupied by the Caesars and Pilates, the Herods and high priests of the world. No single aspect of the gospel perspective is more essential: history is not transformed at the center, but at the margins, and in this story, among poor women.
The second part of the Magnificat is about God demonstrating extraordinary strength (1:51)—which is ironic and profound, given who God has chosen. This alternative power, ignored by the “proud,” seems mysteriously lodged in oppressed women giving birth in the face of empire. In fact, this very notion is articulated later in the N.T. in John the Revelator’s vision of a woman struggling to protect life in the face of a Beast who threatens incalculable violence (Rev 12). The dragon is one of the master symbols used by this apocalyptic writer—who was a political prisoner of the Roman Empire in the late first century of the Common Era—and stands for the lethal violence of empire. The dragon’s intent to “devour the child” is a clear allusion to the old Exodus story of Pharaoh’s war on the Hebrew first born—in which it was a conspiracy of women who rescued the kids from the king (Ex 1-2).
Like the Levite mother of Moses, and like Mary of Nazareth, the woman of Revelation 12 gives birth to a son in the teeth of the Dragon, nurturing life in defiance of the power of death. She is “clothed with the sun,” standing on the moon and crowned with stars. These evocative celestial images have been appropriated beautifully in Catholic iconography portraying Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe (left). Guadalupe is the patroness of indigenous peasants displaced by Spanish colonization in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest—and her feast day just passed last Saturday on 12/12, one of the keystone events of the Advent season!
The next verses are perhaps the most subversive in the whole biblical tradition, and make it clear that scripture is not shy about envisioning radical social leveling:
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped her servant Israel, in remembrance of her mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (1:52-55)
This double promise is social (justice to the poor) and political (Yahweh’s faithfulness to the people of Israel).
Many elements of the Magnificat reiterate the ancient Song of Hannah, found in I Sam 2:1-10. The story there is the birth of the prophet Samuel, to a woman who, like Elizabeth in Luke’s account, is unable to get pregnant. Clearly Luke has used this story as a pattern for his nativity. After all, Samuel grows up to warn Israel against taking on a king, just as both of Luke’s babies—John the Baptist and Jesus—will do in their challenges to power. So Mary’s Magnificat recontextualizes Hannah’s hymn about turning world upside down—a powerful scriptural tradition of women’s revolutionary music!
It is worth noting in conclusion that the last word in Luke’s Christmas story also belongs to a woman: the prophet Anna (2:36-38). May we listen today to the most silenced voices among us, those of poor women, so we do not miss “God among us.” This video from Kairos Canada can help us start.