Magnificat: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Advent Week Three
Third Week of Advent (Year B): Luke 1:39-56
1) As we tiptoe closer to the manger over the next two Sundays, we’ll read passages from the Gospel of Luke. Mark’s Gospel is our focus this upcoming year, but that book begins with Jesus’ baptism as an adult; for stories about Jesus’ birth, we turn to Luke this week and next.
2) Traditionally, the third week of Advent takes "Joy" as its central theme. It’s sometimes called, “Gaudete Sunday” (gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin), and its candle in Advent wreaths is often rose-colored. The overall idea here is that while Advent is a time of longing and waiting in the shadows for Christ to come, there’s also room for taking some “anticipatory joy” in his coming - much like the vivid moments of joy narrated in this week’s reading from Luke.
3) That reading is the story of Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth. The angel Gabriel has just delivered some astonishing news, and Mary has just delivered her world-changing “Let it be” (that’s next week’s story, by the way). And now, immediately and “with haste,” Mary makes her way to Elizabeth’s house in the hills of Judea for a three-month stay. This is worth noting because scenes featuring women as protagonists with no men present are rare in the Bible. Luke strikingly bookends the life of Jesus with two such scenes: at the end, the discovery of the empty tomb by a group of women, and here at the beginning, Mary, pregnant with God, visits Elizabeth. In this sense, Luke turns the marginalization of women on its head: at both of these crucial points in the action - birth and death, womb and tomb - it’s women at the center of the story.
4) Mary’s song - called the “Magnificat” after the song’s first word in the Latin translation - evokes and echoes its ancient forerunner, Hannah’s song of gratitude to God for the newness of life embodied in her son, Samuel. Hannah is a strong, bold visionary, and her story demonstrates that she is well-acquainted with the history of Israel’s relationship with God. First she prays fervently at the sanctuary in Shiloh, drawing scorn - and eventually, respect - from the local priest. And then later, thanking God for Samuel, Hannah sings of divine majesty and power, painting a picture of God as a master of reversals: YHWH “raises up the poor from the dust,” even as “the bows of the mighty are broken” (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
5) Musically, Mary's song is just the beginning. Luke includes no less than four songs in his Gospel’s two opening chapters: Mary’s, Zechariah’s (traditionally called the “Benedictus”), the angels’ song to the shepherds, and Simeon’s song (the “Nunc Dimittis”) (Luke 1:45-55; 1:67-79; 2:14; 2:29-32). It’s as if Luke stages the story as a kind of exuberant musical, suggesting that the joyful mystery of Jesus’ birth can’t be contained or expressed by prose alone. Again and again, the power and poetry of music break through!
1) Mary has just received stunning, exhilarating news, and her first instinct is to leave her home (and her fiance) in Nazareth - immediately and “with haste” - for an extended stay with her relative, Elizabeth. Part of what’s behind her haste may well be the sheer vulnerability of being a young, pregnant, unmarried woman in first-century Palestine - or anytime and anywhere. Or perhaps she wanted some time and space to process what was happening, in this case with an older, trusted relative who would understand - and indeed a woman blessed with her own astonishing pregnancy (Elizabeth, like her ancestor Sarah before her, was “getting on in years”). Or perhaps she was simply eager to celebrate with a trusted confidante, since joy is seldom complete until it's shared. Whatever her motives, Mary’s first move was to Elizabeth’s home, a sanctuary of inspiring solidarity and support. The fact that this sanctuary was in the hill country of Judea, some distance away from the more politically or prophetically prestigious cities of Jerusalem, Rome, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, only underlines the story’s central theme: God lifts up the lowly, working out deeds of power through supposedly powerless people and places.
2) Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary, “Blessed are you among women,” recalls ancient words spoken about Jael and Judith, two women famous for the parts they played in liberating Israel (Judges 5:24 and Judith 13:18). The greeting thus frames Mary as a liberator, too - and as she sings, a great chorus sings with her: the generations of women throughout the ages with crucial roles in salvation history.
3) Elizabeth testifies that when she heard Mary's greeting, the child in her womb (John the Baptist) “leaped for joy” - and Elizabeth in her own way leaps in her joyous exclamation, as does Mary in her song. The common thread here is a particular kind of anticipatory joy, celebrating what has secretly begun but has not yet fully come into view. Call it “first trimester joy.” After all, both women are still in the midst of shadows and uncertainty, still on the margins of society - and the divine promises themselves seem incredible on the face of things (the priest Zechariah, for example, initially doesn’t believe them! (Luke 1:20)). Nevertheless, they joyfully believe, and testify, and sing.
4) Luke portrays Mary not only as strong and poised, but also as erudite. Her eloquent hymn, so evocative of Israel’s longstanding relationship with God, indicates that she is deeply formed in Jewish tradition (and so was most likely the one who instilled in her son a love of scripture and interpretation). Only someone profoundly familiar with Hebrew scripture and tradition, and in particular with Hannah’s song, could have composed the Magnificat. Luke’s point is clear: Mary is a young woman of vision, learning, artistry, and chutzpah. She interprets her life according to ancient patterns of divine action, and her song encourages us to do the same.
1) Both because this week’s traditional Advent theme is “Joy” and because this reading from Luke is so fiercely joyful, this may be the perfect week to name and explore the role of joy-in-the-midst-of-sorrow in our lives. Singing “Joy to the World” this week may be a good place to start: it tangibly anticipates the joy of Christmas, and it’s also true that Isaac Watts wrote it as an anticipatory celebration not only of the first advent (Christmas) but also of the second, a crucial focus of the Advent season. That's right, you heard it here first: "Joy to the World" is an Advent hymn!
2) Is it possible to be joyful in the midst of the shadows of sorrow? Author and theologian Henri Nouwen puts it this way: while happiness usually depends on circumstances, joy runs deeper. “Joy," he writes, "is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing - sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death - can take that love away.” Thus joy and sorrow can not only coexist; joy can even be found in the midst of sorrowful circumstances. By all outward appearances, Mary’s situation was difficult and vulnerable, but her sparkling song of joy flows from a wellspring deeper than the surface of things.
3) With the Bible in one hand and a newspaper (newsfeed?) in the other, it’s hard to read this passage in Luke without thinking of the many women who have spoken out publically in recent weeks about sexual harassment and assault, and the many prominent perpetrators who have since been “brought down from their thrones.” This resonance opens the door for candid theological reflection on sexuality, power, and respect between men and women as children of God - including constructive thoughts on building a culture, or indeed a congregation, within which our boys and girls can grow up learning healthy, tender, dignified ways to embody their sexuality.
4) Mary sings a revolutionary song about God’s revolutionary love, and this passage illustrates a series of recommendations for activists and communities to consider. First, just as Mary learned from her ancestor Hannah, we are wise to devote time to studying the tradition we've inherited and learning some of its key forms by heart. In this way, we can reflect on the ideas and actions of those who’ve gone before us, all for the sake of building on their good work. Second, when new opportunities and challenges arise, we are wise to follow Mary's example and intentionally seek out allies, forming sanctuaries of mutual support. And third, drawing inspiration from both our forebears and our friends, the next step is having the courage to lift our voices and sing: “Joy to the world, for God is lifting up the lowly!”