A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Our usual protocol when it comes to reading the Gospel is that the task is usually assigned to the Deacon, which would be me, but I asked Mary, our Mary, not the real Mary.....wait, she is a real Mary. I asked Mary to read this particular Gospel reading this morning because this is a woman's song, and it begs a woman's voice. Let's face it. Women don't get to speak often in scripture. That precinct was the domain of men, the scribes and the church fathers. For some seven thousand years, after the demise of matrilineal culture in the Mediterranean Basin, which includes the ancient Near East, we men have spoken for us all and have spoken from a position of power and privilege, from a position often of dominance. Even in our own Democratic society women didn't receive the basic right to vote until 1920. Equal pay for women in our economy remains a hope. Still today, all over the world, women are subject and secondary to the power of men, and the ways of men, the way of might making right.
To be poor in our world is tragic; but to be a poor woman in our world is lowly. The word behind our translation of lowliness in the Greek means, not humble as it is often translated.... but humiliated, abused, of no account. So this is not only a woman's song, but the song of the least of the least: A woman poor, a woman abused, a woman of no account.
I am always overwhelmed by this passage, because here is the lowest of the low in the first century Palestinian social order, a poor teenage woman, and to make matters worse, she is pregnant and she is unmarried. Her fear must have been overwhelming, and she must have felt utterly alone. She must have felt like the widowed refugees in the Sudan and Chechnya and Bosnia. She must have felt as alone as the women who come to Penelope House in our own town.... And what in her one moment in the whole of Scripture, her one moment to speak beyond a mere, perfunctory phrase, will she say? She says nothing.... Instead, she sings God's praises.
She does what the people of Israel have forever done in their moments of darkest despair: They sing praise to God. Psalm 22 which we read during Holy Week is a prime example. The Psalm describes abject despair, but then quite marvelously becomes a song of praise. It begins with lament: ``My God my God....'' And later, ``I am poured out like water. All my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax. It is melted within my breast. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You lay me in the dust of the grave.'' This is the cry of Jacob, of Moses, of David, of Jeremiah, of Ezekiel, of Job, of Jesus on the cross. It is our cry. Psalms were public, liturgical songs, songs set for Temple worship, so when Jesus, on the cross, begins the 22 Psalm: My God my God, Why have you forsaken me, he is literally leading worship... for every age. In every case throughout scripture, despair always gives way to praise. Psalm 22, after a litany of pain declares: ``And yet...and yet... in the congregation, O Lord, I will praise you.''
In our passage today, here is a poor pregnant and unmarried peasant woman from the hill country of Galilee now anointed in the midst of utter chaos to sing about not only her own salvation, but the very salvation of Israel. She now is the voice of praise for all. It is as if the voice of praise and God's saving grace meet in the air. One does not necessarily prescribe or precede the other. She now is the one to lead us in worship and praise of God, prophesying hope for all in a seemingly hopeless world. The entire narrative of Luke ceases in this moment....it waits....it listens....it listens to her voice....this voice of truth and hope. The narrative in Luke will for now on serve this voice.
And with what authority does this lowly woman sing. She is the very embodiment of the powerless. The great orators and rhetoricians of her age would scoff surely. Well I would suggest that her authority lies in her knowing: She knows the need of humanity. She is poor. She is hungry. She knows too well the way of the world. She can feel it. She knows that poverty is not the result of failure, but a result of injustice and the wrong use of power. She, in short, knows what we all are ultimately up against.
But she knows something else. She knows in her body that there is hope. She knows deep within her body that there is new life, a new heartbeat striking a metronomic pulse for her song that she must sing, even at her darkest hour. This is the sacred feminine voice of God, attested to throughout the Wisdom tradition of Judaism, that would bid us, as Julian of Norwich bids us, that ``all manner of thing will be well.'' This is the knowing voice of praise. In this voice we hear that God will continue to do what God does. Mary knows and we are reminded of this because we know God's history. In this sweet painfully fleeting song we hear echoes of Hannah singing God's praises for the birth of Samuel, the new leader of Israel's way forward. We hear echoes of the Exodus from Egypt. God is a saving God, and God will continue to save, she sings. We know this because we know in our bodies that this is true, our despair notwithstanding.
But her song doesn't end with praise only. Praise becomes prophecy. Her praise invites a vision of the very kingdom of God, the new creation wherein the vertical structures of power are judged, i.e. reordered into the way God intended for creation to be. A new order where all will be fed, all will have shelter, where justice flows like a mighty river for all of God's people.
I have heard it said about this passage, the Magnificat, these glorious words that have inspired art and music for two millennia, that this is the moment Mary says yes to God's will of salvation. But I want to say that she also says no. She says amid her grateful praise no to the injustice of the world that would oppress. She says no to the powers and principalities that would lord that power for themselves. Mary has taken up the song of the prophet that says that there is no order but God's gracious order. It is the only order that will last. All others will pass away. It is the only order that is eternal. It is the only way that gives life, and life abundant.
How would such a woman know? Perhaps it is because she is a mother. She knows in her body that there is new life, new potential, new creation. She knows as all mothers know that this life within her is divine. It is now and not yet. She feels the heartbeat, but it is faint, yet to come. But this life will come, my brothers and sisters. It is very near to us. This life will surely come.
On this feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, let us all become knowing mothers, mothers pregnant with God's life for the world, and let us be midwives to each other for the world's sake. Mary's song is God's dream for the world. Shall we sing with her? Shall we sing with the poor who know in their bodies the need of humankind? May their dreams of heaven be ours as well; and let us serve that dream with voices of unceasing praise. Amen
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