By Deirdre Good
Is it merely clergy-centered myopia that omits Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, from the Eucharist on any Sunday in the year, never mind Advent or Christmas? After all, we are following Luke’s story of Jesus’ nativity centered on two related pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary and their husbands, Zechariah and Joseph. In it, Luke describes the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to announce that she would give birth to a child before she had sexual relations with her husband. This puzzling feature of Luke’s story is confirmed by the angel’s news of the miraculous pregnancy of her elderly relative Elizabeth. After the angel departs, Mary goes immediately to verify the news of Elizabeth’s divinely engineered pregnancy. Then she sings of God’s elevation of her lowly status as the means of the exaltation of the humble through the coming of the Messiah:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good thing
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy,
The promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Of course, clergy, professional religious, and some lay people say the Magnificat in the Daily Office — a time when few people are in church, and fewer reciting it at home. In this setting it functions as a canticle of praise, and one of the few occasions when a women’s voice is used as a vehicle for the universal voice of all believers. But why does the Church’s Eucharistic lectionary neglect this powerful song of praise on Sunday, the one day of the week it might actually reach the laity?
Is it because the account of Jesus’ birth has dramatic implications for male agency in the gospel and even in Christian tradition? Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian notes: “the male, as the specific agent of human action and history with his responsibility for developing the human species, must now retreat into the background..” And even as male agency is silenced and diminished in favor of divine action in the story of Jesus’ birth, others who have no reproductive role such as widows and eunuchs are raised up in Luke-Acts. Far from being “dry trees,” widows and eunuchs are powerful models of faithful persistence and confession. The widow of Luke 18, for example, pleads and then faces down the resistant judge and she succeeds in physically threatening him enough to render a decision in her favor. It is she, not the judge, who embodies divine power. The Ethiopian eunuch makes the first confession of faith in Acts, especially if we read Acts 8:37 (missing in some translations but known in the second century to Irenaeus): “Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.'”
Mary’s Magnificat publicly celebrates in a prophetic voice God’s mighty deeds in the immediate past. In one Bible study group, when I pointed out that Mary knew stories of God’s intervention in Hebrew Scriptures because she was a devout Jewish woman, a woman exclaimed, “I’ve always wondered where she got what she sang!” Mary prophesies that reversal is characteristic of divine intervention in human affairs, that God’s concern is for the lowly and despised. She celebrates God’s power to act on behalf of those marginalized and ostracized to the extent of casting the mighty down from their thrones. Why don’t we encounter this powerful message in our central liturgies? Why doesn’t the Hymnal 1982 have a metrical setting of the Magnificat in its Advent or Christmas section? After all, without Mary’s assent and prophetic witness, there wouldn’t be an incarnation – or a Christmas! — at all.
Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.