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Advent 4 – The Magnificat as Literature

1 Sam 2:1-8; Luke 1:46b-55

Some of you will know that I belong to a book club – I joined a group that Tracey had started nearly 20 years ago. At the time they were reading The Red Tent, a wonderful novel based on the Old Testament story of Dinah the sister of the 12 sons of Jacob. Tracey invited me to come and discuss it with them from my knowledge of the biblical story. I was hooked – I have always loved reading and I loved the idea of expanding my literary tastes beyond the forensic murder mysteries that had become a habit into more uplifting reading.

It is interesting when a group of people discuss books how different the reactions can be. These sorts of groups work best, of course, when there are different opinions – that makes for better discussions. I’ve come to discover that my priorities are an imaginative structure and beautiful prose – with these qualities my favourite books include David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Colum McCann’s Apeirogon. And, I should add, a lot of the Bible!

Others are more attracted to a good plot, or compelling characters. And others to books that highlight issues that change our views or make us think more deeply about the world. When we discuss all these different aspects we go away with a richer appreciation for the book, even if some of us didn’t initially like it.

Another thing that has dawned on me relatively recently is that I love my work as an Old Testament scholar because I love literature. What gets me most excited is seeing the literary qualities of biblical passages – the structure, the language, the intertextual links, the metaphors, the linguistic techniques – I could talk for ages about the beautiful acrostic devices used in Lamentations! It also impresses me that some of the most violent content of the bible is rendered with exquisite literary technique. I noticed, for example, that when Jael murders Sisera in Judges 5, no less than seven different Hebrew verbs are used that could all be translated “he died”. The author-poet by their choice of vocabulary thoroughly did away with this enemy of the Israelites. Close attention to the word order and structure can add great depth to what we read in scripture. At the end of Psalm 18 the translation we usually read is “I will extol you, O Lord, among the nations, and sing praises to your name”.

A literal translation following the Hebrew syntax is “Let me extol you among the nations, O Lord, and to your name let me sing praises”. I think the writer of that song was quite deliberately placing God in the midst of Israel’s praises by surrounding “lord” and “your name” with the desire for worship. We can miss out on humour too unless we notice the literary techniques – do you know that in the book of Jonah the Hebrew word for “fish” changes from the masculine form to the feminine form when Jonah is inside its belly? These things I find fascinating!

But today we are looking at a New Testament story – an Advent story. I’d like to lead you through it from two different angles: first focusing on the plot and characters then on the literary qualities.

So first, let’s read it as a narrative with a good plot and intriguing characters.

We’ve only heard the song today – the Magnificat – but the lead up story is terrific.

Zechariah was an elderly priest in the temple in Jerusalem, in a province by this time part of the Roman empire and known as Judea. The angel Gabriel came to him and told him that he had good news: his equally elderly wife Elizabeth would bear him a son who would be like Elijah, a forerunner for the messiah. Zechariah and Elizabeth, like their forebears Abraham and Sarah, were old enough that this good news came as a great surprise to Zechariah. So much so that he questioned the angel and was chided for his lack of faith by being rendered mute right through the pregnancy and until the child had been born and circumcised. In this long first chapter of Luke we hear of Gabriel’s subsequent visit to Mary and her surprise at the news that she also was to bear a special son. But she responds by calling herself a willing servant, open and ready to be visited by God’s grace. Gabriel then tells her that her cousin Elizabeth has also miraculously conceived and she immediately travels to see her. No doubt she is relieved that there is someone close to her who will be able to empathise with her – someone also in an embarrassing situation. There is a lovely description of their meeting with Elizabeth’s baby leaping with joy in her womb, in recognition that something special has happened to Mary. Despite the difference in their ages they have a deeply spiritual connection. Elizabeth blesses Mary and in response Mary sings her own beautiful song known to us as the Magnificat.

It is tempting to fill in some gaps in this plot – actually you could say Matthew’s gospel does that – and it is tempting to make some links between this story and issues of our own time. The lady in blue staring into a baby’s face and the angels and stars and kings with gifts and adoring animals around the manger tends to whitewash the real circumstances surrounding those events. Think for a minute about what it would have been like for Mary to find herself pregnant while betrothed to Joseph, who Matthew describes as a righteous man. In such a time and place this was more than mere scandal, decisions would have been made within a culture that would happily see such a woman stoned to death. Think about where Mary would be right now if she were living in our own time in a country like Iran!

Indeed, Matthew tells us everything from the male point of view. An angel comes to Joseph to reassure him that God has everything in control. The visiting Magi are male. King Herod is involved. It is Joseph who has the dream to flee Bethlehem, and another dream to return.

But we are hearing from Luke’s story today, and Luke has made it a woman’s story. Luke is telling the story from Mary’s viewpoint. The angel comes to Mary. She takes the initiative to visit her cousin Elizabeth. We are told the Holy Spirit links the two women. There are details that only women would speak about – pregnancy, a baby moving in the womb, birth stories, Mary’s purification in the Temple following the birth. It is hard to imagine the women talking about these things with men in the Jewish culture of that time. If childbirth made a woman unclean and in need of purification, then such stories would have been of little interest or value to men. But, as Luke puts it, “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (2:19). And ultimately they were passed on from Mary’s heart to our hearts, via the gospel of Luke.

Mary fits into this narrative plot as an exemplary disciple. She receives the angel’s message with gracious acceptance, shares her good news with Elizabeth, and she is the singer of the first of several hymns of praise used in Luke’s gospel. She is the first to hear about Jesus and she is his first disciple, the first to sing God’s praises. Only the words of the hymn give any hint of the inner turmoil she must have been feeling, since the words are of the world being turned upside down.

Let’s go back now and look again at the story, this time as a piece of literary artistry.

I have already hinted at some thematic contrasts offered in the story. The angel goes first to the establishment; to an elderly male priest, who together with his wife have a solid priestly lineage, are faithful and law abiding. While Zechariah is doing his duty in the Jerusalem temple, told with some detail, Gabriel appears to him and gives him a special message of a child to be born as an answer to his prayers. Zechariah questions this message, and there must have been something in his voice that signalled unbelief because his silence is a punishment as well as a sign.

Then the angel goes to the margins, to a village in Nazareth, to a woman whose status as a betrothed virgin suggests she is young and inexperienced. Nothing is said of her spirituality, her regard for the law, or her prayers. Gabriel gives her a special message of a child to be born who will be a king – no less than God’s son. She also questions this, but there must have been something in her voice that signalled trust and acceptance. She understandably asks how she could have a child, and the angel’s answer is that she will be overshadowed by the power of God (1:35). Here we have allusions to the Old Testament. This was the language that had been used of God’s presence in first the tabernacle and then the temple. In contrast to Zechariah doubting in the temple, Mary has become the true temple, a willing servant of the Lord.

As we think of the literary quality of Luke’s story, we need to remember Luke was a Jew in a Greek speaking world. He uses a Greco-Roman literary ploy that was common at the time: to describe the origin of a divine man as the son of a god and a human woman. This is how Virgil described the birth of Emperor Augustus, in fact how each of the births of Heracles, Alexander the Great, Octavian, and Plato were explained. Luke’s version is slightly different though. Rather than a deity taking on the guise of a man to impregnate a mortal woman, Luke insists that Mary was a virgin who conceived through the incorporeal action of the Holy Spirit. As Vasiliki Limberis puts it, Luke carefully crafted his narrative to spread the word about a new god who is superior to all others, yet surprisingly familiar to his pagan contemporaries. (Women in Scripture, 2000, 118) What’s more, in the biblical narratives God had given many childless women sons, but only one young but very special woman had been chosen to bear God’s own son.

Luke underscores Mary’s specialness in the words of her song, the Magnificat. The words move from personal experience to communal experience to the experience of God in history. These verses too are full of allusions to the Old Testament – when we heard Hannah’s song read to us you will have noticed the echoes in Mary’s song, but there are words and ideas from Deuteronomy, Psalms, Zephaniah, Isaiah, even Habakkuk, as well as some other Jewish writings such as Judith and Enoch. God had lifted up the lowly by choosing Mary to be the mother of Jesus, leading her to claim that this would be good news for the poor and hungry and woe for the rich and powerful. In the rest of the gospel of Luke we see Jesus acting out these very principles. Where Matthew has Jesus delivering 8 beatitudes, or blessings, Luke’s Jesus has four beatitudes for those who are suffering and four woes for the contented.

A favourite commentary on Luke that I have is by Eduard Schweizer –  he was a teacher of Thorwald’s in Zurich. In his discussion of the Magnificat he raises the question of whether the Magnificat is really Elizabeth’s song? Think about it – we are told it was Elizabeth who was filled with Holy Spirit; later in the chapter Zechariah her husband has a parallel song – the Benedictus; it is modelled on Hannah’s song from the Old Testament and both Hannah and Elizabeth were older women who had longed for a child (both described as being advanced in years and barren), both were promised a son in the context of prayer in the temple, both sons were to be children dedicated to the Lord in the special Nazirite fashion (set apart, abstaining from strong drink). In this theory, a pre-existing Old Testament song had already been reworked, and Luke tweaked it again and placed it in Mary’s mouth to highlight her as the model disciple.

Whether or not this is correct, this is the beauty of good literature, to take stories and traditions and reshape them to speak to new audiences. After all, this is the role Scripture has for us. Hannah’s song becomes Elizabeth’s song becomes Mary’s song becomes our song.

The Magnificat becomes our song especially today when we recognise another notable literary feature within it – that of paradox.

Actually this whole Advent and Christmas season is a paradox. At the time of the year when we should be slowing down and easing off in our responsibilities, we seem to be busier than ever. Last week I attended 6 end of year functions! At the time of year when we should be dieting to get our beach bodies ready, we are sorely tempted by all the Christmas goodies. At the time of the year we should be thinking about emptying ourselves and preparing to accept the reality of Christ anew, we are filling ourselves and those close to us with more things than we need.

Some of you know I am a great believer in Lists – this time of year they become especially important. The bible passages read to us had lists too – lists of God’s action in the world:

  • The bows of the mighty are broken
  • The feeble gird on strength
  • Those who were full have hired themselves out
  • Those who were hungry are fat
  • The barren has borne seven
  • She who has many children is forlorn
  • The powerful have been brought down from their thrones
  • The lowly have been lifted up
  • The hungry have been filled with good things
  • The rich have been sent away empty
  • God has remembered mercy.

Whichever hemisphere we live in, this time of the year is a turning point. The solstice in a couple of days will mean the sun has reached its highest point and the days length will begin to reverse. Perhaps we can take that as a reminder that God’s birth should mark a shift in focus – turning from focusing on our own lives to embrace God’s action in the world again. Christmas calls for a kind of death – a giving up of old selfish ways, turning away from worn-out assumptions, starting life over in a different mind space. And it also calls for a kind of birth – to be newly surprised by the ways of God in our world. According to the story, the creator of heaven and earth once became a helpless babe, trusted into the keeping of a young unmarried mother! This God chooses the lowly as a means of revelation, and the story of this God will be told over and over, even if it is tweaked for new audiences, because it is a good story. A paradoxical story of hope that still has the power to turn us around.

JM, 18 Dec 2022