Let Heaven and Nature Sing
On the fourth Sunday of Advent in the year of Luke, the hits just keep coming. We’ve talked about Jael and Judith, and Hannah and Elizabeth. But we have not yet come to the oldest of songs, the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15. Rolf Jacobson has an excellent discussion of the relationship between Mary’s song and the Song of Miriam in his workingpreacher.org commentary on the psalm for this Sunday.
The psalm? Yes, in the Revised Common Lectionary the Magnificat is the appointed and preferred psalm reading (or singing) for this Sunday. On the one hand, the Magnificat is a psalm (or perhaps a medley of psalm references) and a song. So, it should be sung, and a variety of settings is available for that purpose. On the other hand, it is one of the most important texts in the Lukan account and should not be detached from its context any more than necessary.
What is the liturgical solution to this scriptural dilemma? I think the best response to most either/or choices is “Yes.” Sing it as the psalm at the time of the psalm in worship – if that’s what you do. Then read it as part of the gospel lection at the appointed time as well. This can help liturgically oriented congregations remember that most of the sung liturgy is simply quoting scriptural texts. And it can remind us that in our singing we should pay attention to texts as well.
The Exodus references in the Magnificat are fairly transparent. Especially the second half of the psalm, from verses fifty-one through fifty-three reminds us of the flight from Egypt. The reference to the “strength of his arm” is a clear reference to the power of God to rescue the enslaved from tyranny and oppression. The “strong arm of the Lord” is a frequent scriptural reference to God’s power and desire to free all those who are held in bondage.
Mary refers to herself as a “slave” in verse forty-eight. She names Israel as the “slave of the Lord” in verse fifty-four. While these labels are and should be problematic for us, especially in predominantly White, western, European churches, they can remind us of the liberation focus of Mary’s psalm. In the Exodus, the powerful is brought down from his throne. The hungry are filled with good things both at the Passover and in the wilderness wanderings.
Of course, Mary’s name in the Greek is actually “Mariam” or “Miriam.” The Magnificat is, in a deep and powerful way, the second song of Miriam. It is an announcement of the Exodus finally and completely fulfilled. The Great Reversal is not merely the humbling of Pharaoh but rather the humiliation of each and every power that seeks to lower the lowly, starve the hungry, and imagine itself as the Master of the Universe.
The psalm begins on a deeply personal note, but it shifts to a communal and historic focus in the second half. In a significant sense, Mary embodies and recapitulates Israel. What happens to her in microcosm is what God intends for Israel in the macrocosm. The psalm reaches back through Miriam to Sarah and Abraham. Israel bears the Messiah for the saving of the world.
If the description of Mary as a humiliated slave is purely personal, it might be offensive and require us to distance ourselves from such a portrayal of a woman. But if Mary represents Israel, then the phrase is historically descriptive. In the Exodus from Egypt and the Return from Exile, God has dealt favorably with those downcast in slavery and done great things for them.
Just as Abraham was blessed in order to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, so now Mary is blessed. That blessing, to be the bearer of God’s presence in and for the world, will be remembered by all generations. Most important, God has remembered this mercy for Israel, just as God promised in the covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
Mary represents and embodies faithful Israel. She is certainly portrayed as the prototype of a faithful disciple in her response to the Annunciation. Here the Lukan author shows her to be the representative of Israel, bringing forth the Messiah and rejoicing in the vocation.
Why does this matter, apart from historical and literary concerns? There is an interplay in the Magnificat of the personal and the communal. You can’t have the one without the other. Salvation is never a merely personal reality. Salvation of the individual person is always rooted in the rescue of all – of all flesh, if we trust what the Lukan author wants us to hear.
Western Protestantism, especially in its Evangelical flavors, tends to focus exclusively on the individual being saved. Salvation is a sort of additive process. If every individual in the cosmos would be saved, then the whole cosmos will be saved. I know that’s a bit of a caricature of the perspective, but I think it’s close enough in the thinking of many Christians. I need to focus on my own salvation. You need to focus on yours. Then let’s meet together at the end.
This perspective fits snugly into the Individualism which is part and parcel, first of the Enlightenment modernism – with its horror of group identities and the warfare such tribalism can produce – and then postmodern theories of truth, knowledge, and ethics as being true for the individual only, since there is no Truth with a capital “T.” It is one of the oddities of history that a theological movement committed to maintain Tradition is comfortable with one of the most radical propositions of modern and postmodern thought.
God’s rescue from Sin, Death, and the Devil is a project directed at the whole of Creation, the entire cosmos which God loves. My “being saved” is a part of that project, not the entire goal of the project. If I think that my being saved is enough, will be complete, without the rescue of all that God loves, then I am still caught in the malignant narcissism which is so much the definition of Sin. I am with David Bentley Hart, among others, on this one. The logic of salvation is that God desires that all shall be saved. And “all” means ALL.
Notice, therefore, how the song moves from Mary’s personal joy to a joy for the rescue, release, and redemption of all. At least it’s a song that moves from Mary to the whole of Israel. The mention of Abraham and blessing reminds us that the purpose of Israel’s existence is to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, not merely to themselves.
I always think that the fourth Sunday in Advent is the time to break out “Joy to the World” as the transition from the marvelous hymns of Advent to the glad songs of Christmas. It is, in our ELCA hymnals, the first hymn in the Christmas section. It could just as easily be the final hymn in the Advent section. The universal scope of Isaac Watts’ text amplifies the message of the Magnificat to great effect.
There is always, of course, the danger of triumphalism. There is the danger that we think God’s triumph over Sin, Death, and the Devil is a triumph over our political enemies as well. When a human system embodies arrogant power, control of resources, concentration of wealth and power, and enslavement of the poor, then God will triumph over that system in the end. However, it is not (as Abraham Lincoln so wisely observed) that God is on our side. The question always is whether or not we are on God’s “side.” When we believe and act as if God is on our “side,” we are guilty of triumphalism.
Allan A. Boesak argues that we see a move from rejoicing to triumphalism in the text as it unfolds after Miriam’s song in Exodus. The temptation is often to claim God’s triumph as our own. We do that in individual terms when we act as if God finally wised up and saved me because I’m so good. We do that in communal terms when we make our power preferences determinative for how God operates in the world.
“In biblical Israel,” Boesak writes, “the mark of greatness was not superiority in war and domination in imitation of empire. It was instead the imitation of the power of Yahweh: liberation from slavery, steadfast mercy and love, and justice done to the vulnerable, the widow, the stranger and the orphan. Indeed: Israel’s very greatness,” he continues, “was in preserving the presence of faithful prophetic witness, proclaiming this God, over against the gods of ‘the nations’” (page 5).
If anyone could be tempted to think, “This is about me,” it would be Mary. Yet, that is precisely what doesn’t happen. Her song moves from the personal to the communal, from the individual to the social, from the particular to the cosmic, because that is where God’s interests lie and what Christmas is about. It is not an opposition of “me” against “the world.” There cannot be the one without the other. If my salvation is disconnected from the redemption of all, it’s not salvation. If my salvation is not God’s concern for me within that larger picture, then we’re talking about the wrong God.
Watts says it well when he puts “let earth receive her king” and “let every heart prepare him room” in the same sentence. These are not separate or competing areas of interest for God. They are the same theater of operations, simply in different dimensions.
The outcome should be obvious for us as Jesus followers. If God’s focus is both me and bigger than me, then should our focus be any different? Christmas joy is a political position or it’s not worth the bother.
References and Resources
Boesak, Allan A. “The riverbank, the seashore and the wilderness: Miriam, liberation and prophetic witness against empire.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73.4 (2017).
Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.
Skinner, Matthew L., “Looking High and Low for Salvation in Luke” (2018). Faculty Publications. 306. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/306.
Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.
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