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The Politics of Scripture

Advent Epiphanies in Intimate Encounters

The Magnificat is a song that disrupts both gender and hierarchical spaces. It is a song of anticipation and a song of realization. And as we meditate on this song during advent, we meditate on the nature of advent that is both a time of anticipation and realization. Advent is an ambiguous space that invites us to anticipate and realize the erasure of differences here and now.

46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:46-55

A parishioner boasted in a baby shower celebration of his daughter, “When I gave my daughter in marriage, she was a virgin.” This statement raised eyebrows in disgust for some, while for many others gathered, it was a matter of pride. The control of female sexuality by fathers, brothers, spouses and in fact the entire society prevails even in the 21st century. The dissonance between whom the society wants women to be and who they want to be ends up in creating a logic of female dualism wherein women are either “whores” (evil) or “virgins” (good). While “virgins” are valorized as good, “whores,” are demonized and demoralized. 

In this female binary, women are expected to bend towards one pole of the binary, that is to be “virgins” (good). Those who are subservient, sacrificial, and self-immolating are tagged as “virgins” or “good.” And those who are outspoken and ambitious are easily tagged as “whores.” This female binary normalizes violence against “whores” or “bad” women and reason violence against such women as inviting. Responses to the surge in rape and sexual assault in India, against women in general and Dalit women in particular espouse a similar ideology that only “bad” women are raped. Since they “invite” violence and sexual assault, “bad” women’s stories do not receive credibility as much as virgin’s stories receive. The dying witness of Manisha Valmiki, a Dalit girl who was gang raped by dominant caste men and succumbed to injuries and died in late September 2020 was not accepted as credible by, specifically the dominant caste communities. They undermined her story, witness, injuries, and paraded protesting and challenging even her dying declaration. 

In a context where the witnesses of “bad/evil/subversive” women continue to be rejected as false, we are invited to mediate upon such stories of women whose witnesses, experiences and life occupy ambiguous spaces. Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 is embraced by the church, preached from the pulpits, and taught to the children because she is a “virgin.”  The church memorializes the desexualized “virgin” Mary and hallowed her for her “virgin” birth. We are aware that parthenon in Luke 1:27 does not mean “virgin” but an “unmarried daughter.” However, the Church history and Christian tradition elevates the status of Mary primarily for her “virginity.” In memorializing her for the desexualized birth of Jesus, Mary was uplifted as she seemingly maintains the status quo and perpetuates the patriarchal values of submission, self- sacrifice, and self-denial. But in Luke 1, Mary occupies an ambiguous space. While the angel emphasizes Mary’s “virginity,” to convince even her would-be spouse Joseph about her pregnancy needed yet another divine intervention.  Mary was situated in a space where Manisha Valmiki was. Just as Manisha’ witness was not trusted by many; Mary’s was not trusted even by her would-be spouse Joseph. However, as time unfolds, Mary embraced her ambiguous space and rejected polarizations.

The Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 that twins with Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10  is her denunciation of the polarizations: polarization of the feminine as “virgin” (good) and “whore” (evil), rich and poor, powerful and lowly and proud and meek. The Magnificat is a song that inaugurates hope for those crushed by the polarized society. The gospel of Luke, which is the only gospel that records Mary’s song or the song attributed to Mary, informs the readers of the euphoria Mary experiences after her meeting with Elizabeth. In her encounter with angel in Luke 1:26-28, Mary expresses perplexity, anxiety, and uncertainty, readers are not informed of any excitement. It was her meeting with Elizabeth and her prophetic proclamation that excites Mary.

After speaking to Zechariah in the holy of the holies from beside the altar (Luke 1:8-20), angel meets Mary perhaps in a public space (Luke 1:26-38). The ambiguity in identifying the space of Mary-angel encounter by region in general and not by the specifics is indicative of the possibility for the encounter to be anywhere. If we are not preoccupied by the Christmas pageants we see in our churches, the Mary-angel encounter could even be in a marketplace, where strangers meet and converse. The lack of any mention of the space of Mary-angel encounter is also an indication of breaking away from hierarchical spaces. While the angel encounters a priestly class male in a private and “holy” space. The latter encounter breaks away from the hierarchical space disrupting the notion of divine intervention as limited to the “holy of the holies.” Mary-angel encounter moves closer to the public domain signaling the public role of Mary and thereby Jesus’s ministry.

After a spatial difference between the encounters, we also notice a gender difference in the encounters. While Zechariah, a priestly class male is informed about his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy, placing Zechariah in the patriarchal tradition of ancestors like Abraham who received the news of Sarah’s pregnancy. Mary, a lowly woman receives her pregnancy news from the angel directly and stands in the tradition of Samson’s mother who was unnamed in Judges 13:3.

And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son.

Just as Samson’s mother who least expected a divine intervention in her childlessness, unmarried Mary also least expected the angelic encounter, especially with news about childbirth. In breaking away with the earlier dominant traditions of sharing the news of childbirth with the male head of the house, Mary receives the news of childbirth herself. After some hesitation, Mary responds to the angel with consent. Although angel’s annunciation was almost a command and did not seek any consent, Mary ensured to declare her consent. The Mary-angel encounter in Luke 1: 26-38 breaks away from the hierarchy of space and hierarchy of gender. The events that unfold in her visit to Elizabeth Luke 1:39-45 and Mary’s song Luke 1:46-55, gesture the powerful role Mary played in impacting Jesus later, although obscured in the gospels.

The ritual of breaking away from hierarchical and gender discriminatory traditions continues into Luke 1:46-55. As noted above, the song challenges polarization of society: the polarity of rich and poor; powerful, and lowly; proud, and meek; full, and hungry; and I include the polarization of the feminine. 

Scholars and interpreters have interpreted the Magnificat as a political song, a revolutionary song, a song of reversal, a song of Justice, a lullaby, a song against the empire, etc. Although most of these categorical representations strike close to the nature of the song, interpreting the song as a lullaby alone is problematic for two reasons. First, the subject of the song is Mary herself (the first person pronouns in the song indicate Mary as a subject). And second, categorizing the song as a lullaby and interpreting it as a song representing her “mothering quality” restricts the role of Mary to being a “mother” and her sole responsibility in rearing the child. However, the song does not say anything about the child. Neither does it indicate that the song was an immediate response to angelic proclamation about the child.

The song was a response to Elizabeth’s blessing. It was a reaction to Elizabeth’s prophetic erasure of Mary’s guilt. As noted earlier, in the Mary-angel encounter, Mary was perplexed, anxious, and uncertain. Although she expressed her consent to the angel, she perhaps was guilty, embarrassed about how the society would view her virgin birth, after all Joseph did not trust her. Until she met Elizabeth, she was uncomfortable about the layers of humiliation she had to face, as a woman, unmarried mother-to-be, lowly, a slave. However, after her encounter with Elizabeth, and her spirit filled blessing, Mary felt truly blessed. Having known that Mary was an unmarried betrothed young girl, it did not prevent Elizabeth from proclaiming her blessedness. Woman’s blessedness does not depend on her sexuality and sexuality (or caste identity in the case of Manisha) should not be how anybody, in this case Mary, is judged. Mary is elated with the blessing of Elizabeth and embraces her ambiguous space.

 She sings a song that captures not just her joy but also her relative Elizabeth’s. Tapeino in combination with doulē in Luke 1:48 translated as “lowliness of his servant” in NRSV and “low estate of handmaiden” in KJV indicate two important points about the nature of the song. First, Tapeino can be interpreted in two ways, it can suggest the “low status” in the class ladder, and it can also suggest “guilt.” Second, doulē, a feminine singular genitive can be understood as: one, her individual slave status and/or the slave status of women like Elizabeth who was barren and ridiculed but now filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41). Second, the involuntary servitude under the Roman empire. There is no doubt that the song has an empire critical revolutionary message, wherein, Mary a lowly, unmarried and mother-to-be, slave declares her God to be the savior who sees the affliction of the oppressed and responds.

 It is in responding to the oppressed, her God becomes “holy.” Mary disrupts the concept of purity and relocates holiness to the public domain. Holiness is not inherited due to class, caste, creed, tradition but is shared and experienced in places where the divine intervenes, in encounters where hope is generated and in situations where justice is realized. Her experience of the holy- the angelic encounter was in a public domain. Her encounter with the Holy Spirit in Elizabeth, disrupts the notions that the Holy Spirit is limited to isolated places and experienced and revealed through men of priestly class but freely flows into the community where justice prevails. 

The Magnificat is a political and a private song that had ripple effects in the society. Luke 1:46-55 does not have any indication that Mary sang this song in the public, she sang it during her time with Elizabeth. However, this song passes on a revolutionary message to the generations about the polarized society. Her song which depicts the erasure of the polarities should be embraced specifically because it comes from Mary who occupies an ambiguous space and promotes binary-free society. The Magnificat is a song that disrupts both gender and hierarchical spaces. It is a song of anticipation and a song of realization. And as we meditate on this song during advent, we meditate on the nature of advent that is both a time of anticipation and realization. Advent is an ambiguous space that invites us to anticipate and realize the erasure of differences here and now.   

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