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The Politics of Scripture

Mary, Did You Know?—Luke 1:39-56

The Mary that we discover in Luke’s gospel may not be the sentimentalized and domesticated Mary of the Christian imagination.

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

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

56And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

Elizabeth blesses and recognizes her in the manner of Jael (Judges 5:24) and Judith (Judith 13:18), but Mary is not a weapon-wielding hero like them. She herself, in her soul, will be pierced by a sword, Luke writes (2:35). Mary is young and poor, not a woman of status like Jael or Judith, and Luke doesn’t mention any connections she has as he does of the others he introduces in the chapter (e.g. Zechariah and Elizabeth in 1:5-7; Joseph in 1:27).

Mary is broadly revered as theotokos or God-bearer in the Eastern church and hailed as the mother of God in the Catholic church; but in the U.S. Protestant church, she is not thought of much at all. Maybe at Easter as one of the gaggle of Marys who visit the tomb. Maybe as a sweet, gently smiling presence in a blue veil at a nativity play—during which I doubt I’m the only one worried what that role is teaching the silent teenage girl portraying her about what the church values. Sometimes at a Christmas Eve service, a soloist will sing Mary, Did You Know?, which is a beautiful and affecting though completely infuriating song: the greatness of the baby’s future deeds is sentimentalized through reference to Mary’s ignorance and passivity.

I don’t want to celebrate a woman for her acquiescence, suffering, and powerlessness rather than her self-determination. In reading the Magnificat, so named for the first word of the Latin translation of Mary’s song in this passage, I stumble in dread and embarrassment over the word handmaiden in the KJV translation (in the NRSV, servant). Her son ignores and dismisses her throughout Luke’s gospel (cf. 2:48, 8:21, 11:27-28). What did she know about anything, to be treated like that, for her to talk about herself like that? Mary, poor and lowly, treated as such throughout her life and still in mine.

Yet in this passage, of her own will and decision,with no mention of her fiancé and via no command or prompting from the angel, Mary travels 60-some miles from Nazareth to a town in the Judean hill country. She knew where to go and she went. Her journey happens in a single phrase (verse 39): she rushes from hearing the angel’s message to her cousin’s house with haste, and the narrative rushes with her.

But the narrative slows down when she arrives. The greeting she gives to her cousin is written of three times (verses 40, 41, 44), which gives it considerably more airtime in the story than the book-ended journeys or the full trimester of pregnancy that happen within this passage. This signals that Mary’s words, thoughts, and emotions are of greater importance to the narrative than one might otherwise think.

The narrative slowing is a way to ease into the events of the story pausing altogether when Mary speaks directly for a full ten verses; it is worth noticing that there is very little narrative at all in this passage compared to Elizabeth’s blessing of her and her own prophetic poetry. Her words are the part with the weight attached.

Consider this, too: the child leaps in Elizabeth’s womb in recognition once, but Luke writes of it twice, first as narration and second in Elizabeth’s voice when she interprets this movement as prophetic of Mary’s status (verses 41, 44). The world-flipping audacity of Elizabeth’s calling Mary “the mother of my Lord” is better understood when noting that Luke uses this same Lord to mean God (cf. 1:6, 9, 11, 15-17, 25, 28, 32, 38, 46, 58, 68).

“Blessed is she,” Elizabeth adds, a uniquely occurring phrase. This meeting and mutual support of two women, sharing each other’s joy and upending social conventions like the relative statuses of married/unmarried and older/younger, is a key piece of the new order in Luke’s relating the “orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us” (1:1). In a social world that places little value in what women have to say (cf. 24:9-11), the story pivots on a prophetic encounter between two women, what they know is true, and what they say to each other.

And what Mary says and knows! Consider the story’s historical setting, as the framing is insistent that the reader must. Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth happens at a time that Luke calls “in those days”(verse 39). He earlier explains this time as “in the days of King Herod” (1:5) and later explains it as “in those days [when] a decree went out from Emperor Augustus” (2:1).

These names and titles ground this journey amidst decades of Roman oppression of the Jewish people, when taxes and tributes were high, when political uprisings occurred regularly and were crushed utterly. Mary would have known the stories of, and perhaps seen with her own eyes, the towns that were burned and sacked, her people that were killed and enslaved,the hundreds and thousands that the Roman soldiers crucified along roads and against cities’ walls. Military occupation can also mean rape on a massive scale. King Herod and Emperor Augustus were murderous tyrants, potentates of great military and political strength, men of enormous wealth and position.

So when Mary speaks of “the lowliness of [God’s] servant” (verse 48), she is not only referring to her own life, but to herself as an exemplar of the lowly status of her people Israel in the past and her present (cf. Deuteronomy 26:7). God, whom she calls “the Mighty One” (dynatos, or lit. “the one who is able”), is in contrast and opposition to the proud, powerful, and rich (verses 51, 52, 53), and she knows herself to be the embodiment of the small and hungry ones that God values. Hers is deeply political speech, full of prophetic rage against the ruling powers and faith in the liberating work of the God of Israel, extended to all “those who fear [God].”

Mary is not reflecting philosophically on a divine essence, but speaking of God’s actions as knowledge of who God is. She speaks as if the rich have been brought low and the poor uplifted, together as a historical description, a present reality, and an eschatological hope. Her words call to readers to take them concretely, to fight against oppression in order to know and see the work of the Lord in history.

She sees and knows an economic miracle of upheaval, a miracle of social overthrow. God is Savior from the socio-economic terrors that she names: poverty, hunger, powerlessness. In this way, the Magnificat is a pattern for every prayer for God to save, as well as a text with some of the most strongly political and liberating content in the New Testament.

The theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez writes of this as a new “spirituality of liberation,” a new way in which to live: inspired by the Holy Spirit and in solidarity today with all people before the Lord. The theologian and poet Dorothee Sölle wrote:

It is written that Mary said
he hath filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath holpen his servant Israel
in remembrance of his mercy.

Today we express that differently.
Women will go to the moon and sit in parliaments
their desire for self-determination will be fulfilled
the craving for power will go unheeded
their fears will be unnecessary
and exploitation will come to an end.

So let the church say, yes, she did, in the answer to the question ‘Mary, did you know?’ Yes, Mary knew. Yes. An emphatic, full-throated, unsentimental, glorious yes.

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