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Politics of Scripture

Mary the Prophet

Despite the limited historicity of this text, I like to think that it is the Magnificat, not the fiat, which shows why Mary was the mother of Jesus. It takes a prophet to raise one.

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

Luke 1:46–55

I am a Roman Catholic, I am a woman, I am a theologian – so when it comes to Mary, these parts of my experience generate a lot of theological baggage. For Roman Catholics, Mary features prominently in the season of Advent, as we not only see her in this Sunday’s readings but also celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th (and in the United States, that feast is considered a holy day of obligation). 

In fact, those who attend mass on the Immaculate Conception will hear the scene immediately preceding this week’s gospel reading: the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). Gabriel visits Mary and tells her the extraordinary news that she has been chosen – if she agrees – to bear a child who will become the Savior. Mary does agree, and this moment is often called her fiat, when she says to Gabriel “let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This passage has arguably been the most formative for Roman Catholic reflection on Mary.

Yet, I find myself longing for Mariologies – theologies about Mary – formed more by her magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) than by her fiat. When I am frustrated by how Catholic leaders co-opt Mary to support gender essentialist, when those leaders see Mary (and women more broadly) as mothers and mothers only, I remember that her story does not end with the Annunciation. Rather, immediately after issuing her “yes,” we see Mary as a prophet, calling on God for the liberation of the poor.

The Magnificat is spoken when the newly-pregnant Mary greets her pregnant cousin Elizabeth (who has recognized the importance of Mary’s pregnancy), and it is the longest monologue Mary has in the canonical Gospels. It is striking that in Luke’s Gospel, a woman who was more often described as “treasuring” or “pondering” things in her heart (Luke 2:19, 2:51) takes this moment to call for scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful.

Biblical scholarship shows us that Mary’s speech here closely resembles that of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Both Hannah and Mary begin with an act of rejoicing, and proclaim the glory of God. And then, both Hannah and Mary anticipate how God will transform the world – a prelude to the Great Reversal that shapes Luke’s Gospel. Both Mary and Hannah anticipate that God will “fill the hungry” and that “those who were full hire themselves out for food” (1 Samuel 2:5). Both anticipate the promises that God has made, the promises that God will fulfill.

And yet, the circumstances of each woman’s prayer are very different. Hannah gave birth to Samuel after struggles with infertility. Her prayer comes when she presents the young Samuel at the temple, and he is left behind to become a priest (and eventually the prophet that anoints King David). Mary has just learned of her pregnancy – in fact, her visit to Elizabeth is itself a way to confirm the strange message that Gabriel had given her. It is possible that until Elizabeth’s recognition, Mary herself was not even sure how real the pregnancy truly was.

Despite the different circumstances, both Hannah and Mary act out of full trust in God. Hannah dedicates her first son to God, and she bears more children – one of the reversals she references in her temple prayer (1 Samuel 2:5). However, discussions of Mary’s trust, at least as I can attest to in Roman Catholic circles, tend to center on her fiat. In fact, in Mulieris Dignitatem, an encyclical by Pope John Paul II that is ostensibly about the dignity of women, Mary’s fiat features prominently – it is the centerpiece of both his Mariology and his gender essentialism.

 On the one hand, John Paul II is right to name the fiat as a critical event in the story of salvation history (par. 5). I do not want to deny the significance that God not only chose a poor woman of color to bear the Savior, but also sought her consent, first. When John Paul II describes Mary as an exemplar of the dignity of women, he mentions the fiat five times. He emphasizes her role as Theotókos, mother of God, or “the fullness of the perfection of ‘what is characteristic of woman’, of ‘what is feminine’ (par. 5). 

Here is where we run into the persistent, ongoing error of Roman Catholic Mariologies: that Mary is only important because of her motherhood. And when Mary-the-Mother is held up as the “perfection of… ‘what is feminine’,” – then all women are viewed through the lens of motherhood. Sure, sometimes this is spiritual (as the case with women in religious orders), sometimes it is motherhood-in-potential, but it always comes back to this one, single understanding of what it means to be a woman. 

Mary may be the Theotókos, but her importance extends beyond her womb. Given the significance of the Magnificat within Roman Catholic liturgical practices, you might expect to see it as part of John Paul II’s reflection on Mary. Yet the only time he mentions the Magnificat is to claim that the “great things” God has done are reducible to her pregnancy and “the discovery of all the richness and personal resources of femininity” (par. 11).

Such claims miss the point of Mary’s canticle. Yes, God has done great things for her – but also, God will do great things for Israel, for God’s chosen people. In this moment, Mary is not turned inward, but outward. She does not anticipate her own motherhood, but justice for the oppressed.

Mary is a prophet in her own right – such is the proposal of Elizabeth Johnson’s work on Mary, Truly, Our Sister. Johnson argues that the Magnificat connects not only to Hannah, but also to the many other women leaders and prophets that have come before her: Miriam, Deborah, and Judith have all sung “dangerous songs of salvation” (Johnson, 264). 

Johnson reminds us that Mary must be placed in her social context to understand who she was. Mary was poor, she was a woman of color, she was part of an oppressed community under Roman rule. Mary, like many Jewish men and women before her, longed for liberation. 

So it should not be surprising that, when God’s promise to her has been confirmed, Mary sings a song that reveals and revels in God’s preferential love for the poor. She is one of the lowly who has been lifted, and she knows that she is not the only one whom God has blessed, and will continue to bless. Elizabeth stands before her, another sign of God’s promises fulfilled, another sign of the Great Reversal to come.

The lectionary helps to support a view like Johnson’s. While the reading from Micah speaks of a woman laboring to bring forth a messiah from Bethlehem, that prediction also needs the broader context of the book of Micah. The messiah hoped for by the prophet is one who will bring about a just world – one who will take the side of the poor. Meanwhile, Psalm 80 seeks the restoration of Israel – the fulfillment of the promise, as Mary calls out in the last line of her canticle. That promise is justice.Here, perhaps, we begin to see how Mary’s role as prophet shapes her role as mother. Mary did not only prophesy in words, but in action. The work of Maria Clara Bingemer and Ivone Gebara highlights the call to action that Mary presents. We are also called to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, to send the rich away empty. This is the message that Jesus grew up with, the message that he carried forward in his own preaching and ministry.

I like to think that the Magnificat reveals why Mary was chosen, how it is that Mary came to be the mother of Jesus. My tradition may emphasize her obedience or her hypothetically immaculate conception, but maybe Jesus simply needed a mother who would teach him to love the poor as much as she did, as radically as she did. It takes a prophet to raise one.

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