The Fourth Sunday of Advent, 20 December 2015
Canticle 15, Magnificat or Psalm 80:1-7
St. Luke 1:39-55
Background: Mary in the Lucan Birth Narratives
In the Gospel of Luke there are two parallel tracks that mirror one another. The one, the birth of John the Baptist, shares elements with the story of the birth of Jesus. There are annunciations, one to Zechariah, one to Mary, and a third to the Shepherds, there are scenes of circumcision and naming, there are prophetic revelations by Zechariah (Benedictus), by Mary (Magnificat), and by Simeon (Nunc Dimittis). Each of the tracks ends with a refrain about the growth and call of both John and Jesus. Whereas the Matthean Narrative focuses on the dream telling of Joseph, it is Mary who is the focus of the Lucan Narrative. She is mentioned in the Lucan Narrative some 12 times. She also serves as a bit of a bridge between the two parallel tracks, especially in the account of her Visitation with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. This visitation follows an annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel. In the Magnificat, the words of Mary echo Luke’s program regarding the poor, the anawim. The structure and primary influence most likely comes from Hannah’s song in I Samuel 2. The theology, however, centers on older prophetic emphases on God’s justice over against widows, orphans, and the poor. Indeed, Mary’s own status seems to be evocative of this theological point of view, and perhaps that is why Luke tells a larger story about her, than does Matthew. The other image in the Lucan Narrative is of Mary as a contemplative. Agreeing to the program proposed to her by Gabriel, she seems almost passive in her acceptance. In the final verses of the narrative, we meet a Mary who actively assimilates all that is happening to her, and about her. “And Mary kept all these, reflecting on them in her heart.” Perhaps that is Luke’s goal – providing an example to those who would follow Jesus.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.
Were we to read Micah in its entirety we would find a thoroughly familiar prophetic program of alternating oracles of damnation and salvation. We would also find familiar themes of “return” and “remnant” as well. Micah is not divorced from the continuation of the Davidid dynasty, and the first verse of our reading announces that succinctly, “But you, O Bethlehem.” There is a difference here, however. It is not the ancient succession that will appear here, but something coming out of a divine intention, “whose origin is from old, from ancient days.” The intention here is to allow for something new to enter the situation, something that has an ancient plan and intention as its inception. There is something here that goes beyond kingship and politics, into the very heart of God.
There are images here that commend this reading’s connection with the Advent/Christmas lectionary, “when she who is in labor has brought forth.” This is not the first time that Micah will use this image. In 4:10, we have a similar image – here the daughter “Zion”, who is “like a woman giving birth.” Something of promise is to follow the punishment of the Babylonian exile. What was heard by Israel as they heard or read these passages? Likely a promise for rebirth and the gift of the new was what was both heard and expected. This promised individual will have stability unknown in Judah, and what this person will do is what was expected of kings: feeding the flock and living in security. It is here that Micah creeps into the universalism that we have seen in Jeremiah, Isaiah, and others. “For now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” We are not fully, there but a clear path is set ahead of us – a path that looks beyond Israel.
Breaking open Micah:
- What do you think were the hopes of Micah?
- What are your hopes for you time?
- How can Jesus answer those hopes for you?
Canticle 15 The Song of Mary Magnificat
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
Please see the notes in the Background section for comments on the Magnificat. The piece is broken into two strophes (46-50, and 51-55). In the first strophe we have a remembrance on the part of Mary of the good that God has given to her. This is very much an individual’s response to the divine benevolence that has visited her, “My soul”, “my spirit”, and “my Savior”. Later in the Gospel, Luke will make clear as to the when of this latest benevolence of God, namely citing the names of Emperors, Tetrarchs, and Proconsuls. Here Mary takes the imperial titles of “Lord” (kyrios or dominus) and “Savior” (soter) and assigns them to God. It is a juxtaposition with which Luke (and presumably Mary) wants us to understand the nature of that time. As in Micah, something new is happening.
There is something new in the second strophe as well, as series of situations that reconfigure the nature of society: “scattered the proud,” “cast down the mighty,” “the rich sent away empty.” This very much falls into Luke’s theological premise that God intends to, as Mary puts it, “lift up the lowly”, she being an example. There is an astounding contrast here – Mary’s servant hood, and God’s power that are met together for this new thing in creation.
Breaking open the Magnificat:
- What social reversals do you see in this story?
- Has God ever turned the tables on you? How?
- What would you like to see raised up? Put down?
Psalm 80:1-7 Qui regis Israel
Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.
Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
O LORD God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
In many respects this psalm replicates the themes and structures in Micah. The initial verses remind God of what God has already done for Israel. The translation of this psalm in the Septuagint notes this as a psalm “Concerning the Assyrians”, which allows us to understand the threat that this psalm addresses. The second half, following the remembrances of God’s good deeds to Northern Israel (Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh), then begins a bit of a lament, mourning God’s anger, and the tears of the people. The situation is described as a dismal one in which Israel is the butt of the joke of the nations that surround it. An earnest prayer summarizes their plight, “Restore us, O God of hosts.”
Breaking open Psalm 80
- What has God done for you already?
- What trials are you facing in your life at this point?
- How might God help?
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
"Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, 'See, God, I have come to do your will, O God'
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me)."
When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Here the author quotes Psalm 40:6-8 to bolster the argument about the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice The quotation of the psalm is placed into the mouth of Jesus. The difference however is this, that Christ is both priest and victim in the Christian reckoning of things.
Breaking open Hebrews:
- In what ways is Christ a priest for you?
- How is he the victim as well?
- What are your images of Christ’s ministry?
St. Luke 1:39-45(46-55)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
[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."]
Here it is Elizabeth who is the prophet, and when Mary comes to visit her she see what the promised Child will be. How do we know that Elizabeth plays such a role? “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry.” It appears that she was not only a prophet but an ecstatic one as well. Here Luke borrows from an ancient story, namely that of Rebekah in Genesis 25:22, who carries the twins, that struggle within her. The infant John kicks in her womb – a prenatal greeting of the approaching Lord. Her greeting to both Mary and the child that Mary carries has become the heart of the Rosary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” In some respects, this tête à tête literally embodies what Mary will sing about in her psalm – the reversal of roles and status. As an older person Elizabeth enjoyed the status of an elder, and yet she defers to the younger Mary who carries her Lord.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How is Elizabeth a prophet?
- What do you find uplifting about Mary’s song?
- What about Mary’s life and experience inspires you?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller