20 December 2015
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Advent IV C (RCL)
Our image of Mary has been profoundly affected by Christmas carols and by a history of iconography, particularly in the medieval West. We see Mary bathed in a gentle light, serenely looking at her child, lying in a manger, with a faint nimbus around his head (and often around hers). Luke’s version of Mary doesn’t quite match our vision.
When the Angel Gabriel shows up, our translations have Mary say something like, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the lord. May it be to me according to your word.” I think a better translation would be, “See, I am my lord’s slave girl. As you say.” The verb “let it be” is ginomai in the optative, always an interesting task to translate. Ginomai means something like to be or to become, and the optative implies uncertainty. The phrase seems to me to means something like, “If you say so.”
When Mary begins her song, our translations translate the third phrase as something like, “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Again, the Greek carries a much more difficult meaning. I would translate, “He has seen (or looked on) the humiliation of his slave girl.” This has echoes of the laws in Deuteronomy concerning slaves and betrothed girls (Deuteronomy 22). Mary’s humiliation is much more pointed that “lowly estate.” And the reference to God as “savior” indicates a redeemer, who has purchased her out of a bad situation. Boaz is Ruth’s redeemer; and Mary’s situation is much more troubling than Ruth’s. Mary could have been stoned (according to Deuteronomy 22) for her situation.
When Elizabeth greets Mary, she says to her, “How honorable (makarios) is she who trusted there was a purpose (or goal or end — the Greek word is teleiosis) to the things spoken to her by her lord.” The word usually translated blessed (different in this case than the word Elizabeth used earlier) is the same word used in the beatitudes. Luke wants us to make the connection with that use. Also, the word usually translated “fulfillment” means something more like ultimate end or goal or purpose. Mary has trusted (in Luke’s telling) that her predicament serves God’s purposes.
Mary’s song quote, sometimes word for word, Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel. Mary’s predicament is much different from Hannah’s. Hannah is childless, and her rival wife teases her mercilessly about the fact. She prays to God, and Eli promises that she will have a son. She sings about God overturning the status quo. Like so many such songs, it serves as a poem about the life of Israel. The least significant nation (wife) becomes the conqueror of much more powerful nations. Samuel, Hannah’s son, will be present and cause some of this overturning of expectations.
Mary, on the other hand, is shamed by the very laws of Israel. And yet God’s purpose is use this humiliation to a greater purpose (“This child is destined to be the fall and rise of many in Israel”). Here God’s purpose is to overturn the expectations of even Israel. The exilic and post-exilic prophets began to the process of reinterpreting the purposes of Israel’s suffering: the suffering of God’s servant is for the redemption of the whole word, not just Israel. By quoting Hannah’s song on Mary’s lips, Luke is claiming that interpretation of Israel’s history for Jesus. And Mary is the prophet who first understands God’s purposes.
In Luke’s Gospel, Mary is often present at major turning points (at least early on), and “ponders these things in her heart.” In that sense, she serves as the ideal disciple. Like the others whom Jesus calls honorable in the beatitudes, she can see God’s purposes in the least likely events. God’s kingdom is already present in the poor, the grieving, the hungry and the persecuted. That presence is not fully revealed in Luke’s Gospel until the centurion at the cross looks at Jesus and proclaims him divi filius, son of God, that is, Caesar. It takes great trust to see God’s ultimate purposes in these events, but it requires us to shift our focus from the powers that be (“In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus . . . when Quirinius was governor of Syria,” etc.) to see the kingdom in a pregnant teenager and a crucified criminal.
In her song, Mary calls us to see God’s reversal of the status quo, and to participate in it, and be raised up by it.