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Faith >

This week's readings (The Blessed Virgin Mary)


Isaiah 61.10, 11 or
Revelation 11.19-12.6, 10
Galatians 4.4-7

Luke 1.46-55

ELIZABETH, when she hears Mary’s greeting, proclaims: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed the fruit of your womb" (Luke 1.42). Uzziah had told Judith, who had killed a mighty enemy of Israel: "Blessed are you . . . among all women on earth" (Judith 13.18). Moses had promised blessing to Israel, if Israel was obedient to God: "Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb" (Deuteronomy 28.1, 4). Mary, in her turn, has a part to play in God’s plan for his people.

In the details of that plan, Mary matches another biblical heroine. The barren Hannah had prayed to the Lord: "Look on the low estate of your handmaid" (1 Samuel 1.11). After the birth of Samuel, "My heart", said Hannah, "is strengthened in the Lord. . . The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he reduces to lowliness and he lifts up" (1 Samuel 2.1, 7).

Mary echoes the hymn of Hannah: the Lord "has looked upon the low estate of his handmaid". Mary, however, speaks of the Lord’s intervention in the aorist tense (used for a single action in the past), not in the present: "He has put down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted those of low degree" (Luke 1.48, 52). Luke may well have ascribed to Mary, at the start of the story of Jesus, a song that, by his time, was already used in worship as a celebration of its end: the triumph of Easter, as an event over and past.

If Luke has indeed inserted the Magnificat, he has placed it with typical skill. Gabriel announces to the young and frightened Mary two pregnancies: Mary’s own and Elizabeth’s. Mary sets out to visit Elizabeth. There, if anywhere, she will find confirmation that the angel can be trusted; and reassurance from her older cousin. Elizabeth’s greeting vindicates Gabriel. Only then does Mary break into celebration: "My soul magnifies the Lord."

What status had Jesus been given by God, at what stages of his work? The Lord had addressed his Messiah: "You are my beloved son, today have I begotten you. . . You shall break [the nations] with a rod of iron" (Psalm 2.7-9). When had the Messiah Jesus been "begotten" to this role? At Easter, perhaps; as the creed suggests, which Paul cites at Romans 1.3-4. Paul proclaims the gospel of Jesus, "born from the seed of David according to the flesh, designated son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness from the rising of the dead."

But surely Jesus had been invested with salvific power during his life on earth? His baptism could well be seen as a moment at which he was recognised as "son of God" by God and by himself: "You are my beloved son", says the voice from heaven; "in you I am well pleased" (Mark 1.11).

Matthew and Luke both look still further back into Christ’s history: to his conception. Luke’s readers are to acknowledge, from the start, that they are reading the story of the Saviour, the son begotten by God.

Luke’s Mary tells of victory. The seer of Revelation 11-12 tells, by contrast, of a long-drawn battle. A portent appears in heaven. The woman "clothed with the sun" evokes the constellation Virgo, lying on the sun’s ecliptic; her enemy is Scorpio, which included, in ancient astronomy, our Libra as its claws.

Who is the woman? The oldest extant Greek commentary on Revelation (by Oecumenius in the sixth century) identifies her as Mary, the mother of Jesus. The seer of Revelation has other links in mind as well. The dragon "makes war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus" (Revelation 12.17). For the woman, in Jewish terms, is the people of God from which the Messiah is due to arise. This Messiah shall — as Psalm 2 promised — "rule all nations with a rod of iron" (Revelation 12.5).

Does the woman, then, as Methodius (c. 300) believed, represent God’s new people, the Church? The link between the mother of the Lord and of his followers was readily made. This, after all, was the Mary who became, at the death of her son, the "mother" to the Beloved Disciple and so to all disciples (John 19.26-27).

The dragon, meanwhile, is "the ancient serpent" who deceived Adam and Eve. He recalls as well Leviathan, the creature of chaos defeated at creation; the serpents prominent in the cults of Asclepius, Dionysus, Cybele and Isis; and the Python, the dragon who pursued Leto at the birth of her son Apollo, and whom Apollo would later kill.

The dragon is the first creature in an unholy trinity: the dragon; a beast rising with seven heads, on one of them a mortal wound (Revelation 13.1-4); and a further beast that exercises all the authority of the first (13.11-18).

This final beast "causes all who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain; and all, both small and great . . . to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is the name of the beast" (11.16-17). The power of the beast is over all political and economic life.

Luke’s Mary sees the dangers to which wealth and power give rise; so will Luke’s Jesus. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," says Matthew’s Jesus; "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5.2). "Blessed are the poor," says Luke’s Jesus without qualification; "for yours is the kingdom of heaven." By contrast, in a series of Woes apparently unknown to Matthew: "Woe to you, the rich; for you have your comfort in full" (Luke 6.20, 24).

The seer of Revelation sees a more widespread danger, to rich and poor alike: in the complaisance demanded by the "beast" that wields power in the world. Such vast systems of political and economic dominion — and the allegiance they demand of their citizens and subjects — still present a danger to us, today’s children of "the woman clothed with the sun".


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