Micah 5.2-5a; Magnificat or Psalm 80.1-8; Hebrews 10.5-10; Luke 1.39-45 [46-55]
God our redeemer, who prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son: grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour, so we may be ready to greet him when he comes again as our judge; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
THE principal characters in Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus have one thing in common: they all sing.
Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting with the words we know as the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55). Zechariah uses his newly liberated voice in the form familiar as the Benedictus after the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1.67-79).
The praise of the angels who visit the shepherds survives in the Gloria (Luke 2.14). Simeon’s words on holding the almost six-week-old Jesus have remained in the tradition of worship as the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2.29-32).
The four compositions are a delight to readers of this most self-consciously historical of Gospels (Luke 1.1-4), and to those who continue to encounter them in worship. But are they plausible as the authentic speech of people who are otherwise silent in the available record?
Sunday allows us to ask that question about Mary. It is not a new or original question. Biblical scholars have wrestled with a small but significant variation in some of the manuscripts recording this event, in which the song is uttered not by Mary, but by Elizabeth.
Christopher Evans sees some reasons for taking the idea seriously, particularly because of the echoes of Hannah’s words as she brought Samuel to the Temple (1 Samuel 2.1-10). Elizabeth, who had given up hope of having a child, clearly has more in common with Hannah than Mary does.
Evans observes, however, that it would be odd for her to honour Mary as the mother of the Saviour and immediately proclaim her own exaltation (C. F. Evans, Saint Luke, SCM Press, 1990). Other references to the Psalms and the prophets, recalling God’s powerful interventions and the divine justice that eventually raises up the powerless and topples oppressors, cast doubt on the notion of a spontaneous outburst, even from someone steeped in the Hebrew Bible.
So in what other sense might the song be considered authentic? Together with the Benedictus and Nunc Dimittis, it lays claim to the promises of the prophets that God would deliver his people from exile, slavery, and humiliation, and re-establish them in their own land, with its centre a holy city on a holy mountain.
That is the vision of Micah, who sees beyond the social injustices and corruption of his own time (eighth century BC), and even beyond the Assyrian invasion that would follow previous waves of conquest, to a time of restoration (Micah 4.1-8).
The ideal king, who will come from David’s own city of Bethlehem, will be a shepherd in David’s mould (Micah 5.2, 4). The prophecy is built around this pastoral idea, and the hill of Zion will become the “watch-tower of the flock” (Micah 4.8); but not before a time of privation that sees Zion “writhe and shout like a woman in childbirth” (Micah 4.10).
Although there are connections to be made between the predicted time of deliverance, when “she who is in labour has brought forth” (Micah 5.3), and Mary’s giving birth to Jesus, it seems logical, within the framework of the book, to read this as a reference to Zion, finally giving birth to a restored nation.
Prophecy can be framed in the present tense without being actually true in the present situation. Perhaps that is called hope. The fact that the immediate world continued to be under Roman rule, with restricted freedom for the nation that lived in a covenant relationship with God, did not contradict Mary’s song; for, with the announcement of Jesus, something changed.
Thucydides prefaced his history of the first 20 years of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) by explaining that, where he did not know precisely what a speaker had said, his practice was “to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions”. He was not seeking short-term acclaim. Instead, he wanted his book to be “a possession for all time” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 1, Chapter 1).
Luke gave to Mary words that have become the possession of those who have sung them, hoped them, and reshaped them to be sung in new accents. The liturgical songwriter Rory Cooney’s version carries a powerful resonance for this last Sunday in Advent:
My heart shall sing of the day
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.