I have always harbored a favoritism for Luke’s gospel, because it is the most musical of all the gospels. In addition to poetic prophecies and beautiful imagery, there are several songs in the opening chapters. A majority of the words to the Ave Maria, one of my favorite hymns as well as prayers, is found here, and indeed we hear a part of it today.
As we heard previously, the priest Zechariah is released from silence and burst forth in song when his longed-for son John is born, even though he and his wife were supposedly beyond child-bearing age. Angels will burst forth from heaven in song above the heads of shepherds at Jesus’ birth. When the baby Jesus is brought to the Temple, the old man Simeon will sing a song when he is allowed to take the infant into his arms, a song of gratitude for allowing him to live long enough to see such a day. But the greatest song in Luke is the first song: the Song of Mary, what we call the Magnificat.
And these songs are not ordinary songs. They speak of making great the works of God in the life of the world. They are as much acts of resistance as they are outpourings of joy. Resistance and glorious visions of justice for the oppressed ring throughout our gospel today.
First, there is Elizabeth’s resistance. Elizabeth is granted a child of promise, foretold to be a longed-for prophet for the people of Israel, late in her life, and the gospel tells us she not only secludes herself for the pregnancy, but apparently she keeps her condition a secret, perhaps not wanting to be turned into a side-show, perhaps to make sure nothing goes wrong in what is undoubtedly a high-risk pregnancy. Mary thus only finds out about Elizabeth’s pregnancy when the angel Gabriel tells her as part of the news of Mary’s own chosen status to be the mother of the Son of God.
Mary responds to this news by wanting to go and see her kinswoman herself, undoubtedly out of joy for Elizabeth’s coming miracle. Mary goes to be with someone who will truly understand and support her in the incredible work she has just consented to do. But once she gets there, we get an idea of where Mary gets her bravery, where she gets her boldness, her insight, her resistance against oppression. Elizabeth doesn’t just respond with gladness to see her young kinswoman. She responds with a triumphant song of power. The strength, resilience and rugged faithfulness in these women runs in the family.
Once Mary arrives, it is clear that Elizabeth doesn’t just become the mother of a prophet. When Mary crosses her threshold, we are told the unborn John leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is given the gift of prophecy herself. She immediately identifies Mary as “the mother of her Lord.” She immediately praises Mary for her courageous assent to the invitation of God to be a vital, brave, bold part of the work of God’s redemption in the world.
Elizabeth knows that Mary is not yet married to Joseph—yet she welcomes Mary into her home anyway. She resists all social demands that would have otherwise led her to reject her young kinswoman, and instead, reacts with joy and prophetic exclamation. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” she exclaims, completing Gabriel’s greeting of Mary in the previous scene we don’t get to hear today.
And Mary responds with her own resistance song. It’s first half talks about what God has done for Mary herself, but then she turns to the concerns of her people. Unsurprisingly, those concerns remain with us today, concerns about the human systems of scarcity and want in light of God’s promises of abundance and reconciliation. Mary’s song reminds us of the foundations of justice, resting on God’s shalom, if we are brave enough to demand them.
In a time when cruelty is extolled and cheered, mercy is resistance.
In a time when the preening and crowing of the vain and conceited is celebrated, God’s leveling strength is resistance.
In a time when the mighty sit atop a throne of lies, the humble truth is resistance.
In a time when insatiable appetites for excess are admired, let us look instead where there is real hunger and need, and work to fill them.
This is the vision our souls are called to magnify as disciples. The time to begin is NOW.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.