Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hannah's Song - Sung by Mary

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The Gospel of Luke, above all books of the New Testament, is about women. It reads as if a woman might have written it. It contains intimate details which would hardly have occurred to most men.

It begins with the birth of John the Baptist, focusing on Elizabeth, his mother. The next major section is Marys story. To her we will shortly return. There follows the prophecy of an old woman named Anna. When the boy Jesus went to the temple to debate with the learned doctors, the only person Luke quotes is his mother.

Many of Lukes stories from Jesus ministry are about women the woman who was a sinner, the woman who wouldnt give up in her quest for a cure, the widow of Nain, the bent over woman, the widow who gave her mite to the offering plate. At the resurrection it is only the women who have the faith to go to the garden of graves. Luke lists Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, and other women.

Luke reports that when they told the disciples about the empty tomb these men assumed it was an idle tale and did not believe them. This was of course a culture in which women didnt count and in which their talk was treated as idle tittle tattle.

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Now back to the central character in the birth narrative, and a story only told by Luke, about Mary the mother of Jesus.

Over the years there have been two ways in which I have imagined Mary. I have seen her as a frightened little girl, overwhelmed by events far beyond her control, just a simple, rural, unlettered child whom God had chosen to be the vessel of grace.

That is the kind of Mary we portrait in the Nativity scenes. But the Nativity hardly ever gets the sense of the Birth of Jesus right! There is another way to view Mary, a way more faithful I think, to Lukes text. Here we find a determined, strong, assertive woman; a model for all women - a woman of power and influence educated, sharp, committed. It is the resourceful, competent, clear woman from whom Jesus learned much of what he knew about Gods will for him and for his world.

The key to this understanding of Mary comes from the words at the beiginning of the Magnificat. We identify the poem Mary sung by the Latin translation of its first words, the Magnificat, My soul magnifies the Lord.

What do we know about her from Luke? We know the town where she lived, a dusty obscure village in the north, named Nazareth. Luke doesnt identify her family. They were nobodies from noplace. We know she was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter, whose family had come from the south, from Bethlehem, the city of David.

Beyond that Joseph is a faithful, courageous, loyal husband and father who protects his little family, and takes them out of harms way when Herod the King, in his raging, seeks to destroy the infants of Bethlehem. But Luke reports not a word Joseph spoke, or even what he thought about anything.

We know that one day Mary discovers she is pregnant. And in what must have been difficult family circumstances - Joseph sticks by her..... because they believe that the child she was carrying was a special child.

When she was certain of the pregnancy, Mary does a very interesting and a very feminine thing. She seeks out another woman to talk to. She hears that her cousin, Elizabeth, is also pregnant. Mary makes the very long trip south to the hill country of Judea to visit her friend and her kinswoman. She stays three months, maybe enough time for the scandal to die down..... but there is no record of any of their conversations. We do not know what they discussed.

Had it been a man who had something important to talk about with a male friend, the whole thing would probably have been over in a couple of hours. Western men, you see, are seldom able to talk intimately with other men. Perhaps we are too competitive. Perhaps to talk deeply is to share more about ourselves and our weaknesses than men are comfortable revealing. If somebody knows about whats going on down inside, he may have an advantage over you.

For whatever reasons, it is women who find it easiest to spend hours, days and weeks nestled comfortably in each others souls.

We do know that Elizabeth realizes something important has happened to Mary, that she has found favour with God and is blessed among women and she says so.

Again, men will hardly offer that gentle kind of affirmation to other men. We might slap each other on the back, but there wont be much tenderness about it. Not so with women. Mutual support, cooperation, kinship, gentleness often lie at the heart of their important conversations - not competition, who is the stronger, richer or smarter.

In the musical, My Fair Lady, it is Rex Harrison who is famous for singing the lines Why cant a woman be more like a man? Im not certain the world now needs a new crop of competitive, masculine women. The world has enough of competition, jousting for honoured places, dog eat dog, crawl, scratch and kick your way to the top of the pile. That lifestyle is what causes war and strife, and always has.

Perhaps the question for our day is, Why cant a man be more like a woman, more cooperative than competitive, more intimate than public, more accepting of others than needing to parade the colours, wave the sword and perpetually seek to prove whos number one?

Whatever the nature of this three-month-long companionship the result, heard from Marys lips, is anything but the song of a frightened, sweet, ignorant, submissive girl. She sings

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.

It is not an original song. Much of it comes from a thousand years earlier. Another strong woman, named Hannah, realizes she is pregnant.

Her child too will change the direction of Israel. She will call him Samuel, and he will finally anoint David as King. Hannah sings

My heart exalts in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. The Lord makes the poor rich, he brings low, he also exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy.

Ten centuries later Mary sings

He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud ... He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has fulfilled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

Of course Mary knew Hannahs song. So, she is not the illiterate simple girl we have often pictured her as being. She is educated, knowledgeable about the scriptures, aware of the dynamics of history and tuned in to the will and plan of God - thats the Mary of the Magnificat.

Where did Jesus got his view of the world. Did it all drop out of heaven? How is it he identified with the poor, and had such a difficult time with the mighty? Why was he so unmasculine in his rejection of the sword, of violence as the way of the future, of competition as the source of power and wealth? Where did he get the idea that was to be the linchpin of his life; that abundance did not lie in doing well but in doing good?

Where did he come upon the notion that God demanded compassion, gentleness, humility; that the meek would inherit the earth, the merciful obtain mercy, the pure in heart see God and the peacemakers be called Gods children?

Listen to the words of Marys song and you will discover where Jesus got his image of the world and of the will of God. He got it at the knee of his mother. Could it be these were the things Mary and Elizabeth talked about for three months?

How often do we hear of statesmen and world leaders getting together to discuss issues of great import and influence.

But perhaps they do not have an iota of the influence on the world as did two simple women, who met for three months at the home of one of them somewhere in the hill country of Judah, and talked.

From their long conversation comes a song, a reflection of Hannahs song of long ago. And from that song has come to us the ethic of Jesus of Nazareth, peacemaker..... Prince of Peace.

Blessed are you, Mary, blessed are you among women. And blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

And blessed are all those who hear him, believe him, and follow him in the ways of peace, justice and love.

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