This week’s readings are here.
This week’s gospel is the story of the Visitation, Mary’s visit to her elderly cousin Elizabeth. The focus of the selected verses is on the interaction between the two women as well as the response of the child Elizabeth is carrying in her womb. There’s a great deal of artifice in Luke’s depiction of this scene (what do two pregnant women talk about when they get together for coffee or a visit?) and our interest is easily diverted from their conversation to the sons they are carrying.
There’s a third woman present in the scene, not physically, but in her words. Mary’s song echoes the Song of Hannah from I Samuel 2:1-10. The ties between Mary and Hannah extend beyond the similarities of their songs. In I Samuel 1:11, Hannah identifies herself as the “handmaid of the Lord” just as Mary identifies herself in the same terms (Lk 1:38 and 1:48). The NRSV translates “servant” but the word means female slave.
Again, as in the other songs Luke uses in his story of the Nativity, the resonances with Hebrew Bible language, imagery, and psalmody are very strong. Like Elizabeth, Hannah was barren. She had prayed devoutly in hopes of having a child and promised to dedicate her son to the service of God. Both Hannah and Mary sing of God’s activity on behalf of the poor and oppressed; strikingly, Mary puts God’s actions on their behalf in the perfect tense. That is to say, God has already begun intervening on behalf of the oppressed; it is not only something we can hope for in the future and (there’s something of a parallel here to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes although in this case, God’s action lies in the future:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
When we sing or reflect on the Magnificat our tendency is to see these words as Mary’s words, not our own. We lack the imagination and faith to make these statements ours. But if we believe in a God who comes to us in a manger in Bethlehem, it shouldn’t be beyond our capacity to believe in a God who acts in history on behalf of the poor, powerless, the hungry and the oppressed. If Mary and Hannah can believe it, so ought we.