Sunday, December 24, 2023

Mary's Radical Song: A Commentary on Power and Humility

There's no way of being certain how much of what's in any of the four Gospels has a basis in fact. It feels unlikely, though, that the "Canticle of Mary" is a verbatim transcription of a song that Mary the mother of Jesus sang. It fits theologically with the overall theme of the Gospel of Luke in that it exalts the humble and humbles the exalted. Some have said that the Gospel of Luke is a Gospel of Social Justice. Mary's canticle makes it seem to me like a Gospel of Revolution:

"And Mary said:

'My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
     my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
 For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
    behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
 The Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
 His mercy is from age to age
    to those who fear him.
 He has shown might with his arm,
    dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
    but lifted up the lowly.
 The hungry he has filled with good things;
    the rich he has sent away empty.
 He has helped Israel his servant,
    remembering his mercy,
 according to his promise to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.'”*
A fundamentalist preacher I knew, one who passed away just a couple of years ago, insisted that he thought Mary was being arrogant in this passage. His argument, as I recall, was something along the lines of saying that she was too exalted and not showing proper humility and modesty. This certainly goes against the grain of the opinion of the church through the ages, and doesn't appear to me to be in line with the gist of Luke overall. In this passage she emphasizes that God is her savior, that God has done great things for her, and that further he is the one who throws down the exalted who are wicked. It is overall a song of praise, and the only part that might not fit with that is "from now on will all ages call me blessed." Yet, this blessing is not one she says is of her doing. 

Roman Catholicism holds Mary, the mother of Jesus, in particularly high esteem, maintaining the belief in her perpetual virginity throughout her life. This doctrine, which might seem improbable to some due to Gospel references to Jesus' siblings, reflects a broader emphasis on the virtue of abstinence. While these siblings are often interpreted by Catholics as cousins or kin rather than direct siblings, the notion of Mary's lifelong virginity remains a point of theological distinction. The emphasis on abstinence, seen as somewhat archaic by some, was deeply valued in the early Christian Church and continues to be a significant aspect of spiritual life in both the Latin and Eastern Orthodox Churches. This contrasts with many Evangelical Christian teachings, which typically advocate abstinence solely before marriage, viewing marital relations as a natural and welcome part of a committed heterosexual relationship. Such variations in the interpretation and application of abstinence reflect the diverse spectrum of beliefs and practices within the broader Christian community.

Luke consistently portrays the theme of humility as a virtue that will be rewarded, emphasizing the value of modesty and simplicity over grandeur and self-importance. This narrative stance is critical of the prevailing power structures, depicting them in an unflattering light as they impose burdensome demands, such as the unrealistic requirement of a census that mandates extensive travel. Furthermore, this perspective aligns with a broader critique of societal inequalities, where those in authority often neglect the needs and challenges of the common people. Luke's narrative encourages a reevaluation of societal priorities, advocating for a world where compassion and empathy for the less fortunate are paramount, and where the pursuit of power and status is viewed with skepticism.

The "Canticle of Mary," as presented in the Gospel of Luke, embodies a powerful message of social transformation and the upliftment of the humble. It articulates a vision where societal norms are inverted - the lowly are elevated, and the traditionally powerful are challenged. This narrative champions the cause of the underprivileged and critiques the arrogance and dominance of the established hierarchy. It's a call for acknowledging the worth and contributions of those often overlooked in society, promoting a vision of equality and fairness. The canticle, thus, transcends its historical and religious origins, resonating as a timeless appeal for social justice, humility, and a radical reordering of societal values to prioritize compassion and equity over power and wealth.

*Luke 1:46-55 taken from the New American Bible, Revised Edition.