Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child in your womb! And why am I so blessed that the mother of my God visits me? As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed Mary, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!”
And Mary sang,
“My soul magnifies the Eternal One, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked on my lowliness with favor. What God has done for me will never be forgotten; the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. Mercy and love flows from the Eternal One in wave after wave on those who are in awe from generation to generation. God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds; scattering the proud in mind and heart. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. In remembrance of divine mercy, the Eternal One helps the people of Israel according to the promises made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
In a moment that’s quite literally pregnant with anticipation and joy and fear and oppression, a scandalously expectant Mary meets a surprisingly expectant Elizabeth and the response that leaps out is a song.
The Song of Mary—what is known as The Magnificat.
Does the mother of the Christ sing because she knows that that our shared music "increases our sensitivity to pain" and functions as a "social glue that enhances our sense of mental well-being?"
I can’t help but consider the possibility that this song—this Magnificat—is offered to animate those who cannot otherwise move, to give words to those who cannot otherwise speak, and to calm and organize those who are deeply disoriented.
It would seem that Mary, or at the very least, the writer of Luke’s Gospel, understood something about the overwhelming power of music.
The opening of Luke’s Gospel actually seems to be built around music. In the first two chapters—which tell the story of the birth and infancy of Jesus the Christ—there are at least three songs.
Upon seeing the infant Jesus presented in the Temple, a man named Simeon sings, “my eyes have seen a light and glory for all people”
Zechariah, the temple priest and father of John the Baptist, offers a song at the presentation of his own son singing, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.”
And then there is the music that sets the whole thing off—Mary’s song. Before the presentations of John and Jesus in the Temple, even before they are born, there is music. Mary sings, “In remembrance of divine mercy, the Eternal One helps the people of Israel according to the promises made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Three songs to begin Luke’s story of the Christ.
Three songs that connect the births of John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ to the Israelites, to Abraham, to the overarching story of God.
And, with all due respect to the songwriters, three songs that aren't all that original. Three songs that would have sounded very familiar to Luke's ancient audience.
Biblical scholar and theologian N.T. Wright points out, “Almost every word” of Mary’s Magnificat “is a biblical quotation such as Mary would have known from childhood.” Pastor and professor Joel Green of Fuller Theological Seminary labels Mary’s Song “a virtual collage of biblical texts.” One could argue that Mary has her own earworm—that she, too, is processing some Involuntary Musical Imagery.
Mary’s music is an echo. It’s a reprise of songs she had heard and learned—scriptures and stories that had been buried in her bones—like the Song of Hannah. Biblical scholars note at least eight direct allusions or quotations in Mary’s Magnificat that are taken from the Song of Hannah found in the first book of Samuel.
Rejoicing at the birth of her son Samuel, Hannah opens her song with the words, “My heart exults in the Lord…”
Rejoicing at the coming birth of her son Jesus, Mary opens her song with the words, “My soul magnifies the Lord…”
Hannah sings, “The bows of the mighty are broken…”
Mary sings, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones…”
Hannah sings, “those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.”
Mary sings, “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
Hannah sings, “God raises up the poor from the dust.”
Mary sings, “God has lifted up the lowly…”
It’s clear that Mary’s song owes much of its inspiration to the song of Hannah—but Hannah’s voice is not the only melody that reverberates in Mary’s music.
There are other voices and other songs resonating in Mary's music; ancient songs—songs buried in the bones of her people, songs of Involuntary Musical Imagery, songs that had animated ancestors who could not otherwise move, given words to forbearers who could not otherwise speak—music that had calmed and organized the people of God when they were deeply disoriented.
Music like the Song of Deborah—one of the oldest passages in the Bible, which joyfully sings of a “new leader who arose to be a mother to Israel.”
Music like the deuterocanonical book of Judith that sings of triumph over oppressors who “did not fall by the hands of young men” but were “foiled by the hand of a woman.”
Music like the songs of Miryam and her brother Moses, who sing to God “By the power of your arm, your enemies will be as still as a stone.”
Mary echoes her Exodus ancestors, singing, “God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds; scattering the proud in mind and heart.”
Mary’s Magnificat is not an isolated performance. It’s not even a solo. It’s a repeated chorus within an ancient symphony—one that is filled with the voices of suffering, subversion, yearning, and deliverance.
Mary—the woman who would be a mother to Israel—whose offspring would foil empires and still enemies with embracing arms—knew a thing or two about suffering, subversion, and yearning. She, too, longed for deliverance.
After all—Mary, like her ancestors before her—was born into oppression. Her entire life—short as it had been up until this point—had been lived under the boot of Rome and the royally corrupt family of King Herod. Even the circumstances around her pregnancy and marriage were somewhat scandalous and isolating.
Let's put it another way. What if we were to say that Mary was…
Just a small-town girl…
Livin’ in a lonely world…
Might that create some Involuntary Musical Imagery?
It should because the music and journey of her story...
“goes on and on and on and on.”
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