Tuesday, December 8, 2009


To whom would Mary turn in her perplexity? Naturally she would visit her kinswoman to find out if what the angel has said to her was true.

But that creates another problem in Luke’s narrative. Would a young women, even at an early stage of pregnancy, walk all the way from Galilee to the hill country of Judea, not far from Jerusalem, where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived? Zechariah was one of the minor priests who served in the temple preparing and offering sacrifices for the assembled congregation. (1:8-9) Mary would have had to travel a distance of up to 75 miles - a week's journey. Did she go alone? This tells us that the story is a theological narrative designed for a special purpose and never intended to be literally interpreted.

Vs. 41 has the most natural feature of the story: As Mary arrived in Elizabeth’s home and greeted her kinswoman, the baby kicked in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth interpreted it as the work of the Holy Spirit (vs. 42) and uttered what has become part of the rosary prayer of countless generations of Roman Catholic believers. Vs. 43 contains Elizabeth’s confession of faith akin to that of the early Church in its formative years: Jesus is Lord.

The question arises as to which of the two women, Mary or Elizabeth, is more suited to have actually uttered the canticle in vss. 46-55. Several quite old and mainly Latin manuscripts have Elizabeth as the spokeswoman. The canticle has been known as “The Magnificat” since the 5th century when Jerome translated the Gospels into Latin.

Brown came the most obvious if unprovable conclusion about the four canticles of Luke 1-2, i.e. (The Magnificat, the Benedictus (1:67-69), the Excelsis (2:13-14)and the Nunc Dimittis (2:28-32). He suggests that these “were all composed in a non-Lucan circle and originally praised the salvific action of God without any precise reference to the events that Luke was narrating in the infancy narrative.”

Brown went on to say with numerous other scholars, that they probably have their closest parallel in the Jewish hymns and psalms of the period from 200 BCE to 70 CE. Many of these hymns represented a martial point of view reflecting times of persecution and despair. Those were, after all, very disturbed times when the Jewish people often suffered great hardship from their own oppressive leaders as much as from overlords.

However, these scholars also point to a clear meassage in these hymns of salvation accomplished and fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham. Concomitant social justice and economic prosperity had been a part of Israel's hope since the time of the great prophets many centuries earlier. Rooted as they were in the Hebrew scriptures, these canticles would have been characteristic of Jewish Christian communities out of which they may have arisen.

It can be seen quite readily that the basis for Mary’s praise is to be found in Hannah’s song at the birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Several other Old Testament prophets and psalmists also used similar language in their praise of God’s activity in saving Israel. (Cf. Hab. 3:18; Gen. 29:32, 30:13; Zep. 3:17; Ps. 111:9; 103:17 Ezek. 21:31; Ps. 107:9; 98:3; Micah 7:20; 2 Sam. 22:51.)

A brief sentence (vs. 56) completed Luke's story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. She remained for three months and then returned to her home. But the text does not say that she was present for the birth of John the Baptist. It is unlikely that such a minor detail would have made any difference in Luke’s story other than make it more literally believable. Our interest should be on the theological message the story conveys, not its literal details.

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