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Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth…

The true meaning of Luke’s Christmas, part 3

46 And Mary said, My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 And my spirit rejoiced in God my saviour,

48 because he looked upon the humiliation of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will bless me

49 because the powerful one did great things for me; and holy is his name,

50 and his mercy is to generations and generations for those fearing him.

51 He worked might by his arm, he scattered the proud in the thought of their heart;

52 he brought down the mighty from thrones and lifted up the humble,

53 the hungry he filled with good things and the wealthy he sent away empty.

54 He supported his child Israel, to remember mercy,

55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.

Mary’s extraordinary hymn of praise to God her saviour gives us an excellent opportunity to consider the question of the relation between the individual and the national in Luke’s Christmas narrative. The point I have been trying to make in these Christmas posts is that the true-meaning-of-Christmas cannot be articulated in terms of individual salvation—or, for that matter, in the simple incarnational formula of God becoming man at Christmas. If the miraculous conception of Jesus in Luke and Matthew is a sign of anything, it is—in keeping with the thrust of the stories generally—a sign of the coming judgment and kingdom. (Coincidentally, I see that Daniel Kirk is going through Matthew’s birth narratives in a similar vein.) The birth stories, in a multiplicity of ways, point to events that will transform the standing of the people of God amongst the nations: judgment, renewal, and the “defeat” of Israel’s enemies.

But the announcement regarding future historical events has a profound impact on the individuals to whom it is made, not least in the case of Mary. The personal dimension is reinforced by the fact that her “song” is inspired at least in part by Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, when her son Samuel is taken to the temple. The prayer has an intensely personal focus: the God who breaks the bows of the mighty, who gives strength to the feeble, who feeds the hungry, who raises up the poor and brings low the mighty, has taken away the pain of her barrenness and has become her salvation. Remarkably though, Hannah concludes with a much more sweeping statement:

The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed. (1 Sam. 2:10)

As in many of the Psalms, the individual’s story of suffering and salvation is set within the context of the wider sovereignty of God—in this case the defeat of Israel’s enemies and the judgment of the nations.

Mary’s Magnificat is no different. Her very personal joy at having been chosen to be a servant of the Lord is framed by the story of Israel. The God who scatters the proud, who overthrows kings and raises up the lowly, who has fed the hungry and sent the rich away empty, has acted to help his child or “servant” Israel out of faithfulness to his promise to Abraham. God is Mary’s “saviour” because he is present in the midst of the national crisis to deliver his people. Nolland comments:

…the interpreter’s difficulty is to do justice both to the reference to Mary’s unique experience… and to its description in language that makes it typical of Israel’s experience of God’s saving intervention…. Mary’s experience is unique, but at the same time Mary is the first to experience in some manner that salvation which is for all Israel.1

Finally, I would suggest that just as Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth speaks of the salvation of Israel rather than of personal salvation in a universal sense, we need to recognize that Mary’s radical socio-economic rhetoric must be heard as a statement about justice in Israel and on behalf of Israel before it can be exploited for modern political purposes. The language draws on numerous Old Testament texts that speak of Israel’s God overturning established power structures in order to restore integrity to his people.

My view is that if we are to remain authentically biblical, we will need to learn how to prioritize the actual New Testament narrative over misleading readings that serve our modern religious interests—whether evangelicalism’s need to subsume everything into its myth of personal salvation, or more radical attempts to cast Mary as a “prophet of social justice”. This is not to say that personal salvation and social justice are not at some point legitimately entailed by the narrative. It’s just that I think we forsake a large part of the truthfulness of scripture—by which I mean not least the realism of scripture—if out of deference to popular and traditional expectations we persist in subverting the historical intention of the texts.

  • 1. J. Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, Word Biblical Commentary, 69.

Comments

Andrew,

I am enjoying wrestling with your writing.

Having read this post I find myself wondering if you are not missing the point of Mary’s song.

You speak of ‘the historical intention of these texts’ and I can’t help wonder if these texts were really intended to be read in such a historical fashion. It seems to me that Mary, in her worship, is not so much trying to connect her story to ‘events that will transform the standing of the people of God amongst the nations’; her point is to describe the kind of God Yahweh is.

Like you, I don’t see strong support for a theology of personal salvation in this passage. But you then make it about national judgment and renewal — and I think this misses Mary’s point too. She is not a prophet, interpreting God’s story and making it intelligble to people around her. Rather, she is a person overwhelmed by God’s goodness, who breaks out into a song telling everyone ‘who God is’. In my understanding, the point isn’t ‘what’s God’s story — and is it with an individual or with a nation’; The point is ‘who God is’ in the first place — and the references to herself as a person or Israel as a nation seem mere illustrations — and I am not sure how much can be infered from these illustrations beyond Mary’s basic point: that God is good, faithful and caring.

Warmly,

Rogier

 

Thanks, Ro. The point about transforming “the standing of the people of God amongst the nations” was made with reference to the birth stories generally, not specifically the Magnificat. But Mary’s song seems to me consistent with the broader concern in these texts with Israel’s status as an occupied nation. Jesus is repeatedly presented as the Davidic king who will deliver his people from their enemies, not as a universal saviour.

You make the point that Mary describes “the kind of God Yahweh is”. That is sort of correct. The Magnificat is a psalm of praise—but not so much about who YHWH is but what he has done. What he has done is give Mary a child, but she situates this action in a narrative about Israel’s God, who in order to “support his child Israel”, works might by his arm, scatters the proud, brings down the mighty, lifts up the humble, feeds the hungry, and sends the wealthy away empty-handed.

Since that language draws on unmistakable Old Testament accounts of events through which YHWH is understood to judge and deliver his people—not least from their enemies—there is a prima facie case to be made for thinking that the Magnificat tells the same sort of story about YHWH.

The alternative is to suppose that either Mary or Luke intended the Old Testament narratives to be heard as metaphors for a purely spiritual transformation, even for a universal salvation, which is actually how most Christians read them; but i) there is no textual basis for that assumption, and ii) it just seems historically highly improbable.

So yes, Mary describes who God is. But who he is is a God who acts to save his people from their enemies out of loyalty to Abraham. He is the sort of faithful God who can be relied on to “transform the standing of the people of God amongst the nations”.