Thursday, Fourth Week of Advent:
Both of today’s readings fit in the context of the last several days. Each day we have had women who have become pregnant only after God has intervened on their behalf. It’s important to know that at this point in history, and for the writer, a woman’s value was largely measured by her ability to produce children. To be barren was socially embarrassing because it was seen as a punishment from God. So telling a story about God enabling a woman to give birth is to validate and vindicate her in very real terms.
1 Samuel tells of Hannah giving her son Samuel to the Lord. Samuel was born only after she had prayed in the same Temple for God to give her a child. If she had a child, she promised to give him to God’s service. The idea of giving away your child even if he was understood to be a gift from God seems terrible. It raises the question of what it might mean to be dedicated to the Lord. I think the answer is found with Mary who also, even more explicitly, was given a child by God only to have her son be totally dedicated to God. That however, is to get ahead of our narrative. Today we have what Mary says about her experience of God having “done great things for” her.
What Mary says about God is modelled after what Hannah said after giving up Samuel at the Temple. In fact, much of today’s Responsorial Psalm comes from what Hannah says in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. This heightens the parallel between the two women. It helps me see more clearly the “lowly servant” aspect of Mary’s statement. I have tended to think of this phrase as merely a statement of humility. But the link to Hannah makes me realize Luke is talking about the humiliation of women and all people who are discriminated against and seen as second class. Mary is speaking as one who has no status, no power. Such a woman does not understand herself as one who could act on her own behalf. Which makes the praises Mary and Hannah sing even the more amazing. Hannah says because of God: “I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in my victory.” Mary says, “From this day all generations will call me blessed.”
I believe both these women are describing what happens when someone experiences God’s immediate loving presence. In narrative terms, Mary has become pregnant with God’s son and Hannah has given over her son, her only claim to personhood, to the service of God. These actions have empowered them and therefore changed their entire world view. I think it makes them not just visionaries of some vague future but participants in the reign of God here and now.
They see, understand and operate in the world in a new way: the proud are scattered, the mighty are cast down and, on the opposite side, the hungry are filled and the lowly lifted up. Mary says all this is the fulfillment of God’s promises. The world is changed, the reign of God spreads, now, in this life, one person at a time.
I don’t think this suggests a mystical experience of God’s presence is required for us to change the way we live. I do think that the more we reflect on what happens in our lives, searching for and recognizing how God is present in it, the more we will be able to act with love, concern and courage. In other words, the more we try to come closer to God, the more God transforms who we are and the lives we live, until in the end it makes sense to give ourselves away.