Progressive reflections on the lectionary #19

Luke 1:39-57: songs of resistant femininity

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #19

This week’s lectionary readings pair Mary’s song (The Magnificat) in ‘Luke’ together with Hannah’s song from the start of 1 Samuel.

This pairing makes a lot of sense, as apart from similarities in terms of style, substance and context, both of the ‘songs’ are, basically, the key to understanding the rest of their respective writer’s work. Hannah’s song helps to make sense of the Samuel texts, in the way that in her resistant femininity she becomes the embodiment of an opposition to a traditional understanding of domineering masculine power/violence. Similarly Mary’s song - and the narrative that she embodies, is the key to unlock, or lens through which to read, Luke & Acts.

In each case what we get is a reversal of the traditional power paradigm. “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength,” Hannah declares. Similarly Mary says that 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 both cases, of course, these are not statements of what has happened in the here and now - because a quick reality check tells us that the mighty continue to crush the feeble, and the powerful continue to dominate the lowly. But in each case, as the women prepare to give birth to a ‘miracle baby’, this is a prophetic declaration of a different world - a description, if you like, of the upside down kingdom of God.

Mary’s song, then, foreshadows the themes of Luke’s books, and situates the Jesus story as part of the wider story of Israel. In all of this, there’s the ‘world turned upside down’ element - a reversal of fortune for the downtrodden children of Israel. And this, of course, is at the heart of Luke’s “Gospel” - this is the good news that the writer wants to get across. Jesus represents a ‘kingdom’ and a people in which the marginalised are preferred, where the poor are the rich, and where neglected or oppressed elements of society, e.g. women, have voice and full agency.

In a world where honour and shame are all important, the contrast between Jesus and his opponents is then exemplified by those whom the respective characters choose to honour. Jesus actively chooses to honour those who are excluded by the establishment, just as Mary’s song foretells. Reversals of the honour and shame dichotomy are also embodied in the lives of both women - Hannah is the childless woman who was nevertheless honoured by her husband Elkanah (over and above his other, child-bearing, wife Peninnah); Mary is the woman pregnant in dubious circumstances who was nevertheless honoured by her husband who chose to continue the marriage. Both then commit their children to the service of God.

There’s tonnes of symbolism to be found in these stories - like the potential link between Hannah in Samuel and Anna in Luke, or like the questions over whether the original story was really a kingly birth narrative. Whatever the case, they all make for rich and engaging case studies of the way that many Biblical texts seek to promote the cause of the marginal and tell the revolutionary story of a God who doesn’t support traditional ideas of power.

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Image: Photo by HamZa NOUASRIA on Unsplash


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