St. Mary the Virgin: Plagiarist, Poet, Prophet, or Polemicist?

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Today, we’re celebrating the feast of St. Mary the Virgin, mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m going to say a little something about the feast day, a little something about Mary herself, and a little something about the Song of Mary, aka the Magnificat.

The date of the feast is August 15. In the East, the feast is known as the Dormition of the Mother of God; in the West, as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “Dormition” is just a fancy work for “falling asleep,” a euphemism for death. The word “assumption” refers to the pious legend that Mary’s body was taken up into heaven, so that it wouldn’t suffer the indignity of corruption. With different emphases, East and West are both commemorating the death of Mary.

Anglicans have shown a certain reserve in honoring St. Mary. The BCP of 1549 deleted the feast out of fear of “Mariolatry”—the worship of Mary as a quasi-divine being. The feast was restored to our BCP in 1979, but with no mention of the Assumption.

In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary as a dogma necessary for all Christians to believe. Fortunately, Anglicans aren’t under the jurisdiction of the Pope and are free to accept or reject the teaching.

Now, let’s look at what we know about Mary. At a young age, perhaps 15 or 16, Mary was betrothed to Joseph. One tradition says that he was a much older widower and had several children by a previous marriage. That alone would be enough to daunt a teenage girl. But that wasn’t all she had to deal with! We’re told that she was visited by an angel and offered the opportunity to bear God’s child. But this opportunity came with a price—the prospect of being shunned, and possibly condemned to death, for conceiving a child out of wedlock. And yet she gave her consent willingly. The course of the cosmos was forever changed.

While three months pregnant, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth and proclaimed the words that we heard today in the Gospel reading, saying, in essence, that God is turning everything upside down. After Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary were forced to live as refugees for a time in Egypt to protect the infant Jesus from assassination. They left behind everything they had and everyone they knew to protect their son. Despite the rocky start, St. Luke assures us that Jesus was brought up to be a righteous Jew. He was taught to read the Scriptures in a day when literacy was rare. And he was raised in a family that kept the commandments of the Jewish Law to the letter.

Much later, after Jesus had begun his public ministry, there seems to have been some real tension between Jesus and his family, including his mother. Mary evidently worried that Jesus was getting himself in over his head. When she tried to get him to stop, he repudiated his whole family, claiming that his disciples were his real family. But this little spat passed. And later, we find Jesus’ mother back in the picture, as one of the women who stood near the Cross, refusing to abandon Jesus.

Mary knew not only everyday hardship, but genuine tragedy. She lived to watch her son tortured and executed as a common criminal. It had been prophesied many years earlier that a sword would pierce her soul, and that prophecy came to pass.

While dying on the Cross, Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of John, the Beloved Disciple. Later, sometime before Pentecost, we find Mary with Jesus’ disciples in the upper room, and it’s clear that she had become an active member of the fledgling community of Jesus’ followers.

Even if only the broad contours of the biblical account are factual, it’s sufficient to sketch a picture of a loving, faithful, and courageous mother who deserves to be remembered and honored for her unique contribution to the salvation of the world.

Now, let’s look at the Magnificat, the Gospel reading for today’s feast. How are we to understand this Song of Mary? Is it plagiarism, poem, prophecy, or polemic? The correct answer is “all of the above”!

Scholars have long noted that Mary’s song is based on the song of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel. By today’s standards, it is a clear-cut case of plagiarism. However, Mary is not the guilty party here. Since there was no one present to write down Mary’s words when she met with her cousin Elizabeth, it’s much more likely that it is the Evangelist Luke who should be charged with plagiarism. To be fair, Luke did what any good historian of his age might have done: he appropriated a momentous speech that fit the momentous occasion in question. Since the Church teaches that the Luke’s Gospel is inspired, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether the words were Mary’s or Luke’s or Hannah’s. What matters is that they reveal God’s Truth to us!

Now, the Magnificat is undoubtedly a poem. And if you check any modern English translation, you’ll find that the lines of text are set as poetry, not as prose. And for you musicians here today, I’m sure you know just how many composers have set this poem to music! Many of these settings are sung to this day in Evensong services throughout the Anglican Communion. But the beauty of the text and of its musical settings can get in the way of understanding the text as prophecy and as polemic.

And, yes, the Song of Mary is undoubtedly a prophetic text. It starts with Mary’s thanksgiving for what God has done for her, namely, chosen her to bear a divine child. Then the poem shifts to God’s mighty deeds in the world. We’re reminded that God has done great things in the past, throwing down the mighty and raising up the lowly. And we’re led to believe that, in bringing about the Kingdom of God, God will do these things again.

What about the Magnificat as polemic? Well, in recent times, the political aspects of the Magnificat have been emphasized by so-called “Liberation theologians.” And the question they have asked is, “What does the Magnificat call us to do?” Some Liberation theologians see in the Magnificat a critique of capitalism and a call for a full-blown Marxist revolution! Putting aside such an extreme interpretation, I do think that it’s right to say that the Magnificat is a call to action, including political action.

In the words of Teresa of Ávila:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out onto the world.

Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.

Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.

 

If we look at the world today, we see so much hurt, so much pain, so much evil. There is famine in South Sudan, war in Ukraine and Gaza, religious persecution in Iraq, disease in Western Africa…. The list seems endless. We pray for God’s help (and rightly so!). But what we really want is for God to take charge and fix the world. Well, that day will come! But for now, it seems, Teresa of Ávila is right. We are expected to do something about these things—with God’s help, of course.

There’s an awful commercial for a company called ChristianMingle.com that you may have seen on TV. Their company motto is “Sometimes we wait for God to make the next move, when God is saying, ‘It’s your time to act.’ The next move is yours.” Well, it makes little sense as a motto for a dating agency, but it makes a lot of sense for Christians contemplating the state of the world.

Of course, sometimes we don’t know what we should do as Christ’s hands in the world. And sometimes we just don’t have the will to take action. We feel burned out by what sociologists call “compassion fatigue.” The answer to both of these problems is to turn to God—in the Bible, in personal prayer, and in the Blessed Sacrament. That is how we Christians find guidance; that is how we Christians find strength.

Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cut_out_black

Finally, we should remember that we are not on our own in the enterprise of mending the world. Consider for a moment Michelangelo’s famous Pietà, a sculpture of St. Mary holding the body of her lifeless son. In that quintessentially sorrowful image, we can find solace, for it can serve to remind us that our spiritual mother Mary holds this wounded world in her prayers, just as she held the wounded body of her son in her arms on that fateful day on Calvary. And I have no doubt that the prayers of this righteous woman are both powerful and effective.

© 2014 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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