A month or so ago I invited myself along with my friend Carrie and her daughter to their Catholic parish for the living rosary.
All I knew about the rosary before visiting St. George was that it is an aid for prayer, each bead representing a prayer. Well, what I learned was that indeed the rosary is an aid for prayer in a very specific way and that Mary is the central figure of intercession. I did not know the Hail Mary before this worship service, but I definitely knew it by the end: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the time of our death. Amen”
I paired up with 10-year-old Carmen, who was the only kid in attendance but who is a church-pro as an altar server, but I could have been a been all on my own, because by the time they got to us, I’d heard the hail mary about 35 time and would hear it at least 15 more. Interspersed with Our Father (which I knew) the Glory Be (which I pretty much knew) and the Fatima (which I didn’t and which I looked up the name of later – save us from the fires of hell), and by now I forget the end beads. The living rosary ended with a veneration of Mary, laying roses and carnations at her feet. And selfies with the priest. I am not kidding you. (Pics on sermon page)
I was intrigued and curious and a little in awe in that setting by the attention and veneration paid to Mary. This is something we don’t really do at all in our tradition – certainly not in that way. And I was also struck: when you hear or say the rosary that many times and dwell in the Mary-focused love all I saw and heard was Mary as vessel, Mary as intermediary. In this scene from Luke, Mary has a powerful voice in her own right. Both she and Elizabeth speak (or sing) powerful words of praise, blessing and prophecy to each other in this scene. It’s extremely unusual in the Bible for two women to appear together un-connected to a man. So unusual that I was prompted in my reflection on the text to do a little searching to see what other stories in the Bible pass the Bechdel test.
You may have heard of this test for media. I think I might have first heard about it from Hannah Notess. Something passes the Bechdel test if there are two women with names in it who have a conversation about something other than a man.
Seems simple but apparently more than a third of top movie releases this year fail. (Not a perfect test, btw. Shades of Grey, which I didn’t watch, passed.) In the Bible proper there are 3: Ruth and Naomi, Mary and Elizabeth, Magdalene, Salome and Mary at the tomb of Jesus. [more at blog]
There are, of course many awesome women in the Bible who lead and speak and strategize and theologize. But in this snippet here, it’s just Mary and Elizabeth and I think that’s why I love it. I love stories in which the biblical characters seem like real folks. Mary and Elizabeth are real, living humans in this story, no statues to be venerated, nor heavenly spirits to intercede on our behalf. There is so much humanity in this story. And there is so much God in this this story.
At the point at which we encounter her, Mary must be kinda freaking out. As soon as the angel tells her then news that she will be pregnant she high-tails it to the hill to see the only other person who could possibly understand what she’s experiencing. She gets the heck out of Dodge, because who else but Elizabeth would believe her. Who else but a woman who, at her age, could be Mary’s grandmother or even great grandmother, and yet is pregnant herself.
Gabriel, in telling her about Elizabeth has given her a friend and mentor to whom she can turn for solace and companionship and understanding. God – so much God in this very human story.
So she goes to see Elizabeth and no sooner does Mary walk in the door than Elizabeth prophesies: “You’re pregnant!” Mary has said nothing but ‘Hello,” and she is met with the prophecy and blessing. There are some people – maybe you too have met them – who have a sixth sense about pregnancy. This if very annoying if you want to keep your pregnancy a secret.
When I was pregnant with Naomi early on, it was Alicia Beckford Wassink, who before an evening meeting one day asked very pointedly, “You’re pregnant aren’t you?” Elizabeth has that times a hundred. Because God! Because there is so much God in this story. She is overcome by the Holy Spirit. There is so much Spirit in her that it is spilling out, it is making little baby John do back flips. Into Mary’s freak-out, (and of course this is conjecture) Elizabeth offers joyful praise, prophecy and blessing.
Mary answers her with a song of her own. Song is answered with song. Song inspiring song.
While this is a song of which I am in awe and which I love, which has been beautifully set to music in some of our hymnals – the world is about to turn, my joy is filled with joy – and yet. I have often seen Mary and Elizabeth as real life folk. But also kind of like real-people but in a musical. There’s this very human scene in which two very human folks meet each other in the God-filled but incarnational experience of pregnancy and Mary breaks into song as in a broadway musical – not so human any more – at least a broadway kind of human. Real life but as portrayed in the musical version. (Hamilton?)
Except, that what Mary is singing is not her own composition. Mary is not coming up with this whole cloth all on her own. Raised and formed in the faith of her ancestors, Mary is singing the Bible’s greatest hits. She is singing the song of her people. This song is a cover and prophecy and blessing, she is taking the best of her tradition – including her friend and mentor Elizabeth and many women of song before her, not to mention the prophets and the Psalms: Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, and Hannah.
Hannah! You could almost do a ‘who said it?’ game between the two songs: Hannah sings, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God, “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength,”
“He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”
(to the tune of ‘My soul is filled with joy’)
“The bows of might are broken,
And the weak wear strength like princes.
You raise up the poor from ashes
They will sit in seats of honor.”
It could be the next verse of Mary’s song, which celebrates the power of God to do marvels, scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, filling the hungry with good things, sending away the rich empty.
I got my first iPod ten years ago. By now I have has several iterations of iPods/iPhones. And when you set it up with iTunes on your computer – as anyone with an iPhone probably knows (maybe tablets too) you can name your device. I called my first iPod Miriam – because songs. I have always appreciated these Biblical songs. Because in addition to loving the real humanness, I am a bit of a romantic I like a good musical theme.
My generations of iDevice have recognized the generations of the biblical songstress. Unlike the generations of iPhones, which just inspire greater and greater greed for newer and fancier gadgets, Mary’s song and those of her ancestors are a call to revolution, prophecy of the leveling out that Megan preached a few weeks ago. The themes that the prophets and these women sing are praise and prophecy and blessing. Human folks filled up with God Spirit and singing God’s revolutionary song, which is also the song of their ancestors and which they will pass on to their children. In the generation after her, Mary’s song will be amplified even further.
The next generation of this song is Jesus’ song. From his first sermon in Nazareth, Jesus speaks the words of Isaiah, which are also the words of his mother, the words of his ancestors calling his disciples and us to speak and act and sing prophesy and blessing into our own context.
When I look at this beloved body of God, I see so much humanity and I see so much God. Friends, it can be difficult in days of hate and violence and consumerism to hear and proclaim with Mary the words of prophecy and blessing. When Discipleship Council met last week we began, as we always do, with reflecting on where we see evidence of God’s extravagant love. It was hard at first, as we meet (as we do this morning) under a shadow of all that sin and brokenness and violence have wrought. But as we reflected, we were also able to rejoice.
So let me remind you and us all of just a couple examples of the Magnificat version of ourselves.
We have hosted an emergency shelter in our building for a month, and we have celebrated the story of Mary and Joseph receiving shelter. We have written letters to legislators calling for accountability and restrictions to gun ownership and we have spoken and sung a liturgy while guns were being crafted into tools to grow gardens. We have invited a Muslim woman to speak to us and teach us about peace and we have worshiped with our Islamic neighbors across the parking lot. Prophecy and blessing. We have built and nurtured relationships with our families and friends and children and communities that plant the seeds of peace. So much humanity. So much God. The Holy Spirit is singing within us.
Tomorrow my family and I are jetting off to California and I am looking forward to it but I will miss you all here on Christmas Eve! I will miss the songs of prophecy and praise and hope and the echo of the Magnificat as we celebrate God with us. May we continue to live Mary’s and our song of praise, prophecy and blessing.