The lectionary gospel reading for Advent 4 in Year C is Luke 1.39-45, with the option of reading on to Luke 1.46-55. Do please take the option of reading the Magnificat; reading the first half without the second would be like going to a Michelin-starred restaurant for dinner and leaving after the starter!
It is often claimed that Luke emphasises the gospel for the poor, or that he focusses on women and their roles, in particular the contribution of the wealthy women in Luke 8.1 who contribute to the financial underwriting of the ministry of Jesus and his entourage.
In fact, Luke is rather more subtle than that. Felix Just offers this helpful table of parallel stories of men and women in Luke’s gospel. They are listed as a pair in the order the they occur, rather than putting the stories and texts about men in one column and the stories and texts about women in the other, so we can see that sometimes the men come first, whilst at others the women come first. In the pairing of Mary and Zechariah, there is a kind of chiasm, in that the narrative of Zechariah comes before the story of Mary, but Mary’s canticle of praise comes before Zechariah’s.
|Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah (1:8-23 – L)||Angel Gabriel appears to Mary (1:26-38 – L)|
|Canticle of Mary (Magnificat; 1:46-55 – L)||Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus; 1:68-79 – L)|
|Simeon encounters the infant Jesus & his parents|
in the Jerusalem Temple (2:25-35 – L)
|Anna thanks God & prophesies about Jesus|
in the Jerusalem Temple (2:36-38 – L)
|Widow of Zarephat & Israelite widows (4:25-26 – L)||Naaman the Syrian & Israelite lepers (4:27 – L)|
|Exorcism of a Demoniac at Capernaum (4:31-37 – Mk)||Healing of Simon’s mother-in-law at Capernaum (4:38-39 – Mk)|
|Centurion’s slave is healed (7:1-10 – Q)||Widow of Nain’s son raised from the dead (7:11-17 – L)|
|Naming of the twelve apostles of Jesus (6:12-16 – Mk)||Naming of women who accompanied Jesus (8:1-3 – L)|
|Jairus’ daughter is raised to life (8:41-42, 49-56 – Mk)||Bleeding woman is healed (8:43-46 – Mk)|
|Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37 – L)||Examples of Martha and Mary (10:38-42 – L)|
|A neighbor asks for bread at midnight (11:5-8 – L)||A widow asks for justice persistently (18:1-11 – L)|
|A woman in a crowd shouts out to Jesus,|
“Blessed is the womb that bore you…” (11:27 – L)
|A man at a dinner tells Jesus, “Blessed is anyone|
who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (14:15 – L)
|The Queen of the South (11:31 – Q)||The Ninevites (11:32 – Q)|
|A crippled woman is healed (13:10-17 – L)||A lame man is healed (14:1-6 – L)|
|“Daughter of Abraham” reference (13:16 – L)||“Son of Abraham” reference (19:9 – L)|
|Parable of a man planting a mustard seed (13:18-19 – Mk)||Parable of a woman mixing yeast & flour (13:20-21 – Q)|
|Parable of a shepherd looking for a lost sheep (15:3-7 – Q)||Parable of a woman looking for a lost coin (15:8-10 – L)|
|Example of two men together asleep (17:34 – Q)||Example of two women grinding meal (17:35 – Q)|
|A servant girl questions Peter (22:56-57 – Mk)||Two men also question Peter (22:58+59 – Mk/L)|
|Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross (23:26 – Mk)||Jesus meets women on the way to Calvary (23:27-29 – L)|
|Joseph of Arimathea buries Jesus’ body (23:50-53 – Mk)||Women see where Jesus is buried (23:55-56 – Mk)|
|Women find Jesus’ tomb empty (24:1-11 – Mk)||Two disciples journey to Emmaus (24:13-35 – L)|
Literary Sources: L = only in Luke; Q = Luke and Matthew, but not Mark; Mk = from Mark (and usually also in Matthew)
But more noteworthy is the fact that, of these 21 paired stories, nine have both halves unique to Luke (designated by an ‘L’), and a further seven have one half unique to Luke, making a total of 16. Of the remaining five, three are pairs of stories also found in Mark, and the other two are combinations of Mark, Luke and Matthew. In other words, most of this ‘pairing’ phenomenon is distinctive to Luke and (we may infer) part of his deliberate organisation of his source material gathered from his research (Luke 1.1).
This certainly means that, when reading or preaching on these stories, we should look for the connections with the other half of the pair, and explore either points of commonality or points of difference between the two. And it means that for Luke the gospel isn’t ‘merely’ for the poor, the woman, the marginal—it is for rich and poor alike, for women and men alike, for the marginal and the central alike, and for the religiously respectable and religiously scandalous alike. This is a both/and gospel, and not an either/or gospel.
One particular example is the first in this list, the pairing of Zechariah and Mary. It is not uncommon to hear exposition of the contrasts, which flow naturally out of the common verbal response to Gabriel ‘How can I be sure of this/How can this be?’ (Luke 1.18, 34) which turns out to be a statement of doubt for Zechariah but a statement of faith for Mary. But it is less common to compare the Magnificat (from now on referred to as M) with the Benedictus (referred to as B), to see any points in common and any contrasts of focus. Given Luke’s concern with pairings, surely this is a good idea. (I am not aware of any other comparative studies of the two canticles; do let me know in comments if you have come across one.)
It is first worth noting the things that the two canticles have in common. The most obvious is the language of ‘remembering’ and the mention of Abraham. Both canticles also draw extensively on Old Testament texts and ideas, though in rather different ways. Joel Green (in his NIGTC p 101) notes the links in the Magnificat with the Songs of Moses (Ex 15.1–18), Miriam (Ex 15.19–21), Deborah (Judges 5.1–31), Asaph (1 Chron 16.8–36) and especially Hannah (1 Sam 2.1–10). ‘As others have noted, Mary’s song is a virtual collage of biblical texts’. See here a list of the echoes of scripture in the Benedictus—though this analysis doesn’t note the differences introduced (like the ‘forgiveness of sins’) and so presses the text too much into a political framework. And clearly the Benedictus is not simply making a collage in the way that the Magnificat is.
And now we begin to see some of the differences. At first sight, M is much more personal, focusing on what God has done for Mary as an individual. To this extent, it echoes the language of the personal psalms of victory and celebration, and repeatedly follows their structure of first articulating praise and then going on to give the reason for that praise (‘My soul glorifies…for he has…’). By contrast, B focusses on what God is doing for his people Israel, and to that extent is more corporate and more formal in its celebration. The contrast is not quite so simple though: M does lead from the personal to the corporate, ending with a celebration of what God has done for Israel; and B moves in the opposite direction, in the (widely recognised) second half moving to what God will achieve through the particular individual John, Zechariah’s promised son.
This leads to two further observations about the difference. We repeat the M so often that we might not realise the strangeness of the tenses: all of the action is set in the aorist (past) tense, and is a celebration of what God has already done. If you don’t think that is odd, just remember where in the wider narrative of Luke this comes! Strictly speaking, God hasn’t yet done very much! Jesus has not yet been born, and in a context of high infant mortality, this is no mere detail! In her song, Mary’s understanding of God’s deliverance is highly realised, and she sees the pattern of God’s redemption as already anticipated in his gracious dealing with her. It is rather startling that (in contrast to B) there is absolutely no mention of what this promised child will do. Mary here becomes less of a means of God’s saving action, and instead a pattern and a model for it. By contrast, B is largely focussed on the future; God has done something (‘raised up for us a horn of salvation/mighty saviour’) but this is with the intention of enacting salvation, which has not yet happened. The second half, focussing on John, is all in the future tense. So God’s action here is less a pattern of salvation and more a means by which salvation will come.
The second thing flowing from this basic difference in orientation is the different focus. M takes up a frequent theme in the psalms and the wisdom literature, that of justice in Israel and God’s reversal of the current order of rich and poor. Although there is ‘help [for] his servant Israel], that ‘help’ is all about the reforming and reneweal of the people; the focus is internal. But in B, the focus is outward; salvation comes to give Israel security from those who threaten and oppress her, to allow the nation to worship God in peace. There is a shared focus on God’s strength, and both draw on the theological tradition of God as warrior. But in M God is a warrior in Israel on behalf of the poor and opposing the oppressor within the nation; in B God is a warrior for Israel, rescuing her from her external enemies. Both canticles include the idea of covenant renewal, but they have quite distinct elements of that covenant in view.
Finally, both include themes that will be picked up and elucidated further in Luke’s gospel. Mary’s theme of reversal occurs most notable in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6.20–26), and the theme of feeding the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty is most dramatically illustrated in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19–31). The connections in B are harder to spot but equally important: the language about God ‘coming’ to his people and the dawn from on high ‘coming’ to us both use the verb episkeptomai ‘to visit’. This visitation brings blessing if received—but judgement if refused. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem in Luke 19.44 because the people ‘did not recognise the time of God’s visitation (episkope)’.
So, in this ‘both/and’ gospel, salvation is both personal and corporate. It renews God’s people in justice and righteousness, and it saves them from their enemies. It is both realised and yet to come, both incorporating and adapting God’s promises from of old. It brings both grace and (if that grace is refused) judgement, focussing both on God’s own initiative and the invitation to respond. And it is recognised by an old, priestly man and a young lay woman. Let us celebrate all of these this Christmas.
(Previously posted in 2018. The picture at the top is The Annunciation by Fra Angelico from around 1445.)