Early in the infancy narrative we meet Herod the Great (37 – 4 BC), a ruler engaged in expensive building projects, magnificent palaces in Jerusalem and other cities and fortresses around the country, the Herodium and Masada. His most famous project was the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.
The extraordinary expenditures placed a heavy burden on the Jerusalem peasantry. This was compounded by large demands for tithes, tributes and taxes. No account was taken of the overlapping claims of king, high priest, and Rome, creating a triple demand that bled the country and people to death.
We meet a priest named Zechariah, whose priestly descent carries little importance. The priests were divided into 24 orders, of which Ahijah was the eighth, each order to provide temple service for one week, twice a year, hardly enough to make a living for many thousands of priests and their families, many of whom worked their own or others’ fields.
Nazareth in Galilee
The scene shifts to Galilee, the heart of agricultural production, of fertile soil, the hub of the fishing industry, yet at the same time the centre of revolt and stubborn resistance to alien cultural influence. Yet peasant life rested on a narrow margin between subsistence and abject poverty, caught between one’s own production and the economic demands of King and priesthood and Rome.
Far-flung Nazareth, an insignificant Galilean hamlet, is nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament. The story moves to a virgin betrothed (not engaged, a misleading term for this binding relationship) to a man named Joseph. Mary is among the most powerless people in her society; she is young in a world that values age, female in a world ruled by men, poor in a stratified economy. She has yet no husband or child to validate her existence. Yet she found ‘favour with God’ and was ‘highly gifted’ (v.28), an indication of Luke’s understanding of God’s surprising and often paradoxical choice.
Mary, highly favoured one
As a peasant woman, Mary was probably illiterate, as most women of her time were because the study of scripture was a man’s domain. She was occupied with the domestic chores of village life and her religious service centred on her home. Her emptiness is filled by God’s promises; overpowered by the Spirit, she stands up to reclaim for herself and for all women the dignity of both woman and person. Nor is she given the respectable ancestry of John the Baptist. Mary’s family is not mentioned – it is her very insignificance that seems to be Luke’s main point in his introduction of her here. Nothing is said of what she is doing when Gabriel enters, but she is physically alone.
Though greeted as ‘favoured one’, Mary is greeted not so much in her own right, but in terms of what God has done for her. ‘The Lord is with you’ assures Mary of God’s support, a person chosen for a special purpose in salvation history. In obedience to Gabriel, Mary goes to verify the extraordinary sign of the pregnancy of Elizabeth. Gabriel had given her a sign and a sign is given to be seen. The deeper issue is not why Mary goes but why Luke wants the two women to meet. Great emphasis is placed on Mary’s greeting, mentioned three times (1:40, 41, 44). Its result is the response of the unborn John, Elizabeth’s greeting as the senior figure honouring her younger cousin. Gabriel had given Elizabeth as a sign for Mary; now Mary becomes a sign to be heard rather than to see.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Mary speaks the prophecy we know as her Magnificat. This is an expression of Luke’s understanding of the significance of Jesus and his place in the history of God’s redemptive activity in Israel. Because of the prominent role Luke wants Mary to play in his writing, Luke probably took an original hymn (its origins can be seen in 1 Samuel 2:1-10) and put it into the mouth of Mary. As far as the origin of the Magnificat is concerned, it seems fairly unanimous among scholars that it did not originate with Luke, but was inserted later to fit loosely in the context. It is a compilation of Old Testament motifs that most likely originated among a group of Jewish anawim (poor ones) who had converted to Christianity.
It is not so much the origin of the Magnificat that is striking, but that the author of the gospel found in the lowly peasant girl the mouthpiece for such a profound prayer. Placed on the lips of Mary, the hymn brings out the prominence of the first disciple of Jesus and her embodiment of the Jewish anawim. Who are the poor and lowly in the prayer? They are the opposite of the proud (v.51), the mighty (v.52a), and the rich (v.53a). They are those who fear God (v.50), the hungry (v.53b), and ultimately, Israel (v.54) and, most importantly, all those for whom God has acted. God sees their weakness and delivers them, satisfying the needs of the hungry and destroying the oppressors. Nor should we forget the challenge of the Puebla conference: ‘It is an escape to interpret the Magnificat at only a spiritual level.’ It calls for action at the moral, social, and economic level.
Hendrickx H. Third Gospel for the Third World (vol. 1). Claretian Press.