Mary didn’t fight; Mary sang. She stood in the tradition of Deborah, wise judge and mighty warrior, singer of the oldest song in scripture. She channeled the canticles of Hannah and Judith and the mother of liberation, Miriam. Following in the footsteps of her ancestors, she composed laments, victory songs, and the range of traditional choruses in between. Songs were her work of resistance, her response to the injustice she witnessed and likely suffered in Nazareth.
The memories of the exodus from Egypt and the daily experiences of life in Galilee shaped Mary’s resistance refrains. Accordingly, she wove lyrics together with lament and imprecatory heat. Other verses she filled with praise or gratitude or messianic hope. Pleas for deliverance were common in her songbook. Both trauma and liberation were hallmarks of her hymns. If trauma could be transformed into songs, maybe song could be a part of diminishing the deep distress of Galilean life. Most likely, villagers knew some sacred stories, some psalms and parables from the oral tradition of their culture, but few read or studied all of the holy words. It took time for stories and songs to move among networks of regional villages and to pass down through families. So, Mary in Nazareth began with a handful of old songs circulating in her community, maybe a few from her mother, Anna. Maybe she rehearsed them as she journeyed from Nazareth to Judea’s hills and Ein Kerem.
In the three months Mary spent with Elizabeth, they would have talked about Elizabeth’s descendancy from the priestly line of Aaron, and of Mary’s lineage. Perhaps there were songs Elizabeth taught her—old songs new to Mary. And perhaps Elizabeth helped her learn not only the words of the old songs but also the meanings and histories attached to them. They would have searched and learned together from the matriarchs of Israel, about their suffering and survival and even joys amid struggle.
Together, Elizabeth and Mary reflected on the words of their sacred traditions and likely considered how they embodied the witness of their predecessors now, in their current landscape. The story would continue with them.
When Elizabeth called Mary blessed, in the words of Deborah’s praise of Jael, it wasn’t only the song but the solidarity between the women that pierced Mary’s young heart. Grafted into generations of women practicing liberation through subversive songs and solidarity, Mary was formed by song, and then she composed song, creating a legacy, weaving herself into the unwritten genealogy of women who birthed the sons and daughters of Israel.
She came to see her place among her people, singing, “From now on all generations will call me blessed.”
And as she sang of God’s goodness toward her, she sang also of generations before who met God’s mercy. And she sang for generations to come. Hers was no solitary song, but a prophetic chorus born of solidarity with many matriarchs, and with Emmanuel, working salvation even now through her.
But the song was personal; it sprouted from her own reversal. In the Magnificat of Luke, Mary sings of her low estate, a status typically translated as “poor” or “humble.” But there is a fuller connotation to this word, tapeinōsis, that refers to humiliation or distress. And this can be seen earlier in the Hebrew Bible, as the word is used to connote the sexual humiliation of Dinah, the concubine in Judges, and King David’s daughter Tamar, to name just a few. It might even be that Luke’s use of this word in Mary’s song is an intertextual nod to a passage in Deuteronomy, where the law directs response in handling the seduced or sexually humiliated betrothed virgin. What if Mary sings of her own humiliation and God’s astounding redemption of her shame in this present moment? Instead of punishment, blessing? What if she sings as the first fruit of God’s grand reversal? What if she goes on to sing of God exalting the other humiliated ones with such confidence because she has already experienced the beginning of such holy upheaval herself?
Mary’s anthem tells of those brutalized by the empire, literally and metaphorically, who will know God’s recompense.
Liberation will overcome humiliation and stigma; God’s justice will have the final victorious word for those like her in the world. Mary understands that her own experience of reversal will be shared with all the meek ones. And her song will set a trajectory for the future, where her humiliation is transformed into incarnation in a way that foreshadows how her son’s death by imperial crucifixion, another humiliation, will be transformed by resurrection. This God of Mary’s song upends all the empire’s violent tactics.
With her advent song composed in the hills of Judea, Mary forged a new resistance movement. The Magnificat grew from her time with Elizabeth, from their conversations and robust singing as they walked the uneven roads of Ein Kerem side by side. As their bellies grew, so too did their convictions about God’s coming deliverance. No surprise then that Mary bursts out with this song, braiding together songs of old with her new understanding of God’s work and celebrating God’s mighty deeds among the meek, like herself and her community.
With boldness, Mary declares an astonishing reversal in which the proud will be confused and the mighty dethroned, while the humble ones will be elevated to those vacated positions. Her song envisions a world order where the village elders, once trampled by menacing soldiers and crooked politicians are vindicated. Local leaders will finally manage their own affairs with equity. The hungry, her neighbors in Nazareth among them, will be seated at tables full of good food. They will be able to savor the bounty from their own fields, the fruits of their own labor. And the rich, who gained their wealth through exploitation of her neighbors, will be sent away with empty pockets, now experiencing the pangs of poverty in this reversal of empire economics.
Mary sings out a new social order that upends the status quo as advent begins to turn tables on those who benefit from the injustice of empires and their economies— long before her own son would himself overturn tables, enacting protest in the temple.
Some songs soothe; others become subversive anthems to galvanize radical hope and future action. The song Mary sang was one of change already afoot.
Together, Elizabeth and Mary, the mothers of advent, shaped the infrastructure of peace. Their bodies, metaphors within the songs they sang, spoke about newness God was birthing into the world. In their flourishing friendship, they collaborated to create and embody novel paradigms. They spoke about possibilities and limitations, challenging one another and allowing hope to generate. Together, they did the work of theology, in cooperation and communal engagement, gestating God’s peace, which reversed the unjust order.
So many of the hymns composed during the Maccabean Revolt sang of nationalistic salvation, of revenge and violence. But the mothers of advent teach about disarming in the move toward God’s justice. In Mary’s advent anthem, we see no vindictiveness. And we find that same spirit in future years in her son, when in the synagogue he reads from the scroll of Isaiah the words of jubilee announced there but omits the words of wrath. In the advent trajectory set by his mother to reverse unjust structures, not with a spirit of revenge but restoration, Jesus followed.
In the company of women peacemakers in Israel and Palestine, I hear ancient cadences in work for justice. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian women all sing of a future birthed by nonviolence, love, and justice for all who call the land home. Some have suffered the loss of children to the violence of occupation or the resistance, yet they come together in their grief to lament even as they compose new songs of hope. Others make music with their feet as they march, arm in arm, to demonstrate the desire for justice across their landscape. Still, other mothers share laughter like a song as they make jam, not conflict, together. Their songs are contagious and keep the lyrics of liberation alive in me.