As a rule, I don’t like musicals. Well, it’s not “as” a rule. It is a rule. I do not like musicals. I never watched Glee, unless the women at my house were monopolizing the television. I walked out of The Sound of Music; something about Maria racing to the top of a hill singing with no hint of asthmatic reaction ruined it for me. I did stay through Les Misérables, though dying people singing tend to annoy me, but it was operatic and no one was asking me to believe that perfectly ordinary people frequently burst into spur-of-the-moment song. I never break into spontaneous song, not if someone might be listening. Why should anyone else?
But St. Luke wants us to believe, on this eve of the Festival of Mary, that Mary, Mother of Our Lord, did exactly that.
The appointed Gospel reading for the day is St. Luke’s report of Mary singing the Magnificat to her cousin Elizabeth. Impulsively and with no prior rehearsal she praises God for the Messiah to come through her.
The occasion for this song is what Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, has said to her. There are three “blesseds” uttered by Elizabeth. I have a picture of the fetal prophet kicking his mother, forcing them out of her mouth: Kick, blessed! Kick, blessed! Kick!
Anyway, Mary is blessed for the Messiah that is to come through her, and so she is blessed among women. More crucially, she is blessed because she has believed the word given to her. She sings, we are told, yet they are words Rogers and Hammerstein could never have invented.
Divine grace has taken up residence in her, enclosed within her flesh. So it follows: she is blessed. But as with most of God’s blessings, there is an edge. The baby born of her is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel; old Simeon will tell her that. And that same baby will break his mother’s heart; Simeon will tell her that too.
Sure, his little feet will bring Good News from God, yet by that news he shall be pierced and bear scars into eternity. His little hands whose touch shall bring healing, turn water into wine, and multiply the loaves shall be bitten by the nail, bestowing absolution upon us each. He will be Emmanuel, God-with-us, from her womb.
It is for this, St. Luke tell us, that Mary sings.
As honors go it is a strange and terrible one. She is honored by the shame of pregnancy before wedlock and, we might reasonably assume, by the nattering undercurrent of ridicule in her village.
Yet in a theology of the cross it is the very burden of suffering and indignity that carry the glory and honor. The dictum is short and brutal: No cross, no crown.
Thus, Mary, most blessed among women, a peasant girl perhaps of a distant, now dusty royal heritage, is the vessel for the Messiah and is honored for it through pain. Recognizing this honor of God the Church calls her Theotokos: The Mother of God.
We honor her for saying “yes” to God, and praise her for it. God uses Mary, with her weaknesses and her piety, with her shame and her honor, and comes thereby to strengthen our faith. In her he demonstrates his compassion for the lowly. God uses her; I suspect he seeks to use us all.
So we honor Mary by imitating her. Her faith is also our faith, a faith which declares that the child of Bethlehem is for the salvation of the world. We clutch at the same faith and the same hope, believing as she believed, and the savior comes to be born within us as well.
Mary, Mother of our Lord, is most certainly immaculate, pure, and undefiled forever — not because she gave him birth, but first because she heard the Word of God and, impossible though it was, she believed that Word. Her soul rejoices in God her Savior and her son.
For all that St. Luke expects us to believe she sang. I guess I’ll give him a pass on that point. On the whole, I don’t suppose it is any harder to believe that Mary broke into song than it is to believe what Mary believed.
Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, was published last July by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.