Mary’s Song

Bharūch Magnificat, by the Rev. Wil Gafney (21st c)

Wil Gafney is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School. Luke 1:46-56:

And Mary said,

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord,
rejoice, rejoice, my spirit, in God my savior;
so tenderly has he looked upon his servant, humble as she is.

For, from this day forth, all generations will count me blessed,
so wonderfully has he dealt with me,
the Lord, the Mighty One.

His name is Holy; his mercy sure from generation to generation
toward those who fear him;
the deeds his own right arm has done disclose his might:
the arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout,
he has torn imperial powers from their thrones,
but the humble have been lifted high.
The hungry he has satisfied with good things,
the rich sent empty away.

He has ranged himself at the side of Israel, his servant;
firm in his promise to our forebears,
he has not forgotten to show mercy to Abraham,
and his children’s children, for ever.

Now Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then returned home.

Promise:  What was the promise God made to Abraham? *

Thoughts: on parentingDonna Ross

We’ve always heard Mary’s proclamation of her joy in the “Magnificat”:

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord,
rejoice, rejoice, my spirit, in God my savior;
so tenderly has he looked upon his servant, humble as she is.
For, from this day forth, all generations will count me blessed,
so wonderfully has he dealt with me,
the Lord, the Mighty One.

But we haven’t always heard Mary’s proclamation of God’s justice:

God has torn imperial powers from their thrones,
but the humble have been lifted high.
The hungry he has satisfied with good things,
the rich sent away empty.

Mary is saying that God’s justice will turn the powers of this world upside down.

Today our nation is divided by our cries for justice and peace. For instance,

We argue about war:
should we become pacifists,
or should we intervene to protect the innocent?

We argue about racism:
should we accept that it takes time to eradicate prejudice,
or should we intervene to protect the victims of oppression?

And we argue about abortion:
should we protect the right of women to make their own choices,
or should we intervene to protect the lives of unborn children?

God calls us to work for justice and peace among all people; God calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. How can we do both?

Has our idea of justice become clouded by our focus on unborn children,
without regard to their pregnant mothers?

Has our idea of justice become clouded by our focus on women’s rights,
disregarding their unborn children?

How can we care for mothers as well as babies
(and babies as well as mothers)?

* The promise

God said to Abraham, “This is my covenant with you:  You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations… I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
See Genesis 17:1-7

Mary visits Elizabeth

The Visitation
Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel

Luke 1:39-45:

About that time Mary set out and went straight to a town in the uplands of Judah.  She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.  And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby stirred in her womb.

Then Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried aloud, “God’s blessing is on you above all women, and his blessing is on the fruit of your womb.  Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?  I tell you, when your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy.  How happy is she who has had faith that the Lord’s promise would be fulfilled.”

Uplands:  Where were the uplands of Judah? *

Thoughts: on parenting — Donna Ross

Years ago, I visited a woman a woman named Mary once every month. Indeed, Mary became one of my most treasured friends – indeed, she became my spiritual mother.

Mary was a Sister in the Roman Catholic order of Notre Dame de Namur, and had served as a teacher in East Africa. When she returned to the States, she continued serving others as a spiritual director.

A spiritual director learns to listen on many levels. There are the spoken words of the person who has come to share his or her life. There are the silent thoughts of the spiritual director herself, rising up in response to what the other person is saying. And finally, there is the voice of the Holy Spirit, who is moving in the hearts of both persons. Indeed, the Spirit has brought these two persons together — and both have come together to listen to what the Spirit has to say.

My friend Mary often compared spiritual direction to Luke’s story of the Visitation. In every visitation one person, led by the Spirit, seeks out another person to hear a word of wisdom — and then the Spirit moves between the two.

Just so, in Luke’s story Mary has been inspired to seek out Elizabeth, her older cousin; and Elizabeth, when she hears her cousin’s voice, is inspired to bless Mary and strengthen her faith in God’s leading.

Parents, whether physical or spiritual, learn to listen to their children on many levels. (There is the sharp cry of a hungry baby — will milk be comfort enough? Or will a parent’s arms give comfort even more lasting than food?)

Who in your life hears your stories, tries to hear the Spirit’s voice for you, and then offers you words of comfort and wisdom?

The baby stirs in Elizabeth’s womb
Society of the Holy Child Jesus

* Uplands of Judah

The heart of Judah (Judaea) was the upper hill country, known as Har Yehuda (“Hills of Judaea”), extending south from the region of Bethel (at present-day Ramallah) to Beersheba and including the area of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron.

The hill country of Judea
(abandoned Palestinian homes after the 1967 war)


Good news comes to Mary

The Annunciation
Fra Angelico, 15th century

The story continues:  Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, with a message for a girl betrothed to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David; the girl’s name was Mary.

The angel went in and said to her, “Greetings, most favoured one!  The Lord is with you.”  But she was deeply troubled by what he said and wondered what this greeting might mean.  Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you; you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus.  He will be great; he will bear the title “Son of the Most High”; the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will be king over Israel for ever; his reign shall never end.”

“How can this be,” said Mary, “when I have no husband?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy child to be born will be called “Son of God”.  Moreover, your kinswoman Elizabeth has herself conceived a son in her old age; and she who is reputed barren is now in her sixth month, for God’s promises can never fail.”

“Here am I,” said Mary; “I am the Lord’s servant, as you have spoken, so be it.”  Then the angel left her.

Girl:  Why does this translation call Mary a “girl”? *

Thoughts: on parenting Donna Ross

Many young girls, like Mary, become pregnant before they are ready to be mothers.
What should they do?  This is the question for every pregnant girl and woman without resources; it’s also a question for the rest of us: What should we do?

Is there a way for our world to care for mothers as well as babies?
(Is there a way for our world to care for babies as well as mothers?)

* Girl

For centuries, most Bibles identified Mary as a “virgin”, based on the translators’ understanding of a prophecy in Isaiah (Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear
a son, and shall name him Immanuel…Isaiah 7:14)  

The Hebrew word translated as “virgin” here is almah, which can also mean “a young woman of marriageable age”, or “newly married woman.”

Around 200 BCE, as Greek became the language educated people were reading, Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.  In Isaiah 7:14 they translated the Hebrew word almah into the Greek word parthenos (which does mean “virgin”).  This Greek translation was the “Old Testament” used by our New Testament writers, including Luke.

Good news comes to Zechariah

The Angel Appearing to Zacharias

William Blake, 1799

The story begins:  Luke 1:5-25

In the days of Herod king of Judaea there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of the priesthood called after Abijah.  His wife also was of priestly descent; her name was Elizabeth.  Both of them were upright and devout, blamelessly observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord.  But they had no children, for Elizabeth was barren, and both were well on in years.

Once, when it was the turn of his division and he was there to take part in divine service, it fell to his lot, by priestly custom, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer the incense; and the whole congregation was in prayer outside.  It was the hour of the incense-offering.  There appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense.  At this sight, Zechariah was startled, and fear overcame him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard: your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.  Your heart will thrill with joy, and many will be glad that he was born; for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord.  He shall never touch wine or strong drink.  From his very birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit; and he will bring back many Israelites to the Lord their God.  He will go before him as forerunner, possessed by the spirit and power of Elijah, to reconcile father and child, to convert the rebellious to the ways of the righteous, to prepare a people that shall be fit for the Lord.”

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this?  I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.”

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel, I stand in attendance upon God and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news.  But now listen; you will lose your powers of speech, and remain silent until the day when these things happen to you, because you have not believed me, though at their proper time my words will be proved true.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, surprised that he was staying so long inside.  When he did come out he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had had a vision in the sanctuary.  He stood there making signs to them, and remained dumb.

When his period of duty was completed Zechariah returned home.  After this his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she lived in seclusion, thinking, “This is the Lord’s doing; now at last he has deigned to take away my reproach among men.”

Priest:  What kind of priest was Zechariah? *

Thoughts: on parenting — Donna Ross

How different today’s world is from Zechariah’s world! Today we know that Elizabeth may not have been “barren” after all — but it may have been Zechariah who was infertile. Today we know that babies are created when a mother’s egg unites with a father’s sperm — but in Luke’s day it was thought that the whole baby was carried in its father’s sperm, with the mother contributing a receptive womb (just as fertile soil receives the farmer’s seed).

And yet again how similar our worlds are, after all. So many couples today, just like Elizabeth and Zechariah, long for babies who never come. All babies, then and now, are miracles for their parents — and sometimes for the rest of the world, too.

Have you known a “miracle” baby?

* Priests

Zechariah was not one of the priests who served daily in the Jerusalem Temple, but one of a multitude of country priests who lived throughout Israel.

Every direct male descendant of the first Jewish priest, Aaron the brother of Moses, was automatically a priest. However, by the first century C.E. there were so many priests that they had been divided into 24 sections, with each section coming up to Jerusalem for two weeks a year. Even with 24 sections, there was still a surplus of priests in each section, so lots were cast for the most important jobs.

During the week when his section was serving, Zechariah drew the lot for offering incense in the sanctuary.

Memories: journey to Lebanon

Beirut, 1968

In September, 1967, we began our journey to Beirut, where Rob would teach chemistry at the American University, and where I would care for two baby boys. We also hoped  to explore the eastern Mediterranean, especially the places where Jesus lived and taught (Galilee, Jerusalem, and points in between), and where his first disciples took their electrifying message (in today’s Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy).

Our first flight took us first from Oakland to London. After a few days in Great Britain (and after purchasing a large pram that Mary Poppins would have loved), we flew to Paris (pram and babies in tow). From Paris we went on to explore Florence, Rome, and Athens before finally arriving in Beirut.

Before the trip, I took a brand-new copy of the New Testament and began
to mark it up – reviewing the story of Jesus and his first disciples; digging into first-century history; and finally, in the margins of the Book of Acts, sketching maps of St. Paul’s travels around the Mediterranean. (I still have that old New Testament, with its well-thumbed pages and penciled maps – and that’s why this study is using the translation from that old Bible, first published in 1961.)

It was only after we moved to Beirut that we learned the city was surrounded by refugee camps – where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had settled after escaping from ongoing wars in the “Holy Land” (the latest refugees had arrived just a few months before our arrival, in June 1967).

From long before Jesus’ birth to our own time, the “holy places” of the Middle East have never known a time without violence and war – and as Luke’s Gospel begins, all of Israel is subject to Roman domination.


Introduction to Luke

Luke writing his Gospel
from the Arnstein Bible, c. 1172
(iArnstein is in today’s Bavaria)

The Gospel begins: Luke 1:1-4

The author to Theophilus:  Many writers have undertaken to draw up an account of the events that have happened among us, following the traditions handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses and servants of the Gospel.  And so I in my turn, your Excellency, as one who has gone over the whole course of these events in detail, have decided to write a connected narrative for you, so as to give you authentic knowledge about the matters of which you have been informed.
Translation from the New English Bible (1961)

Theophilus:  Who was he? *  

Thoughts: on reading Luke’s Gospel

Since the late first century, when this Gospel was written, Christians have believed that Luke was a physician and Paul’s companion on his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean (see Acts 16:11f and Colossians 4:14).  And, from the first century to our present day, many have believed that this Gospel is the best “life of Christ” ever written.

Luke wrote this Gospel and the Book of Acts as a single work.  In terms of the sheer number of words written, Luke’s work dominates the New Testament.  In terms of literary beauty and the power of story, this Gospel is first in our hearts.

* Theophilus

Luke wrote his gospel in Greek, addressing it to a man named Θεοφιλος (Theophilus).  The Greek name Θεοφιλος meant “friend of god”, derived from θεος (theos, god) and φιλος (philos, friend).  Theophilus was both a common name and an honorary title among learned Romans and Jews in the first century CE.  Over the centuries there have been many conjectures about who Luke’s Theophilus was, but no one knows his true identity.



In The Wisdom Jesus  Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks repeatedly throughout the gospels. Which really means, “Who or what in you recognizes me?” It is the crucial question.

One of my own most important mentors along the path is Father Bruno Barnhardt, who for many years was prior of the Benedictine Camaldolese Monastery in Big Sur, California. He was the first person who really put the pieces together for me: that the key ingredient is really recognition energy – the capacity to ground-truth a spiritual experience in your own being. The gospels are built on it – and so was the early church – as the powerful liberation energy of the Christ event spills over and travels forward, moving from recognition to recognition.

Bruno Barnhardt explains: “As we accompany Jesus through the gospels we are present at one dramatic meeting after another. One person after another experiences a mysterious power in Jesus that from this moment changes the course of his or her life. If we are fully present at the moment when we read such a narrative, we ourselves experience the liberating power of this awakening. Examples come quickly to mind: the two disciples in John’s first chapter: ‘Rabbi, where do you dwell?’ ‘Come and see.’ … Time after time we feel the break-through of life, the wave-front of wonder…”

What caused [the first disciples] to say ‘yes’ to Jesus? I’d like to explore this question more deeply by looking at one of the most interesting and significant people who said ‘yes’: the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4f)….

When I listen closely, the first thing I hear is a sort of mutual boldness. Clearly Jesus sees something in this woman from the start, for him even to begin to address her. And far from being intimidated, she returns his serves beautifully. It’s a fascinating exchange. There is a heart-to-heart connection, and a heart-to-heart inner seeing. He sees who she is; she sees who he is. And in the light of that mutual recognition they keep on empowering each other and drawing each other along to a greater self-disclosure…

What an extraordinary moment! It is the first time in this gospel that Jesus reveals his true identity to anyone. Something he sees in her gives him the confidence to be so nakedly vulnerable; and something she sees in him gives her the confidence to follow his lead… This quality of awareness is not something that comes from outside the moment. Rather, it grows up in the moment itself through the quality and energy of the heart connection. It is a transfusion from within (‘one deep calling to another’, in the words of Psalm 42).

Bruno has been reflecting on the mysterious energy of the exchange between Jesus and this unknown woman at the well, and he observes: “This Jesus whom we encounter is a light at the center of the world, a fire at the world’s edge. He moves beneath the images of himself as an alternate center of energy. He awakens that which lies at the core of my own being. The series of Jesus’s healings in the gospels are the story of the gradual raising to life and consciousness, to freedom and fullness, of this nascent person that I am.” He then concludes with this remarkable statement: “The knowledge of Jesus Christ is a unitive knowledge – the luminosity of my own true and eternal being… Jesus Christ standing before the Samaritan woman becomes the mirror in which she sees not only the face of God but her own true face.”

In the gospels, all the people who encountered Jesus only by hearsay, by what somebody else believed about him, by what they’d been told, by what they hoped to get out of him: all those people left. They still leave today. The ones that remained – and still remain – are the ones who have met him in the moment: in the instantaneous, mutual recognition of hearts and in the ultimate energy that is always pouring forth from this encounter. It is indeed the wellspring.

Intrigued?  In this book study, we’ll look more closely at Jesus of Nazareth and his wisdom teachings, and we’ll also learn some wisdom practices inspired by his teachings.

* See The Wisdom Jesus, p. 1-12