On the Magnificat, feminist ministry and the Kin-dom of God


[Below is a homily I delivered on the Visitation and the Magnificat at New Spirit Community Church in Berkeley, CA.)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Savior comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by God.’

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Creator,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has looked with favor on her lowly servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is on those who fear God
from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with her arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped her servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promises made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1:39-56)

In Allison Bechdel’s comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, she lays out a new feminist method for rating movies—which is now commonly called the Bechdel Test. In order to pass the Bechdel Test, each movie has to have:

  • Two women –who have names
  • Who talk to each other
  • About something other than a man.

Think of some of your favorite movies—how many of them actually pass the Bechdel Test? Maybe not as many as you’d expect, not many of my favorites do.

The Bechdel Test highlights the lack of women’s voices, women’s values and women’s stories in mainstream media.

Of course, if Hollywood is bad at creating accurate representations of women’s experiences, the Bible is infinitely worse.

So much of the Bible reads as a litany of men’s achievements. Men’s battles. Men’s conversations with God. Women seem to only show up in the Bible as supporting characters for a male-centric plot, and their experiences are usually only recorded in response to men’s actions.

I love the Visitation (the story of Mary and Elizabeth’s conversation) because in my mind it’s one of only two or three biblical stories that come even close to passing the Bechdel test.

“Wait a minute!” Some of you might be saying. “This totally doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test! Mary and Elizabeth talk to each other, and they have names. But they don’t pass the third part of the test: talking about something that’s not a man. In this scene, Mary and Elizabeth are talking about being pregnant with their male children. They’re talking about John the Baptist and Jesus. Those are both men!”

My answer to that is this: with all due respect to John and Jesus, I don’t actually think that they are the center of this conversation. Their time comes later. This is Mary and Elizabeth’s time, and while they mention their male children, what they seem to be focusing on is supporting each other and celebrating each other in their new calling from God.

Here we see Mary—a young girl that was just told she would be pregnant with the child of God—rushing to see her cousin Elizabeth, an old woman who is also pregnant.

The Gospel of Luke doesn’t say why Mary came all the way out to that small town in Judea. All it says is that after the angel Gabriel told Mary that she and Elizabeth would both give birth to these world-changing babies she immediately set out to see her cousin.

Some scholars have argued that Mary rushed to see Elizabeth because she wanted proof that what the angel said was true. Others say that she went to celebrate these miracles with her cousin.

There might be a little bit of truth in both of those statements, but when I hear that story the first thing that comes to mind for me is that Mary is scared.

This pregnancy must have been terrifying for an unwed, teenage girl who was engaged to be married to a man that believed she was a virgin. She had everything to lose. When the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bare a child, she responded with “let it be done according to God’s will.” She said yes, but she didn’t exactly say “What fantastic news!”

I think Mary ran to Elizabeth because she needed support from the only person she knew would completely understand what she was going through. And I think that she stayed for three months, waiting for John to be born, because she knew Elizabeth needed help, too.

This elderly woman who had for years prayed for a child, only to get pregnant after she’d given up hope. I’m sure Elizabeth rejoiced in the miracle of her pregnancy, but she couldn’t have been too thrilled with the timing. It almost seems like a cruel joke on God’s part. After all of Zachariah and Elizabeth’s trying to be parents, once they were at the end of their lives God supplied them with a son. Elizabeth must have had her own worries about how she and Zachariah would care for this child. I think she was scared, too.

In the Visitation we get this amazing story of two women sharing their joy and their fears together. This story of women ministering to each other.

In so many Biblical stories, and in so many instances today, women are frequently expected to care for others, and not address our own needs. Clean up other people’s messes, wipe other people’s tears.

But in the Visitation, Mary and Elizabeth don’t just care for each other, they allow themselves to be cared for. They provide us with a new model of feminist ministry: one in which two people come to each other as equals to nurture each other, instead of one person being the servant of the other. I think this is the first glimpse we get in the Gospel of Luke of what Jesus’ Kin-dom of God looks like: where the roles of first and last, servant and served are totally turned on their heads.

In this story, we see Elizabeth affirm Mary’s role as prophet, not just her role as mother. Elizabeth starts her greeting to Mary with “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” (which does refer to the blessedness of Jesus), but she quickly moves on to her main point:

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by God.”

“Blessed is she who believed.”

Not blessed is she who will give birth to Jesus, but blessed is she who believed.

Mary goes to Elizabeth—unsure, frightened—and Elizabeth assures her that this radical ‘yes’ she just said to God wasn’t a mistake. Elizabeth affirms Mary’s role as Jesus’ very first disciple.

Just as John the Baptist would pave the way for Jesus, Elizabeth paves the way for Mary by being the first to experience these miraculous pregnancies. And—just as John the Baptist would be the first to proclaim Jesus’ ministry, Elizabeth becomes the first to proclaim Mary’s ministry.

A few months ago, I traveled to Claremont Graduate University to participate in a panel discussion on Mormon and Catholic women’s ordination movements. I’ve been active in the Catholic women’s ordination movement for years, and some of the other Catholic panelists were already friends of mine. But as I was preparing to go to the event, it became clear to me that I didn’t really know what to expect from Mormon feminists.

Before the event, all the panelists went to dinner together at the hotel where some of us were staying.  Before we could even decide on what we were going to eat, the Mormon women started in, asking us everything they could think of about the Catholic women’s ordination movement.

They were particularly interested to hear that a few of us had been excommunicated by the church, because one of the Mormon panelists had also been excommunicated for teaching students at Bringham Young University how to pray to the Heavenly Mother.

We almost missed our own panel discussion, because we got so caught up comparing notes and telling stories.

We shared hidden stories of women’s leadership in our churches, talked about presiding over renegade communion services in our livingrooms. I learned about the work of Mormon Feminists to reclaim an old Mormon blessing ritual for pregnant women, which had been an exclusive ministerial role of women back in the pioneer days.

One woman, a Mormon professor at Claremont, cried as she told us about watching her husband and sons baptize her newborn baby, while she had to sit alone in the church pews like a stranger.

It’s hard to explain, but rarely have I felt so listened to—so ministered to— as I did at that dinner. It was amazing to be with this group of women that had been pushed to the margins of their faith communities—some of whom had even been excommunicated—and to be able to tell our own stories, and hold each other’s own hopes and pain. Like Elizabeth and Mary, we all came to the table with our joys and fears, and each of us were able to minister to and be ministered to by one another.

In the last few weeks, whenever I’d talk to Reverend Jim about how my sermon preparation was going, he’d always listen patiently to all of my disjointed thoughts on Mary and Elizabeth and feminist ministry, and then say “yes, but… you know you’re preaching on the Magnificat, right? What do you have to say about the Magnificat?”

Honestly, I’ve had a hard time thinking of much to say on the Magnificat– which is the song Mary sings at the end of this reading– because it’s just so perfect. I really think that it speaks for itself. It almost feels like a crime to try to add anything to it.

But let me say one thing: I think the Magnificat is the take-home point of Mary and Elizabeth’s lesson to us on feminist ministry.

Mary hears Elizabeth call her blessed, and she responds to that good news by expanding it—by saying that ALL of us—oppressed, poor, lowly, are blessed. Mary responds to her liberation by calling out for our liberation, and demanding that we do the same. She embraces her role as prophet, and responds by singing one of the most prophetic, beautiful calls for justice that can be found anywhere in the Bible.

In our culture, it can be incredibly difficult for people—and I think women in particular—to claim their own blessedness. Their own beauty. But, Mary teaches us that there is nothing wrong in claiming your blessedness. “From this day on,” Mary rejoices, “all generations will call me blessed!”

By learning to rejoice in her own blessedness, Mary is finally able to live into the awesome, beautiful life that God has planned for her. And by claiming her own blessedness, Mary is able to become a blessing to the world.

This reciprocal relationship between claiming our own blessedness and being a blessing to the world— is just what feminist ministry—and the topsy-turvy Kin-dom of God—is about. It’s about a world where, to quote Mary, ‘the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.’ So that we’re all on even ground, looking at each other face to face. There’s no more servant and served, just people caring for each other and allowing themselves to be cared for. People that are living with such a remarkable sense of their own liberation, that they can’t help but inspire others to do the same.

Like Mary and Elizabeth who ministered to each other, and like those Mormon women who ministered to me over dinner, Mary is ministering to us—now—through the Magnificat. She is inviting us to claim our own blessedness, and to join her in proclaiming God’s Kin-dom—a place where the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. A place where all of us—all of us—can be called blessed.

A former pastor of mine used to always say around this time of year that ‘we are not remembering a history, we are celebrating a mystery.” His words harkens back to this old Christian idea that is still alive among many of our denominations, including my own, that what we do at Christmas is more than commemorate the birth of Jesus. In some mysterious way, we are living that moment again, in this moment. Now.

So, if we are celebrating a mystery, if we are fully in this moment of Advent–like Mary– awaiting the birth of Christ, then perhaps like Mary, we have an opportunity to sing our own Magnificat. We have the opportunity to sing the songs of our own salvation, and by doing so, inspire others to sing along.

5 thoughts on “On the Magnificat, feminist ministry and the Kin-dom of God

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