In Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love, two university students are reading the works of the Roman love poet Catullus. Da mi basia mille, one reads out, deinde centum. Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred more. Ah, says the other, that’s very interesting, that discussion of kissing. The poet uses the word “basia” for kiss, when you might have expected “osculare”. Really? replies his friend, who is secretly in love with him, Is that the interesting thing about kissing?
On reading this week’s Bible readings, I’m afraid I had a slightly similar moment. Faced with one of the central texts of the Christian tradition, a passage in which God’s plan for humanity is glimpsed, I thought “that’s very interesting, that is. Because she uses the past tense in several of the verbs, where you might have expected the future or conditional.” Sometimes I worry that years of study have slightly warped my sense of priorities. But I do think the grammar here matters, and I might even persuade you of that within the next ten minutes.
But to begin properly: this is the fourth week of Advent, traditionally dedicated to Mary. Our Bible readings this week include the Magnificat, Mary’s song of rejoicing. “My soul hath magnified the Lord”, she cries, “And my spirit rejoiceth in God my saviour. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden, And surely all generations shall call me blessed, For He that is mighty hath done great things for me, And holy is his name.” Mary speaks these words in response to the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth, who meets her on a family visit with a blessing – “Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”, and asked “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?”
It’s an unusual greeting between two cousins, but it reflects Elizabeth’s sudden knowledge that the child Mary carries is holy. She greets her younger cousin not as a pregnant teenager who needs a bit of a fuss and some advice, but as the queen of Israel, asking why “the mother of my Lord should visit me?” And bizarre as this greeting is, Mary’s reply shows that Elizabeth is right, and that she knows something of what Jesus’ birth will mean. “He who is mighty has done great things, and Holy is his name. His mercy is on them that fear him, from generation to generation. He hath shown strength with his arm, he hath scattered the proud in their arrogance of heart, He hath brought low the thrones of the powerful, and lifted high the lowly.”
These words have become one of the most beloved poems of the Christian religion. They are part of the daily cycle of prayer which many priests and laypeople recite. In the evening, the Magnificat is prayed, Mary’s song, and at night, the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s song. Hundreds of thousands of Christians say those words as the day begins, following Mary’s footsteps in praising God’s work in the world. They are words of awe and words of hope, words which give honour to God, and which recognise the coming of God’s kingdom. We dare to speak Mary’s words after her, and to hope that – by saying her prayer as if it was ours – we will draw closer to God.
And we should not forget where those words were first spoken. The first declaration of Jesus’ identity, the first suggestion that he was the Christ, spoken by a human, was part of a chat between two pregnant women in a house in the hill country. There is a tradition in some Jewish thought that Eve was the first rabbi, and some Christians have called Mary the first Christian theologian. In the Magnificat she responds to the gift of God, and the potentially difficult situation she finds herself in, by speaking about God’s actions in the world throughout history. Those of you who know the Old Testament well enough will recognise that Mary is quoting Hannah’s song from the Book of Samuel, deliberately echoing another woman centuries ago who has blessed by God in an apparently impossible way.
And that is what I meant by my grammatical quibbling about what of verbs she uses: “he has shown strength…he has filled the mighty with good things…he has lifted up the lowly.” He has, he has, he has. Not he is currently, or he will as soon as the child is born and grows up. This is a song which recites the actions of God in Jewish scripture – this is the God who has done this, Mary is saying. This baby is not the appearance of a new god, or a new messianic movement. We know this God. The God who scatters the arrogant. The God who feeds the hungry. The God who has mercy from generation to generation. (And I wonder whether Mary is making a pun there – since “generation” has something of the meaning of “childbearing” in modern English. He shows his mercy from pregnancy to pregnancy, she might say, looking back on the line of Jewish women before her.)
This is the God who has done these things. Mary’s child is not a new god. Her words – and the tenses of the verbs – insist that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is the God who met Moses in the burning bush, who gave Sarah children, who brought the Israelites out of slavery. And this is why Mary is sometimes called the first theologian – because her response is not to say “Isn’t this extraordinary, nothing has ever happened like this before, I am awestruck.”
No, Mary knows the Torah. She is awestruck because she knows that some things like this have happened before. She glimpses the deep truth that the birth of Jesus Christ is like the feeding of the hungry, and the showing of mercy, and the lifting up of the humble. How? It is difficult to say how. How can the birth of a child be like the rescuing of the slaves in Egypt? How can Mary’s pregnancy be like the confounding of conspiracies by the rich and powerful? How can it? But Mary knew that it was. And thousands of years of theology have traced and retraced what she knew, trying to follow in her thoughts and to see the revelation that she received. That the birth of Jesus Christ is a great and merciful thing, that it means food for the poor and justice for the oppressed.
Perhaps we can’t explain it. We certainly can’t explain it easily. We see flashes of it here and there. I see it for a moment in the verb tenses in Mary’s song, as if a great secret is hidden in the grammar. Maybe you see it in the face of a friend having a difficult time. Someone else might see it in an unexpected gift, or a sudden chance to make peace in a family quarrel. People talk about “the real meaning of Christmas”, as if meaning is something simple. Something you could jot down in a slogan or a post-it note. I’ve never found it simple. How can it be simple? Elizabeth’s response was to greet her young cousin as if she were the dowager queen of Israel. Mary’s response was to sing a song about the Hebrew scriptures. These are bizarre things, but they certainly caught “the meaning of Christmas”. If only we could catch it.
We are days away from Christmas. Two night ago was the winter solstice, the moment when the day was shortest and the night was longest. Some people celebrate this as the turning point of the year. The Romans and the Anglo-Saxons called it the sun-standing, “sol-stasis”, when the sun paused its journey along the horizon, and stood still for a short moment, before time began to spin again. It’s curiously apt that we should read Mary’s words close to the solstice, just before we celebrate the birth of Christ. A teenage girl stands at the hinge of history. At a single, silent moment when the whole of reality is pivoting around her. And she speaks the words of her foremothers who she has learned about in the scriptures. My soul hath magnified the Lord, she says, out into the Judean hill country, and my spirit rejoiceth in God my saviour. And the search for what she meant has begun.