THE MAGNIFICAT: A CALL TO BECOME MOTHERS OF GOD
Mary of Nazareth is one of those biblical characters who has been mythologized and sanitized far beyond any historical likeness. Our dominant Mariology is both patriarchal and hegemonic, and it continues to legitimize male domination in church and society through compelling women to internalize patriarchal values. For the Church, Mary is the ultimate ideal of true womanhood, something similar to the Sita of the Hindu scriptures, the epitome of the ideal Indian womanhood. Our Mariology continues to devalue women by valorizing obedience, humility, passivity, and submission as the virtues of women.
When it comes to Marian devotion, we have at least two models of Mary. The Mary of the institutionalized church is a docile virgin who was obedient to the divine will. She is portrayed as standing on a crescent moon, wearing a crown, with rings on her fingers. She has a blue robe embroidered with gold. On the other hand, the Mary of popular piety is an organic deity rooted in the everyday struggles of the people. Our Lady of Vailankanni is known as Arokkiya Annai, the Holy Mother of Good Health, who brings healing in the community. Mariology for the Catholics in Central and Latin America is connected with Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose image shares the features of the people of Mexico. She is considered to be a benefactor of the oppressed. For the common people the Lady of Guadalupe is the maternal and feminine image of the divine who heals them and liberates them. We see a similar Marian devotion during the first week of September in the streets of Bangalore when subaltern communities celebrate the feast of St. Mary at St. Mary’s Basilica, in Shivaji Nagar. What we find in all these Marian devotions is the appropriation of Mother Mary by the grassroots communities, contesting the Mariology of the domesticated Mary of the church.
The model of true womanhood perpetuated through the dominant Mariology of the Church is detrimental for the flourishing of women as it prevents the development of their critical intellect, impairs their capacity for discernment and righteous anger, and disables their moral agency. As Simone de Beauvoir rightly observed, “the supreme victory of masculinity is consummated in Mariolatry: it signifies the rehabilitation of woman through the completeness of her defeat." The exaltation of Mary in the traditional Marian devotion which places Mary on a high pedestal has always been used to denigrate women. Mary’s motherhood has “legitimated domesticity as the primary vocation for women.” Notions of the eternal feminine, essential feminine nature and ideal woman that the dominant Mariology propagates are toxic for women’s survival and development, and hence need to be contested. It requires a new engagement with the Mary of Nazareth, and we need to enable her to speak out.
As we all know, the New Testament does not give much importance to Mary, either as a historical figure or as a theological symbol. Paul does not refer to Mary by name at all. In the infancy narratives of Matthew, Joseph is the main actor, and Mary plays her role passively. However, in Luke we see a different Mary. She is the protagonist in the Lukan infancy narratives. The angelic visit comes to her. She is consulted in advance and she gives her consent. Her parents or future husband were not involved in her decisions. She is autonomous, and an active agent in Luke’s narrative. She travels to visit Elizabeth without taking permission from her future husband. For Luke, Mary is more than a passive instrument of God; rather she is an independent agent with autonomy, who participates in God’s redemptive mission in history.
The memory of Mary of Nazareth can subvert our Mariological fantasies. Mary of Nazareth is not the modest and beautiful white lady of artistic imagination, kneeling before her son, acknowledging her inferiority. She is the pregnant and bold teenager, living in an occupied territory, who envisions a world devoid of imperial occupation, economic exploitation, and social exclusion. She was well aware of the consequences of an unwed young girl becoming pregnant in her society. As we read in the gospel of Matthew, Joseph was planning to cancel the wedding because he wanted to protect Mary from public humiliation and social ostracism. According to Jewish law, as an alleged adulteress, Mary could have been stoned to death.
So it is important for us to revisit the story and listen to Mary to discern why she gave her consent to becoming the mother of Jesus. In this search, the Magnificat, the song of Mary, is the text for us. Our engagement with the Magnificat should begin with questioning the dominant assumption that Mary, as the radiant woman and the handmaid of God, composed the Magnificat peacefully. The Magnificat belongs to the long Hebrew tradition of revolutionary songs that proclaimed God’s commitment to bring about radical reversal in socio-economic relations. When we discern Mary as a rural peasant girl who boldly sings her song of protest and alternatives, envisioning her dreams of a world without domination, injustice, marginalization, and abuse of power, Mary’s song becomes a radical resource for us in the 21st century to live out our faith relevantly in our context.
Let us reflect upon two important questions that we normally try to avoid. First, why did God choose Mary to be the mother of Jesus? Second, why did Mary decide to become the mother of Jesus?
Why did God choose Mary to be the mother of Jesus? Mary was humble, meek and mild, and obedient to accepting God’s will, even though it would lead almost definitely to a shameful fate. This is the canonized answer of the Church which we are familiar with. Through this answer the Church has constructed the normative model of a true Christian and we all have internalized it; obedient: passive, humble, and conformist. But Luke does not seem to agree with this answer. When Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of the servant,” she is not valorizing her humility or humbleness. Rather Mary gives us clear indications about her social location and the diverse manifestations of structural evil that she experiences because of her identity as a poor, colonized, rural, peasant woman. The Greek word for “lowliness” is tapeinosis, and it does not refer to any innate inner virtues or qualities such as humbleness or humility; rather it represents humiliation or unjust affliction and torture by a sinful social order. In other words, Mary here magnifies the Lord for the divine preferential option of choosing the victims of the prevailing order as partners in God’s salvific mission. So Mary does not sing the Magnificat as a saint or as the epitome of true womanhood, but as a fierce young woman confronting the painful experiences of exploitation and humiliation of her own concrete social location.
Yes, God has chosen Mary to be the mother of Jesus because that is the politics of God: preferential option for the victims of structural injustice and evil. Further, Luke invites us to go beyond an essentialist position here. Of course Mary was a subaltern. But she was intentional about her subaltern experiences and she used her experiences to develop an alternative consciousness. Mary was convinced about the purpose of her life and she did not bother to get permission from her parents or rabbi to become pregnant. The angelic episode reveals Mary’s autonomy over her body and her life and her courage to be the subject of her life and destiny. God chooses people who are deeply intentional about their experiences of imposed marginalization and are committed to transforming the systems that continue to enslave and dehumanize them. Further we witness here the politics of God which do not ratify dominant notions and practices. We see two pregnant women in this story: an unwed teenage girl and a postmenopausal woman. The politics of God, revealed in the Lukan infancy narratives, proclaims God’s favor on those who are considered as illegitimate, infertile and incapable, and invites them to become mothers to give birth to a new dispensation of divine justice and love on earth.
Why did Mary decide to become the mother of Jesus? As a young, Jewish girl Mary was familiar with the Jewish anticipation of the Messiah who would bring about radical transformation in the world. She was also familiar with the Jewish tradition of songs of protest and alternatives which helped them to keep their hope alive in the midst of imperial oppression and social and economic exploitation. Those songs proclaimed their confidence in the Divine promise “to topple the powers that be, reverse the fortunes of an unjust world, and lift up all those who have been oppressed.” The reversal that the Messiah would bring about was the dream of Mary. The angelic visitation offered Mary the possibility to play a decisive role in realizing their messianic expectation, and she said yes to that call and vocation.
The Magnificat is the theological explanation that Mary offers us to clarify the rationale for her decision to become the mother of Jesus. Even though the church diluted the revolutionary message of Mary’s song, it continues to destabilize and disrupt the prevailing order. We gather from Luke’s narrative that even Jesus was deeply influenced by Mary’s vision, and that is reflected in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth. When the Anglican missionary Henry Martyn came to Calcutta as chaplain to the East India Company in 1805, he was shocked to know that the British authorities had banned the chanting of the Magnificat at Evensong. Mary’s song was banned in Argentina after the Mothers of the Disappeared placed the words of the Magnificat on posters throughout the capital plaza, calling for nonviolent resistance against the military rule in mid-1970s’. In the 1980s, the Guatemalan government discovered Mary’s song to be too dangerous and revolutionary because it inspired the Guatemalan poor to believe that socio-economic reversal was possible. The government had no other option but to ban the public recital of the Magnificat. All these historical narratives prove that Mary’s yes to God’s invitation to become the mother of Jesus was inspired by her politics; the politics of the system-threatening reign of God.
We have tried to engage with two important questions, and our reflections on those questions lead us to a third question. How do we ourselves qualify to sing the Magnificat in our times? Or rather, what is our Magnificat for our times? Perhaps, the 14th century German mystic Meister Eckhart can help us to respond to that question. “What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: when the Son of God is begotten in us. We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
We are familiar with the controversy over the title theotokos (mother of God). Our churches are divided over it. Some churches consider Mary as the mother of God, while for others she is only the mother of Christ. We are living in a context similar to that of the context of the young Mary of Nazareth. God is in need to be born in our context, and God wants us to become theotokos to continue the divine mission of reversal in our times. But in order to become mothers of God, we need to have the courage to become illegitimate to the prevailing order. As Mary of Nazareth practiced through her life, we have to become “out of control” of all powers and principalities to give birth to the Divine reversal in our times.
Some of us might have heard the speech of Chief Editor Raj Kamal Jha at the Indian Express award ceremony last month, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief guest. Reflecting upon the vocation of journalists, Jha narrated an incident from the life of Ramnath Goenka, former editor of Indian Express. Goenka sacked a journalist when he heard the Chief Minister of a state telling him, “Apka reporter bahot accha kaam kar raha hai.” Your reporter is doing a great job. “Criticism from a government is wonderful news for journalism. Criticism from a government is a badge of honor.” How do we translate Raj Kamal Jha’s observation on the vocation of journalists to our own vocations and ministries? If we get endorsements and applauses from the authorities, it is time for us to examine ourselves and mend our ways. As French philosopher Allan Badiou reminds us, “All resistance is a rupture with what is. And every rupture begins through a rupture with oneself.”
We, as a called out community, are commissioned to bear the hope of the world in our bodies. “We are called to be the containers for God to sow the seeds of hope for the lowly, justice for the downtrodden and new life for the world. It is an invitation to rethink our call and to engage in the business of fomenting a great reversal where the first will be last, and the last will be first. Can we feel the stirring of new life within us? Of new hopes? Of the impossible longing to become possible?” We are all meant to be mothers of God. For God is always needing to be born.