By long-standing tradition, when you add adult beverages to a large group of people, you tend to get singing. Large groups of people at seminaries are no different, so most of our parties ended with twenty or so seminarians gathered around the piano in the refectory, singing songs “we all knew.” Now, the hymns I could usually keep up with (even though I was very glad to have some strong voices around me), but at some point in the sing-along the music would turn to show-tunes. I don’t want to be a downer or anything, and I will admit that lots of people just adore show tunes, but some of the worst music ever written was written for musicals. Of that music, Elton John wrote the worst of it, without question. So with the exception of the random Fred Astaire movie, I had never bothered to watch any musicals, and so, with some shame, I must admit that if given the chance, I would have missed the song that Luke wrote down for us called the Magnificat.
I’ve been thinking about this all week, and I no longer think it odd that the Virgin Mary broke out into song when greeted by her cousin Elizabeth. Surely the Holy Ghost can make one do and say strange things, not to mention do and sing strange things, but singing things in public was less strange to a first century Jew than to a twenty-first century Christian. Their whole religion was and is put to song, the Jews chant everything, they sing scripture and prayers and rites and lamentations, a practice I strongly agree with. So yes, Our Lady breaking out into song was a little odd, but not that odd.
I no longer think it odd that the Virgin took off so quickly after the Annunciation to go to her cousin Elizabeth. You would rationally think that when a thirteen or fourteen year old girl was visited by an angel who told her she was going to bear the Son of God, that she would hide in her room for a while or go see Twilight for the seventh time. But Mary was, obviously, not an ordinary teenage girl. Gabriel had dropped a couple hints, he had told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, barren and old, was expecting a child, that she was, in fact, six months along in her pregnancy, and Mary had the good sense to know that this was not normal, not Elizabeth’s pregnancy nor getting a family news update from an archangel. Elizabeth would understand; of all people, maybe Elizabeth would believe Mary, believe that she hadn’t fooled around on that nice Joseph character she would be marrying. Certainly Gabriel seemed to think so.
And so off Mary went to her cousin’s, not knowing exactly what to expect. What she got couldn’t have been much better. Elizabeth hears Mary calling out to her, the gestating John the Baptist leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth wonders aloud how she, of all people, gets to hang out with the Mother of God. In reply Mary begins with what sounds like a vaguely sensible response: “My soul doth magnify the Lord!” But then Mary’s reply takes some not so vaguely dark turns. C.S. Lewis called the Magnificat “a terrible song,” not because Mary didn’t have a way with words, but because of what those words proclaimed: that God was about to overturn everything, that the rich and proud were doomed in their own conceit, that the poor and the marginalized were about to inherit all the riches of God.
And so it is, if not on the shallow surface of things. Elizabeth had her baby, and the child John grew to be the one crying out in the wilderness, the Baptist who called on the people to repent from their evil ways, right up until he lost his head for it. Mary too had her Baby, and in the grand reversal that Baby was born not in a palace but in a stable, a feeding trough served as His throne, the ox and the ass serving as chambermaids to the Most High God. The rich and powerful were indeed cast from their thrones, they were not chosen to be witness to the defining moment in all of history, they missed it, and they went on their way empty. But the lowly and the hungry were indeed filled: the shepherds not only saw angels but also laid eyes on the hope of ages, the dayspring from on high visited them first. The Living God remembered His mercy, He fulfilled the promise made to Abraham, He saw that poor lowly teenage girl as the most beautiful thing He had ever made, and all generations have called her blessed.
Come to think of it, the whole thing is odd. The singing, the visiting, the babies born to impossible mothers, none of it makes any sense at all. But it doesn’t make sense only because we don’t deserve it, we don’t deserve to be so regarded by God, we don’t rate being a part of amazing acts that drive people to song. Elizabeth and Mary knew they didn’t deserve such attention. Do we?