Mary's grammar

December 22, 2010

The final exam in my theology class surprised me. Instead of complex
essay questions, there was one simple question: defend the grammar of the
Magnificat.

How can Mary sing that the Lord has
done
great things for her? It's a little crazy: how can this young,
lower-class girl who finds herself knocked up sing that God has already--in the
past tense--ended injustice and oppression? All she has to do is look around
her to find evidence to the contrary.

I answered the question, working in the requisite readings. But days
later the question is still haunting me.

What intrigues me is the gap between what the song proclaims and how the
song is commonly used. As the exam question implied, we tend to get confused about
the song's verb tense. It isn't simply past tense, announcing the fulfillment
of the eschatological vision in which rulers are brought down and the lowly are
lifted up. Nor is it simply a future hope for a time when all will be made
right.

Instead it's both; it's the already and not yet. This can be hard to
understand, in part because English lacks the aorist tense.
The Magnificat testifies to God's work to reconcile all creation, work that has
already begun and will continue forever. Like Mary, we are invited to be
intimately involved in this work.

Mary wasn't crazy. She was carrying the hope of the world inside her;
she knew that God had entered the world in a dramatic way. This changed
everything--but to accomplish the change, the hope had to be proclaimed with
assurance. We don't just place our hope in a past event or a future reward; we
live into it.  

When God sent Jesus to the world to reconcile all things, his
incarnation and work on the cross did the job. Salvation dealt with the world's
injustices and oppressions. But as humans we could not be transformed all at
once--that desire is what got Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden. God works gradually
in our lives and world, helping us grow up into the hope that is already there.

Like Mary, we magnify the Lord for already overcoming injustice and
oppression--and we also work to end such evils. Mary trusted so profoundly in
the reality of the baby she carried that she asserted God's fulfillment of hope
in the past, present and future. Her faith challenges me to join her in magnifying
God by making this hope a reality.