One of my favorite bits of wisdom for reading the Bible comes from Robert Alter’s book The Art of Biblical Narrative:
What we need to understand better is that the religious vision of the Bible is given depth and subtlety precisely by being conveyed through the most sophisticated resources of prose fiction. […] The biblical tale, through the most rigorous economy of means, leads us again and again to ponder complexities of motive and ambiguities of character because these are essential aspects of its vision of man [sic.], created by God, enjoying or suffering all the consequences of human freedom. Different considerations would naturally have to be explored for biblical poetry. Almost all the whole range of biblical narrative, however, embodies the basic perception that man [sic.] must live before God, in the transforming medium of time, incessantly and perplexingly in relation with others; and a literary perspective on the operations of narrative may help us more than any other to see how this perception was translated into stories that have had such a powerful, enduring hold on the imagination. (22)
To be sure, the parts of the Magnificat that I remember, when I remember the Magnificat, are its great phrases, the low place brought up and the look-with-favor on the lowly servant and the audacious claim that the soul of a mortal could magnify the LORD. But there’s narrative here too: this is no stand-alone poem like a Psalm or even the private meditation of the Holy Virgin as she sits alone in Nazareth. Neither is it a public event, properly speaking. Mary does not recite this to the crowds gathered for Passover or to armies preparing for battle.
Instead this is a scene between women, not a strictly domestic encounter but something private nonetheless. The way Luke tells the story, the unborn John leaps and Elizabeth blesses and Mary sings in a home, in a town so obscure that the text of Luke does not even name it, among a young woman likely suspected of fornication and an old woman whose pregnancy likely even defies the standard accusations. Even when we step back from the grand cosmic assertions of St. Paul in Ephesians and the opening of the gospel of John, even when we regard these words as more conventionally political lines, their setting is striking. The salvation that God brings to Israel and the justice that God brings to the world has as one of its starting points a genuinely weird encounter between two genuinely weird women.
And that’s the glory of Advent: we don’t know where or how or when we’ll see God next. We set aside a season of each year to remind ourselves that we still wait, but we don’t know which direction to look. Not if we’re honest about it. The next soul who magnifies the LORD could be among us now, or we might not see such a soul for generations. The one we call blessed in generations to come we might scowl upon now for violating our expectations for polite conduct. And whoever throws down the powerful and lifts up the lowly, whoever acts as God’s agent to fill the hungry and to remember the people of Abraham, that person is likely behind closed doors, exchanging the greetings that the strange exchange, waiting along with the rest of us, for God to come.
May our eyes open to see our fellow-waiters. May we hear of God’s presence when we have no business seeing.