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The Caged Mary Sings the Magnificat

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

 

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

These words as many of you recognize come from Maya Angelou’s

famous poem “Caged Bird.”

The Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke is an influential and inspirational text. I have to confess as a woman reading and teaching the New Testament, I really don’t have many strong female characters to work with not to mention even fewer named women. So when Dr. Fenemma asked me to speak about the Magnificat this morning, I had to jump at the opportunity.

After all where in the world would we find nine verses that are solely dedicated to a woman? Mary’s voice is unfiltered, and her song is one of the most biting and explicit criticisms of the wealthy and powerful imperial powers of her time. As readers of the text, we know exactly on which side of justice Mary stands.

Feminist and Womanist biblical and theological scholars tend to see the Magnificat as an expression of a woman’s liberation from patriarchy. At the same time, in our conscious attempts to reclaim Mary’s voice from the text so that we can expose the androcentric and patriarchal interpretations that have sought to dominate, silence, dismiss, and often fetishize this strong female character, we have in turn dichotomized the Magnificat into a plea for revenge or a song for liberation. As readers of this text, we often focus so minutely on studying and interpreting the words of the song that we sometimes forget about the subjectivity of Mary. So Why is the Mother of God singing about “the mighty being brought down from their thrones.”?

The Gospel of Luke as we know was written between 80-90 CE.  At the time, Luke was writing his text it is important to realize that the temple has been destroyed for the second time by the Roman emperor Titus. In contrast to Joseph who shows up with a strong lineage in the Gospel of Matthew, the family history of Mary is virtually unknown. We don’t really have a lineage for her. With no strong lineage backing her status, a colonized Jew who is currently living under the shadow of the Roman empire, and a woman. We can safely infer from the text that Mary is a woman who is both oppressed and marginalized.  In addition to this, this Palestinian peasant woman colonized by Rome refers to herself as a “slave or doule” both in the infancy narrative as well as in the Magnificat.  Thus, when we read the words of the Magnificat let us remember that the one singing loudly the song of freedom and liberation is a woman who is herself imprisoned.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

Sure, Mary is not behind literal bars when she sings this song in the text of Luke but her status as a colonized, peasant class, Jewish woman is illustrative of her own cage. This is a woman who has been imprisoned and marginalized by her economic, class, gender, and now a sexual status.  Mary’s wings have been clipped, and we know that because she could not fly away when a powerful deity approaches her and “asks” her to volunteer her womb. Could she really have said No!! Her feet have been tied to the hopes and dreams of her people. She may have wanted to run away but recognizes that she must stay and fulfill the destiny that has been written for her. She must stay in the cage so she can bring hope to those generations that will follow her. Mary needs to call herself “blessed” in the hope that the “blessedness” of her womb and the sacrifice she will make for hope will end with her. Maybe she is hoping that no other young woman encounters this burden of blessedness from a stranger!

Is this then a song of liberation, a plea for revenge, or a warning to the readers? Maybe it is all three. And yet, through the cage, Mary sings loudly enough for the text to capture her song so that we as readers paraphrasing Angelou now, “hear her tune on the distant holy hill, because the caged Mary sings of freedom and hope for better tomorrow.” But are we listening closely enough to the pain mixed in with the hope that comes out from Mary’s throat when she sings this song?  Thus, this advent season when we remember the sacrifice and motherhood of Mary let us also remember that it is upon her pain and her imprisonment that we have as Christians built our foundations of hope and liberation.

About Professor Sharon Jacob: Dr. Sharon Jacob’s research interests include gender and sexuality studies, postcolonial theory, race and whiteness theory, and feminist studies. She draws on her contextual experiences of growing up in a multi-religious Indian context as well as her current experiences of living in the United States as an immigrant to form her teaching and scholarship.

After completing her undergraduate education in her native Bangalore, India, Sharon earned her Masters of Divinity from Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA. She also has a Masters of Sacred Theology from Yale Divinity School and her Ph.D. from Drew University in Madison, NJ. Her book Reading Mary Alongside Indian Surrogate Mothers: Violent Love, Oppressive Liberation, and Infancy Narratives was published by Palgrave MacMillan under the Bible and Culture Series in 2015. In this book, Sharon takes a hard look at the growing industry of surrogacy in India and uses the stories of these real-life mothers as a lens to reread the Biblical figure of Mary in the infancy narratives with the hope that a more complex and nuanced interpretation of her motherhood can begin to emerge within the globalized context.

Sharon comes to PSR from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a seminary affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and taught previously at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She serves on a number of boards and professional associations, including the Electronic Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion (EFSR) where she regularly contributes and blogs on various topics. Currently, her blogs take a critical look at the problem of Islamophobia as a growing global crisis.
Having grown up in the Methodist Church in India, her connections go back five generations. Sharon’s great great grandfather was the first person to be converted to Christianity in his district of Bidar in North Karnataka and her great-grandfather was the first Indian district superintendent of the Methodist Church. Her family members are all life-long Methodists in India and are active members of the Methodist Church in Karnataka. While in the United States, Sharon and her family have also made connections with the United Church of Christ.

Sharon is married to Madhu Rao, who is a Senior Manager working on SAP implementations. They have one son, Arth Aadrian Rao, who is four years old. Arth is being raised both in the Christian as well as the Hindu traditions and speaks three languages.

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