One occupational hazard for a church musician is that we rarely come across traditional hymns that are new to us: we’ve literally heard it all before. But just a few years ago I got the gift of a new Advent/Christmas hymn when I heard Gabriel’s Message for the first time. I like the tune (when it’s not done too slowly!), the refrain is catchy, and the poetry is above-average. When I got to church last weekend I was happy to find it on the song sheet.
Like many singers, I have the capacity – either enviable or regrettable – to sing on auto-pilot while thinking about any number of things (for instance, yesterday I discovered I could sing the entire Halleluiah Chorus from memory while deciding what to have for dinner). Last Sunday I found myself analyzing the text to Gabriel’s Message. “Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head/to me be as it pleaseth God, she said.” At the word “meek” I groaned, thankfully silently, since I was singing into a microphone.
“Mary was that mother mild.” “A Virgin pure both meek and mild/In Bethlehem brought forth her Child” “gentle Mary laid her child”… There are plenty of problems with the idea that all women will feel an unqualified affiliation with Mary, who is often presented as the only role model Christian women are allowed to have. There are even more problems with the relentless stereotyping of Mary as docile and tame. Do we really believe a shrinking violet would have had the nerve to do what she did?
This week we are hearing the Gospel readings from Luke 1, starting with the Annunciation on Monday and concluding with the Canticle of Zechariah. Today’s Gospel is Mary’s Magnificat, an unapologetically bold declaration of praise. This is a saint I can get behind. So with all due respect to late Romantic Marian piety, I’m taking Mary back.
The idea of an ideal woman as meek and submissive may seem like an anachronism, but we’ve kept her alive in our religious iconography, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’m sick of it. Give me a role model who questions an angel, bravely says yes, deals with a life lived in the rumor mill, does some bossy maneuvering at a wedding to restock the bar, and proclaims God’s praise and promises. When my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord it doesn’t do so timidly – my soul shouts, and there’s a possibility that Mary’s did too.