Monday, December 09, 2019

A better translation of Luke 1:46-7 in Mary's Magnificat for December 15th Advent 3, 2019

Advent 3 of our 2019 Liturgical Calendar makes it possible to use Mary's Magnificat (Canticle 9, p.91 of the BCP) in place of the Psalm.

Luke 1:46-47 records the opening lines of Mary's Magnificat:

Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον,
καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoiced in God my savior.

My point is simple: these parallel lines of Hebrew poetry translated into Greek open the Song of Praise by nevertheless using two distinct verbs and two different tenses in the verbs "magnifies" and "rejoiced." The first is in the present tense, conveying Mary's praise of God on the basis of Gabriel's information, whilst the second, in a past (aorist) tense, causes listeners to pause because it does not simply repeat the first line.

When we pause to take in a difference in the second line, what do we hear? A beam of light into the past. Mary is looking back to her experiences of God in the past on the basis of her present experience. These experiences are shared with Israelite tradition; they are not hers alone. We can imagine that she has re-membered God's saving acts, invoking for example, Miriam's poetic Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, the Shir Ha-Shirim celebrating God's saving act in delivering Israelites from the Egyptians. As God saved Israelite slaves in a mighty act of deliverance, so God now looks with favor on God's lowly servant. Hannah's song of deliverance (I Sam 2:1-10) is likely also to be in Mary's mind:

My heart exults in the Lord,
and my strength is exalted in my God.

And Mary is also using the kind of liturgical language found in Habbakuk 3:18:

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.

Mary articulates a prophetic voice that sees God's mighty acts in the present and the past because she is in fact a prophet.

By keeping the present tense of both verbs in translating Luke 1:46-7, the NRSV translation has missed Mary's prophetic insight juxtaposing God's present and past actions in the opening lines of the Magnificat.

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