10 March 2013
Week 4 - Singing in the Wilderness
Exod 15: 20-22 (‘Miriam');
Luke 1:46 -53 (‘Magnificat').
Discussion: ‘What do Christians have to sing about?'
Topic for local radio: A personal story of how music and faith helped overcome difficult times
The women who took part in the Exodus and journey through the wilderness are, in the biblical story, almost entirely invisible. If we are to think in terms of ‘forty years' there must have been a whole generation of women who grew to adulthood, many who married and gave birth, parents who cared for children and young people who grew to adulthood, all in conditions of extreme difficulty. What did they have to sing about? At one key point, after the terrifying crossing of the Red Sea, we glimpse Miriam, held by tradition to be the sister of Moses and Aaron (Num 26:59; 1 Chr 6:3), taking a tambourine and leading the women in singing and dancing as they praise God. We are told almost nothing about her except that she is a ‘prophet', which indicates that she has been given a special gift of
openness to God's spirit and speaking or singing about the works of God. Moses is also, later, spoken of as a ‘prophet' (Dt 34:10).
It is possible that Miriam is to be identified with the unnamed elder sister of Moses who watched over him as a baby when he was left among the bulrushes and rescued by Pharaoh's daughter (Exod 2:4-7). Her song appears to echo the song of Moses (Exod 15:1-17), and it may that what we have is merely the remnant of a longer song of praise for God's mighty acts, which was originally very like the song of Moses. Two other women in the Jewish Scriptures have lengthy songs: Deborah, who is also a prophet (Jg 5:1-31) and Hannah, who perceives the gift of her son, Samuel, as one of God's ‘mighty acts' (1 Sam 2:1-10).
Immediately after the triumphant crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites set out into the wilderness.
At the beginning of Luke's Gospel, we meet a young woman called (in Greek) ‘Mariam' - which would have been in Hebrew or Aramaic ‘Miriam'. She is given the news by an angel that, though she is not yet married, she will bear a ‘Jesus' (in Hebrew or Aramaic, ‘Joshua'). Just as Mary's name echoes that of the first woman prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures, so that of Jesus echoes the name of the leader who succeeded Moses and brought the Israelites out of the wilderness into the promised land. When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the child who will become ‘John the baptizer', like the women of the Hebrew Scriptures, she sings a song in praise of the mighty acts of God. The themes echo those of other, earlier songs sung by women: the ‘mighty acts' of God, which scatter the powerful enemies of Israel and lift up the ‘lowly' in his service. Mary, like the prophetic women who have gone before her, rejoices in the unexpected way God proves himself faithful to his promise. The prophet Anna joins in her rejoicing (Lk 2:36-8). It is left to Simeon, also a prophetic figure, to speak about the cost of parenthood to Mary: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too' (Lk 2:35). Being the mother of a child such as Jesus is, in some ways, a call to set out into the wilderness.
The church continues to struggle truly to recognise the God-given ministry of women. It celebrates the prophetic voice of women in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The role of Mary, as the mother of Jesus, is vital for our understanding of what it means, in the power of the Spirit, ‘to bring Christ into the world'. Following the tradition of the early church, for many Christians the Magnificat (‘Miriam's song) has a central position in Evening Prayer. It gives us words to celebrate the mighty acts of God, and God's faithfulness to his promise as we face the hardships of the wilderness. In our generation, we join in calling Mary ‘blessed' (48) because she is such an example of God's faithfulness to humanity and humanity's joy in God. The Magnificat is above all, for women and men, a song of hope, a song to sing in the wilderness.
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.'
Questions you may wish to use in discussion
- Why do we learn so little about the experience of women like Miriam in the story of the Exodus and wilderness wandering?
- What part does Miriam/Mary play in the worship of your own church tradition?
- Can Mary be a role model for men as well as women, for the childless as well as parents?
- To what extent was Mary's vocation a call to ‘enter the wilderness'?
- What do we learn in the Scriptures about Mary's ‘journey of faith'?
- How can faith help us through a hard time, for example a time of depression?
- Are there ways in which the members of your group can see the stories we have discussed this week reflected in their own journey of faith?
Lord God, whose servants Miriam, Hannah and Mary rejoiced in you as their saviour and deliverer, teach us with them to sing our ‘magnificat' wherever you may lead us and whatever you may ask of us, through Jesus Christ, in whom all your promises find their ‘yes' and we are emboldened to say, Amen.