Aorist Mary’s Song

Despite my oft written about uneasiness with the season of Advent in its current 21st century Amercian incarnation, the third Sunday of Advent, often called Gaudete Sunday, is one of my favorites of the entire church year.  To start, we get the last remaining “Stir Up” prayer in the American Prayer Book.  More on that later this week.  The lessons for Advent 3, a day that is set aside for joy, are always interesting, even if John the Baptist’s doubt leads to some difficult preaching.  More on that later as well.  Beyond all that, the absolute best part of the Lectionary for Advent 3 is the opportunity to sing Betty Carr Pulkingham’s setting of the Magnificat.   Unfortunately, I can’t find a recording of it to share with you.

marys-magnificat

The setting is beautiful, but only because the words of Mary’s song are so powerful.  You’ll recall that this song comes from Luke’s Gospel account of the birth of Jesus.  Shortly after Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and informed of her new identity as the theotokos, the Mother of God, Mary heads to the hill country to spend some time with her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was old and had long since given up hope of having a child, but she too is pregnant, miraculously, with the one who be known as John the Baptizer.  The unborn John leaps in his mother’s womb when he hears the voice of Mary.  Elizabeth offers the first Hail Mary, and in return, Mary sings her song.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

What I find particularly striking this morning is the verb tense that Mary chooses.  My favorite Canticle, sung on one of my favorite Sundays, uses my favorite Greek tense: the aorist tense.  As I’ve written before, the Rev. Dr. Tony Lewis, my Greek professor, taught the aorist tense this way.  Occasionally, the refectory [a fancy word for cafeteria] will feature the sausage bar.  There are Kielbasas, hot dogs, Italian sausages, and the fiesta dog.  The aorist tense is like the fiesta dog, you eat it once, and its effects last forever.”

Listen to some of the things Mary puts in aorist tense: that is, it has already begun and is ongoing:

“He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.”

A brief study of the news will tell you that none of this seems true.  It was perhaps less true in Mary’s day and age, and yet she sang with confidence and hope that her being chosen to bear the Son of God meant that God’s plan for salvation was already underway.  The lowly were being lifted up. The hungry were being fed good things.  The social structures that oppressed people were being subverted.  The world was being turned right-side-up.

It may be really hard to see the truth of Mary’s promise.  We may scoff at her choice of the aorist tense, but that’s what Advent is all about.  We wait.  We watch.  We work.  We proclaim the greatness of the Lord who has already defeated selfishness, pride, oppression, and death

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3 thoughts on “Aorist Mary’s Song

  1. Hi. I love grammar news (to me.) I would have liked your professor. How is aorist tense different/ similar to present perfect tense: an action begun in the past and continuing in the present? The rhythm of the Magnificat comes from the wonderful progression of powerful action verbs: any defensive line would be jealous.

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    • As far as I can tell, not being a grammarian by any means, is that present perfect is used to describe an event that happened and was completed in the past, whereas the aorist tense, though perfective, describes an event that began in the past and is ongoing.

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