The prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister,
took up a tambourine,
and all the women followed her with tambourines,
while Miriam took up from them the refrain:
“Sing to Yahweh,
for he has covered himself in glory,
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
Yah is my strength and my song,
to him I owe my deliverance.
He is my God and I shall praise him,
my father’s God and I shall extol him.” — Ex. 15:20-21, 2
Last December 8th I prayed over the book of Exodus, in honor of the Virgin Mary’s namesake, Miriam. I was especially struck by the resonances in chapter 15 between Miriam’s tambourine-thumping song and Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). The theme of a “reversal of fortunes,” with the mighty falling and the slaves rising, structures both songs. In fact, in the Magnificat Mary refers to herself as a doulēs (Lk. 1:48). At a biblical conference in Vermont I attended back in 1989, Fr. Raymond Brown said that we usually see Luke 1:48’s doulēs translated as “handmaiden” or “lowly servant.” But the Greek, he said, is far more intense and is better translated “female slave” — so it might read more accurately, “because he has looked upon the humiliation [tapeinōsin] of his female slave.”
The echoing of the slave-rescue in Exodus by Mary in her Magnificat is clear, as it is in so many other parts of the four Gospels. For the Jews, the Exodus is the defining event of salvation history that reveals the essence of God’s identity as Go’el, the liberator of slaves. The Exodus also serves as our core-paradigm for understanding the meaning of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, which transpires on during the great Exodus feast of Passover. Just think of Luke’s description of the exchange between Moses, Elijah and Jesus in the Transfiguration (9:31):
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus (exodon) that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
This “Mary as the New Miriam” insight is certainly not new. Back in the 8th century, for example, Benedictine Abbot Autpert Ambrose alludes to it:
Mary may now play on her instruments,
the Mother strike the cymbals with swift fingers.
The joyful choruses may sound out
and songs alternate with sweet harmonies.
Hear, then, how she sings,
she who leads our chorus.
For she says, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
During my prayerful reading of Exodus on December 8th, I also made new (for me) connections between the Red Sea rescue and the Immaculate Conception — especially the fact that Miriam’s song is sung on the “far side” of rescue, on the east bank of the Sea after the slave-drivers of Egypt have been destroyed and Miriam is now free to lead the Redeemed in a joyful song of worship. In the language of typology, it was there, I thought, where Mary was conceived, on the east bank of the Sea parted by the breath of the Spirit.
God is indeed her Savior from the womb, which is a marvelous emblem of the sheer gratuity of God’s merciful gift of salvation that both she and the fleeing Israelite slaves received. From the very foundations of her rescue, like the Israelites on the east bank of the Sea, the soul-spirit (psychē-pneuma) of “Full-of-Grace” proclaims and rejoices in her song of victory. The Church’s teaching is that God radically saved Mary in the first moment of her existence as a sign of hope for all humanity. In Christ, the New Moses, all of humanity is called to be unchained, freed, liberated from the oppression of sin and death so that we might worship (Ex. 5:1) and, having been made God’s covenanted people, live the heart-inscribed Law of charity in our sojourn to the land of promise. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium #68 expresses this eloquently:
In the interim just as the Mother of Jesus, glorified in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected is the world to come, so too does she shine forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, as a sign of sure hope and solace to the people of God during its sojourn on earth.
So I wrote a poem. In it I tried to capture a tiny bit of this typology.
I also include below the poem my favorite contemporary setting to the Magnificat, by Leon Roberts.
So, for what it’s worth…
O new Miriam, God-smile
conceived far east of river Nile
on the lee side of a slave’s rescue,
wholly soaked in morning Dew.
You, our sister, are a hymn of praise
magnifying the warrior God, we raise
a new song of joy, lifted on High
to the Glory filling both earth and sky;
to Yah, from whom all waters flood,
all-mingled with His crimson Blood;
all-splattered on dead-hammered Bark
— ah! that most unlikely Ark —
making all bitter waters sweet
like honey sprung from finest Wheat.
O new Miriam, our Orient of Hope,
sing for us your victory trope
of a God robed in human Flesh;
a Son, omnipotent in the crèche;
Walk us, we pray, thru Passover night
toward the blazing Dawn of unconquered
and conquering Light.