Storyteller as curator: St Luke the song catcher
St Luke’s two-volume history — which we know as Luke-Acts — has a grand scope. It runs from Jerusalem out to small-town Galilee, then back to Jerusalem, then from Jerusalem to all Rome’s empire, and ends in the great capital city of the empire itself. By structuring his grand narrative thus, Luke creates a brilliant apologetic concerning the kingdom of God — established through Jesus, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, for glory of his people Israel and for a light to lighten the Gentiles.
For a story of global ends and high apologetic ambitions, Luke’s gospel has quite provincial, and some might say unpromising, beginnings: an old priest with a barren post-menopausal wife, a virgin in a blink-and-you-miss-it town. Mary visits Elizabeth in a town in the “hill country of Judah,” a town so small that it has no name. Luke doesn’t scoff at these beginnings. On the contrary, he narrates them with the utmost care and respect, without a whiff of condescension. The humble beginnings appear neither as little obstacles to be razed by the global kingdom, nor as the small confines from which the story has to emerge before it can really get going. The characters do not appear as blinkered, ignorant hicks who need to be educated after the manner of, say, Luke himself. Their knowledge of their nation, culture, theology and liturgy is so deep, when it’s stirred by a fresh promise of fulfillment, it bubbles over in songs of beguiling subtlety – and revolutionary power.
Given the breadth of Luke’s narrative, it is striking that he, alone among the four evangelists, pauses to record the song Mary sings during her visit with Elizabeth, and the one Zechariah sings at the birth of John the Baptist. It is doubly striking because Luke is the only Gentile evangelist, and the Magnificat and Benedictus are, in structure and symbol, thoroughly Jewish songs. There they are, two songs for the summing up of the old covenant and the dawn of the new. We still sing them today, magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God our Savior, in ancient words first heard in the remote hillsides of a faraway land. For that, we are indebted to a man who, like A. P. Carter and Lesley Riddle in Appalachia, did not regard transcribing the songs of the hill country as too light a thing for him.