Last week I was struck by a rather ordinary scene: a mother walking up some stairs while holding her toddler firmly by the hand. The little boy was totally involved in looking around investigating his new surroundings, leaving all the navigating and safety concerns to mom. It was a scene of complete, innocent trust.
Next morning I was meditating on the first Chapter of Luke using Luke Timothy Johnson’s wonderful commentary on Luke (Sacra Pagina series, Liturgical Press, 1991). During her visit to her kinswoman Elizabeth, Mary bursts into a song of praise to God (Luke 1:46-55), known as the Magnificat from its first word in Latin.
My soul glorifies the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
What caught my eye was Johnson’s translation of verse 54, usually rendered something like “He has come to the help of Israel his servant.” In this commentary however it reads “He has taken Israel his child by the hand.”
First of all, the Greek pais means both “child” and “servant,” so you have your choice here: is Israel as servant or a child? More interesting is the verb, antilambanō, which conveys the idea of supporting or holding someone, not in the sense of grasping but rather of being of support to them. So Johnson’s translation, continuing the metaphor of God’s strong arm two verses previously, is a pretty accurate one: “God has taken his child Israel by the hand,” just like the mother I saw with her little boy.
I’d been feeling a little discouraged, not say a little put out with God, after my second back treatment didn’t have any effect and I was going to concelebrate the funeral mass for a 60-year old cousin of mine that morning. So the image of God taking me by the hand was a welcome and a timely one. Another good verb for troubled times, I thought.
Then I noticed that the word appears once in the Acts of the Apostles, so I looked up the reference. It is a sentence in Paul's farewell address to the elders of Ephesus: "In every way I have shown you that by hard work of that sort we must help [antilambanō] the weak, and keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus who himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" (Acts 20:35)
So, like so many other wonderful words that reflect God's care for us, this one too calls on us to act in the same way toward others, especially the poor. Jesus calls for me, even in troubled times, to take the needy person by the hand, to be of help to him or her. Perhaps it is in troubled times most especially that the Lord expects me to be of help to those in need -- bad back and all.
Now antilambanō really looks like a word for troubled times!
Here is Mary’s song of praise in its context in Luke:
During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."
And Mary said:
"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
He has taken his child Israel by the hand, remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1:39-56)