Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
How do you imagine Mary as she sings about God’s work being done in and around her? So many images depict her aglow with holy grace, face to the sky, filled with the love and hope of God. But consider her situation—a young, unwed mother-to-be in a country occupied by a bully of an empire. A woman—of no consequence by nature of her gender, as well as her financial status. Most likely one hiding from authorities for fear of being stoned to death. And recognizing that the God she trusted put her in this situation—yes, with her assent, but that doesn’t make the circumstances any easier.
Reverend Carolyn Sharp imagines Mary singing defiantly “through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future.” She calls the Magnificat a “courageous song of praise” that honors the holy amid suffering and conflict. It sort of takes the cozy glow out of our minds and replaces it with a holy fire—a fire that burns for justice.
In an Advent sermon in 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
“God 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.” This image should make us nervous. She was singing about—or more accurately, against—the empire. She singing against those with power who wield money like a sword against all who might threaten the status quo. For those of us who are well-set with the status quo, this should make us nervous. In the scope of the world’s population, this should make us nervous. In the ways in which we have treated other human beings, as well as creation, this should make us nervous.
If God is turning the world on its head, where exactly will we end up? For most of us, it won’t be on top.
Mary’s Magnificat is a song of resistance against the powers that insist on keeping the poor and downtrodden in their place—the kind of power that ensures that anyone who steps out of bounds is punished. Her resistance looks ahead, whether she knows it or not, of a Messiah who will die at the hands of the so-called powerful for that very reason. He stepped out of bounds. He defied the systems that keep everyone right where the empire wants them. He challenged the status quo. And he was killed.
Her song of resistance looks ahead to the kind of power that humans cannot imagine, do not want, and completely overlook: the power of a loving God. Empires tend to make God in their image—a God of violence, retribution, vengeance, and a righteousness that only serves the few just like them. This is not the God of whom Mary sings. She sings a song of resistance much like the songs sung by the slaves in the fields. They sang—in the very presence of their masters—songs that figuratively spat in the faces of the white people who didn’t understand.
We Shall Overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.
Prior to the Berlin Wall coming down, the people of Leipzig gathered every Monday in front of a nearby cathedral, singing. Their thousand turned into thousands. One of the officers talked about how the police were ready for just about anything, but “we had no contingency plan for song.”
After the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, hundreds gathered in the darkness to sing.
O Come, O Dayspring, come and cheer;
O Sun of justice now draw near
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadow put to flight.
And when we sing the song of Mary, we too sing a song of resistance. We sing against the temptations that would lead us to trample over one another to ensure us a seat at the table; we sing against the tyranny that would allow a select few to benefit while all the rest are cast aside like garbage; we sing against the kind of power that seems to think that only one type of person is worthy of praise—one color, one gender, one expression, one nationality, one religion. We sing against conformity so that there can be room for diverse unity. And to be sure, this kind of song is dangerous—because it makes people nervous.
In fact, when the British ruled India, the Magnificat was banned from being sung, spoken, read, or proclaimed for fear that it would lead to resistance. In the 1980’s Guatemala banned the Magnificat for the same reasons. In the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, women of Argentina whose sons had disappeared during the military dictatorship gathered at the Plaza de Maya in Buenos Aires every Thursday, singing resistance and seeking answers from the government. They plastered the walls with the words of the Magnificat. And it was banned from being sung or spoken. They said it gave the common people too much hope. And anyone who is a Star Wars fan knows that “rebellions are built on hope.” And Argentina couldn’t risk a rebellion.
With this kind of governmental fear, it is clear just how powerful this song of resistance has been and continues to be for those who are oppressed, broken, and powerless. It is also clear just how threatening these words are to those who hold the power, who break down the common people, who oppress others and establish themselves as leaders without opposition. These words should make them nervous. They should make us nervous.
And they should bring us hope. Because they speak of a reality that looks nothing like what we see today. They speak of a reality in which those who have no voice are given the microphone; they speak to those who have no resources being put in charge of distributing resources to all; they speak to a system in which individual comfort comes secondary to communal well-being. They give us a chance to see the world the way God has designed it—not to our specifications but to God’s, put in place by Christ, held in place by the Spirit.
I wonder, then…do we dare sing the Magnificat in our homes and community? Do we have the courage to sing through our tears, fists clenched against an unknown future—and yet sing with full voice the song Mary sang? Do we risk it? Do we want it?
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour's Lutheran Church