By Debie Thomas
Over the next few weeks, we will hear a lot about Mary, the mother of Jesus. We’ll hear about her obedience, her purity, her faith, her consent. We’ll see her in outdoor Nativity displays, draped in blue, with downcast eyes and a beatific smile. We’ll enjoy watching our children dramatize her story in “virtual pageants” on Christmas Eve. We’ll honor her legacy with some of the most beloved prayers, liturgies, and carols we know.
None of this is wrong. But on this fourth Sunday of Advent, I’d like to approach Mary from another angle. Before we celebrate Mary, the Virgin Mother, I want to linger over Mary, the prophet. Mary, the voice of the downtrodden. Mary, the singer of the Magnificat, God’s gorgeous justice song.
Growing up, I didn’t hear a single sermon about the song Luke attributes to the teenage girl who gave birth to Jesus. No one told me that Mary’s song comprises the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament. No one remarked on the astonishing fact that Mary sang her prophetic song on her cousin Elizabeth’s doorstep, while Zechariah, the “official” spokesperson of God, endured his divine silencing. I didn’t learn that the song is soaked in Jewish women’s history, echoing the words and stories of Miriam, Hannah, Judith, and Deborah. I wasn’t told that the Magnificat is one of the Church’s oldest Advent hymns, or that countless composers have set it to breathtaking music over the centuries.
I had no clue that the song’s socioeconomic and political implications are so subversive, its lyrics have been banned many times in modern history. When the British ruled India, for example, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in churches. During the “Dirty War” in Argentina, after the mothers of disappeared children postered the capital plaza with the words of the Magnificat, the military junta banned all public displays of the song. Mary’s version of hope, they decided, was too dangerous a thing for public consumption.
I’m grateful to know these things now, but I wish I had learned them earlier. I wish my first exposure to the Nativity story had been framed by Mary’s fiery justice song, because her understanding of God’s intentions and actions fundamentally change the story of “the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
To illustrate what I mean, I want to highlight a few phrases from the Magnificat, and reflect on what they have to offer us as we move closer to celebrating the birth of Jesus next week.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Before the Magnificat points to anything else, it points to joy. Specifically, it reminds us that the appropriate response to God’s complicated presence in our lives is joy. Not fear. Not guilt. Not penance. Not obligation. Joy. Indeed, deep and irresistible joy is at the heart of the entire Christmas story. The angel tells Zechariah that “joy and gladness” will mark John the Baptizer’s birth. When Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth’s unborn baby “leaps for joy.” When an angel choir announces Jesus’s arrival to the shepherds, they describe “good news of great joy.”
We miss something essential about the life of faith when we gloss over Mary’s decision to rejoice in response to God. Consider the circumstances into which she sings her amazing words. She is a peasant girl living under brutal imperial rule. She’s unmarried and pregnant in a culture that considers it appropriate to kill young women in her condition. At this point in the story, it’s not clear if her fiancé will stick by her. In fact, it’s possible that she has run away to her cousin’s house precisely because she feels vulnerable and threatened in her own hometown.
And yet this young girl sings of joy. To me, her song demonstrates two things: her baseline trust in the goodness of God, and her imaginative capacity to frame her story as a story worth rejoicing over. Against all odds, she dares to believe that what is happening to her is not horror, not tragedy, not random, not meaningless. She doesn’t succumb to the blistering narratives swirling around her — narratives of shame, scandal, and sinfulness. Instead, she insists that her very body is infused with the presence and power of a God who acts decisively and generously in history. In her history. In her life.
What would it be like to frame our own lives in this way? What would it be like to look for God in the most intimate details of our days? What would it be like to make joy our bedrock?
“He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Do you ever imagine God looking at you? Regarding you? Gazing at you? If yes, how would you characterize God’s gaze? Are God’s eyes on you frightening? Cold? Distracted? Judgmental? Or are they patient and tender, warm and inviting?
I love that Mary finds the gaze of God not just bearable, but wonderful. When God looks upon her, she is nourished and elevated. There is no hint of diminishment in her song; its words are busting at the seams with a confidence borne of being deeply loved. Mary doesn’t simply tolerate God’s eyes; she basks in them. She senses God’s pleasure, and returns it.
Moreover, it’s in Mary’s lowliness that God favors her. In her lowliness, not in spite of it. God’s gaze accepts Mary’s poverty, her simplicity, her lack of sophistication and erudition — and favors her anyway, completely and exactly for who she is and what she is.
I fear that many of us never allow ourselves to lean into God’s delight in this way. We never dare to entertain the possibility that God looks on us with favor, or that God’s gaze lingers on us in love. What would it be like to do so?
I know that the Church often describes Mary as docile and unassertive, but I would suggest that there’s something remarkably bold and even brazen in these lines of the Magnificat. Imagine the audacity of a young peasant girl, scandalously pregnant, peddling an angel story no one believes, living on the unremarkable outskirts of empire, to declare without shame or apology that she is favored of God. This is not the song of a spiritually timid human being. This is the song of a young woman on fire. A young woman passionately in love with a God who is passionately in love with her.
He 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.” After Mary sings her joy and God’s delight, she finds the keen, sharp edge of her prophetic voice, and bursts into an anthem of hope and justice for the world’s poorest, most forgotten, most brokenhearted, and most oppressed people. She describes a reality in which our sinful and unjust status quo is gorgeously reversed: the proud are scattered and the humble honored. The hungry are fed and the rich sent away. The powerful are brought down, and the lowly are lifted up. In short, Mary describes a world reordered and renewed — a world so beautifully characterized by love and justice, only the Christ she carries in her womb can birth it into being.
These lines, needless to say, are the lines that get Mary into trouble. These are the lines that have gotten the Magnificat banned at key moments in history. These are the lines we Christians feel a perpetual need to either tame or ignore because we find them so deeply threatening to the lives we prefer to live.
And yet. And yet there are moments when I’m drawn like a starving person to the world Mary describes. Can you envision it, even just for a moment? A world without hoarding? A world without scarcity? A world in which our economic disparities don’t get in the way of our fundamental kinship as human beings? A world in which the poor receive truly good things — not leftovers, not hand-me-downs, not miserly scraps that insult their dignity — but good things? A world in which our own cluttered, bloated fullness is mercifully taken away from us, so that in newfound emptiness, we find room for all that is truly life-giving? A world in which we are finally and permanently delivered from the tyranny of our stuff?
Isn’t that a world worth singing about? Even if it costs us before it fulfills us? The thing is, Mary’s song forever dismantles the self-protective walls we erect between our personal piety and God’s insistence on systemic justice. We can’t choose the first only and call it Christianity. To love the helpless infant who comes to us on Christmas Day is to love the one who grows up to raise valleys and level mountains, to liberate the oppressed and dethrone the arrogant. Imagine Jesus in his cradle, the Magnificat a lullaby Mary pours into his ears each night until his heart burns for justice as fiercely as hers does. This is the One we call God. To love this God is to yearn for a reordered world with the same passion and urgency Mary voices in her justice song.
Notice, as Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor does, that Mary describes these divine reversals as if they have already happened: “He has brought down.” “He has filled.” “He has sent.” “Prophets,” Taylor writes, “almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it — not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone, maybe even God.”
What would it be like this Advent, to mix up our tenses as prophets routinely do? To live into the topsy-turvy, upside down world Mary foresees? To live as if that world is already here? The Messiah is at your doorstep, Mary sings across time. There is no unjust system, oppressive hierarchy, or arrogant leadership structure the Messiah will not upend. No promise the Christ will fail to keep. No broken, exploited life God will not save. What if we lived into these promises — insisted on these promises — in our day-to-day lives right now?
The Magnificat is a song of too much hope. Of course it is, because “too much hope” is precisely what we’re called to cultivate on this fourth and final Sunday in Advent. Can you do it? Can you find your voice and share it with a world more desperately in need than ever? What does your Magnificat sound like this year? How is God magnified through your unique perspective and vision? What stories of divine favor do you have to tell? What glorious reversals do you see heading our way? What words will you choose to describe the Good News of the Messiah you carry?
Don’t wait. Sing it. Sing it now.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: (1) Pastor Blake’s Blog; (2) West Concor Union Church, Concord, Massachusetts USA; and (3) Episcopal Café.
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