Is Mary singing about a revolution?
e’re coming up now on the fourth Sunday of Advent, when the story of Mary is told and her great song, Magnificat, is sung. It is actually a bit odd how easily we sing this text, as it speaks so transparently about what can only be called subversion or revolution.
Remember, this is the song which Mary sings up in the hill country, where she has gone to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth. After being greeted by Elizabeth (“Blessed are you among women”), Mary sings out her song of praise and hope. It starts out innocently enough:
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
Oh, but how it all ramps up from there:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
How about trying on for size Eugene Peterson’s version, from his translation The Message?
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
The song is praise, certainly, but also challenge. Any wonder, then, that during the British rule of India the singing of the Magnificat in church was actually prohibited? After all, what if some of those colonials heard this song and actually took it seriously?
Brian McLaren’s reflections on Mary’s song strike to its heart… maybe to ours too.
Mary’s song is not about the solution to the theological problem called original sin. Nor it is about how she and others can go to heaven after they die. Nor is it about how they can be happy and successful individuals through God, or even about how they can have deeper spiritual experiences of communion and contemplation – as valid as all of these things may be. At this moment of celebration and worship, Mary celebrates that God is going to upset the dominance hierachies typical of empire so that the nation of Israel can experience the fulfillment of its original promise. (Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change)
Mary’s song is subversive and it is revolutionary… but not in a way that encourages us to pick up sword or gun and try on our own to implement justice. To do that is to run the risk of ourselves landing amongst the proud and the tyrants. In the rich language of the Book of Common Prayer, God
“hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” which ultimately says that the reign of God is not ours to bring about. But it is ours to live now, in the midst of whatever empires we might find ourselves in. Mary’s song says that God is deeply interested in questions of rich and poor, downtrodden and powerful; and if God is interested in such thing, how can the people of God be otherwise?