It’s easy to think of Mary, Jesus’ mother, as someone passive, someone who merely heard God’s plans and accepted them. Perhaps the use of the adjectives “meek” and “mild” in Advent hymns and Christmas carols has something to do with that. But when Mary sings, Mary sings prophecy. Mary sings resistance. Mary sings of God’s solidarity with the poor, with herself. Mary reaches out with both hands and claims her blessing, and the blessing for her people. Mary is a revolutionary, and everything we read about her—or about Jesus—we should read through the lens of the Magnificat.
The Magnificat gets its name from the first word of the Latin translation. The words and themes are drawn partly from the Psalms and from the Song of Hannah, which Hannah sang after giving birth to Samuel, one of ancient Israel’s greatest prophets. This indicates that Mary was immersed in her religious tradition, that her knowledge of Hebrew poetry and praise was bone deep. Hebrew poetry speaks of things written on the tablet of one’s heart, echoing the way that ancient scribes would incise words on clay tablets. This means not only memorizing the words of one’s tradition, but incorporating them so deeply in yourself that they are an inextricable part of you. Jeremiah the prophet, for example, writes of God one day writing the covenant directly on the people’s hearts as a way of describing perfect closeness between God and God’s people. This is what Mary has done: she has learned and repeated and prayed the words of her faith so deeply that they are written on her heart, so that when this extraordinary pregnancy comes to be, she naturally and spontaneously speaks in the language of her ancestors in the faith.
But this makes her no less a prophet; in fact, the biblical prophets constantly reuse and echo the words of earlier prophets. And Mary sings as one with authority (something people will later say of her son), using the past tense for God’s solidarity with the poor and casting down of princes. “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” There are several ways to look at Mary’s use of the past tense here, and they are not mutually exclusive. First and most obviously, she recalls the events of the exodus, of the God of life triumphing over Pharaoh’s powers of death. Of God casting down the powerful and lifting up the slaves out of their bondage.
Mary is also speaking of herself when she talks about the poor. When Gabriel comes to Mary to announce her imminent pregnancy, he greets her as God’s “favored one.” But in her song, she speaks of the “lowliness of God’s servant,” referring to herself. This isn’t humility. In Greek, the word translated here as lowliness actually means poor, persecuted, oppressed, forced to live in misery. Mary speaks of herself as a lowly, impoverished woman—but one who has been lifted up, exalted by God’s favor towards her.
The third option is that Mary is speaking prophetically about Jesus’ calling and ministry, and she uses the past tense to reflect that, through her miraculous pregnancy, God’s process of liberation has begun. Her faith in God and God’s anointed one, or Christ, is such that, for her, it is as good as done. The Messiah is growing in her uterus as she sings, and she knows where this will lead: to the new exodus, the new liberation from slavery and poverty into a community of wholeness and peace.
We see again, in the Magnificat, the theme of fearing God. “God’s mercy is on those who fear God from generation to generation.” As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, to fear God is to choose life over death, to respect God’s power more than money, armies, kings, or power over others. It means to live God’s Torah of care for one’s neighbor and for the stranger, for insiders and outsiders alike. By “sending the rich away empty,” Mary is not calling for a power reversal in which the rich are oppressed, but rather a complete displacement of the power hierarchy that insists someone must be on the bottom. In Mary’s prophecy the hungry are at last fed, while those who oversaw their oppression will find that they no longer get to play power games with others’ lives.
Mary envisions a society of equals, of neighbors, like the community envisioned in the Torah that I talked about last week. Last week we sang a hymn that asked God to forgive us “for the comfort of our lives.” That is a very uncomfortable line, much like the Magnificat itself and several of Jesus’ own sayings. But by pointing out the disparity, the Magnificat is reminding us we do have to make a choice: the vulnerable, or those rich in comfort and power? Who will we stand with? Who will we exalt?
You can hear Jesus echoing his mother, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount. He says not just “Blessed are the poor,” but also “woe to you who are rich now.” This is a warning to those who let their comfort, their wealth, or their happiness block their ears to Jesus’ call to the kingdom. This is particularly challenging for those of us in the modern first-world middle-class, and we who are well-fed and comfortable must be on our guard against complacency. The community that Mary envisions and that Jesus preaches is much more attractive to the poor than to the rich, to the suffering than the satisfied. And that is because, when it doesn’t seem to affect us directly, it is so easy to feel that oppression is abstract—frustrating or depressing maybe, but not urgent. It is just as easy to despair that we can do anything about it as it is to put it out of mind (frankly, we all too often do both in that exact order), but neither does much for the child longing for its mother, or the mother wishing she had food for her child.
Mary’s song is a prophetic song, and it is not civil. It is not polite. Like much of the Gospels, it is very, very rude—especially to the comfortable. It acknowledges that we cannot lift up the lowly until we bring down the powerful from their thrones; they are two sides of the same coin. This song is so revolutionary that governments have banned its singing or recitation: The British colonial government in India prohibited the singing of the Magnificat in church. In Guatemala, the government realized that Mary’s song was uniting the poor and giving them hope of changing the system that kept them poor, and so they banned it. In Argentina, at about the same time, the mothers of children kidnapped and murdered by government terrorists began to gather and organize, and they posted Mary’s song in the main plaza of the capital city. In retaliation, the government made it illegal to recite the Magnificat or to post its words publicly.
The elites who have tried to silence Mary and her song only show us how revolutionary these words are, and how revolutionary poor people, especially poor mothers, can be. As I was reflecting on these words and the ways that the powerful have reacted to them, I was reminded of Representative John Lewis’s words. Fifty-seven years ago, Lewis, then a young activist, was arrested for using a whites-only bathroom. A few years later, he was beaten bloody in a march for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. When speaking about his activism, he says that segregation depended on people complying, staying out of trouble, keeping their heads down. But, he said, “Dr. King and Rosa Parks taught me to get in trouble. Good trouble.” He goes on about the need for new generations of people to get in good trouble, “necessary trouble to make our country and our world a better place.”
I think a certain devout, courageous, poor, brown-skinned teenager, visited unexpectedly by a messenger of God, would approve. And I think she taught her son the words of this song. I think she helped write these words on the tablet of Jesus’ heart. I think she encouraged her son to make good trouble, stir things up, refuse to be orderly and correct and polite. I think she taught him to fear God rather than human authorities, the powers and principalities that bedevil human societies. Jesus learned at Mary’s knee.
If we read Jesus’ story though the lens of the Magnificat, we get a very different perspective of him than most of us were raised with. He is not unwaveringly calm, polite, and kind, but rather bold, impetuous, even rude. He gladly breaks social norms, and he’s unafraid to draw attention to that fact. He says what everyone else would prefer be left unsaid. Because to make his mother’s song a reality, he needs to expose the rot beneath society, the structures that keep people like his mother poor, oppressed, and in misery.
Mary, even more than John the Baptist, is the prophet of the New Testament, the herald of what is to come. If we follow in her footsteps, if we mother God today, as Meister Eckhart puts it, what does that look like? Certainly it means teaching generations after us that God is the hope of the poor and vulnerable, that God approves of and blesses our struggle to banish poverty from the face of the earth. It means refusing calls for civility which are no more than demands that we compromise on the humanity of the oppressed. It means being brave instead of polite, acting and speaking up even if those around us won’t agree. Even when we know there will be consequences to our reputations, or worse.
And in our own hearts, it means shedding our despair in favor of a radical hope: hope despite the world’s evils and injustices, hope that actively makes good trouble so that we can birth a new creation: the hungry fed, the lowly lifted up.