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What does Mary look like in your mind’s eye?
We’ve got a lot of romanticized notions about Mary. Beautiful, clean, the picture of health. Nice and tidy.
The reality? Mary was a poor, young Jewish girl probably around the age of 14. She was part of an oppressed religious and political minority at the edge of the Roman Empire. Every day she encountered the boot of the Empire on her neck and on the neck of her people.
Mary has been with Elizabeth where she received validation, comfort, and was seen. So she sings. And does she ever. The first Christmas carol is a doozy.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor 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.
People love this first part of her song — especially those who are not poor, not hungry, and not oppressed. It keeps Mary manageable, and docile. This is how I was raised to view Mary.
But the Magnificat gives us another version of Mary altogether. As a revolutionary.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
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.
Welcome to Mary, the woman of Holy Rage. The woman who indicts an economic system built on idolatrous ideas about what kind of people do or don’t deserve things like food and shelter.
It’s so disruptive that when the King James Version of the Bible was created, the British crown replaced “thrones” with “seats”– “he has brought down the powerful from their
thrones seats.” Many countries outright banned the Magnificat from being recited in liturgy or in public.
Indeed, American slaveholders also produced a redacted Bible altogether to give to their slaves. . .taking out 90% of the Old Testament, and 50% of the New Testament. The Magnificat, as you might imagine, didn’t make the cut.
People in power have found it dangerous because they were listening closely, and what they heard is what Episcopal priest and writer Broderick Greer calls “an anthem of liberation that envisions an Israel free of Roman occupation, as well as God’s promise of liberation.”
Further, Greer provocatively states
The Magnificat informs the good news Jesus would later preach In his first sermon in Nazareth. It is good news for the poor. Good news for those who continue to be crushed in a world that thrives on exploitation and injustice. Good news for those needing liberation.
Her song is a sermon that shapes the vision of Jesus where, as Diana Butler Bass put it: “Mercy overcomes injustice; humility replaces hubris; rulers are cast down, the poor raised; there is food enough for all, and the rich will be judged for what they have done to women like Elizabeth and Mary. To all such women and men through history.”
But the Magnificat is actually really good news too for those who are well-fed, or rich, or in a position of power and might and benefit from systems that oppress others. Like me. It shows us that our path of liberation is to use our position and privilege to lean into the values of Jesus, to lift up the poor, to center their voices, to learn how oppression works, to learn from those on the margins, and to find God has been there all along.
Perhaps no one captures all of this as well as the late Rachel Held-Evans:
With the Magnificat, Mary not only announces a birth, she announces the inauguration of a new kingdom, one that stands in stark contrast to every other kingdom—past, present, and future—that relies on violence and exploitation to achieve “greatness.” With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides.
And it’s not with the powerful, but the humble.
It’s not with the rich, but with the poor.
It’s not with the occupying force, but with people on the margins.
It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.
This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside. And in her defiant prayer, Mary—a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality.”
Courageous Mary whose boldness was passed down to her son to reveal the loving heart of God, and show us a new way of being in the world. Courageous Mary, who proclaimed that her story and God’s story were one, that God’s dream of liberation and salvation was HER story.
Courageous Mary who just through the act of giving birth, sanctified the holiness and courage of birthing children. Contractions, tearing, bleeding, cracking, trying to get a baby to latch, postpartum depression perhaps.
Author and theologian Kat Armas writes “We talk about Jesus’ body being broken for us but we don’t talk enough about how Mary’s body was broken for his. The savior of the world was completely dependent on her most vulnerable and intimate body parts.”
In our theological tradition, we don’t pray directly to Mary. But can’t you see why the vast majority of Christians in human history have? If I ever do take up the practice of praying to someone other than the God revealed in Jesus, it would be Mary. So let’s pray to Jesus and ask Jesus to give us the courage of Mary that we might resist where need be, to be agents of God’s joy and justice in the world.