23 December 2018
The first two chapters of Luke, in a different way to Matthew, give us a full account of the background of the birth and childhood of Jesus. And along with Matthew, it is often the backdrop of our familiar Christmas pageants with kids wearing tea towels acting as the shepherds and with the odd sheep arriving to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In Luke’s story the shepherds are dazzled by a strange light and a heavenly host and are invited to visit Joseph and Mary and this strange new child. There is always beautiful harmony in these stories always peace and quiet in our depicting of it. But one of the things we often don’t tell in the pageantry, is the stuff that leads to it around the women, Elizabeth, and more importantly Mary.
Mary, we know, is a lower-class working girl from Nazareth, engaged to a local carpenter. In Luke’s story she has a troubling visit from an angel: ‘Mary you are going to have a baby (Lk. 1:31)’. There is no virgin birth stuff here as there is in Matthew, just a heralding that she was pregnant out of wedlock and that this pregnancy was something special, that her child was someone special. Mary accepts the word of the angel that in her womb the messianic hope will come to fruition. Her son, son of nobody, will be the Son of the Most High, of whose Kingdom there will be no end. And as we read the story, Mary needs to retreat and she goes up to the hill country to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth, herself six months into totally unexpected pregnancy. And it is during this visit that Mary speaks – or rather sings her song.
We call it Mary’s song or more popularly, the Magnificat. In form, it is like a canticle or hymn common to the hymns in the psalms, with familiar rhythmic structuring. It is laced with loads of OT imagery including Hannah’s prayer in 1 Sam 2:1-10. Mary like Hannah extol the greatness of Yahweh and heralds the arrival of salvation that is to come through the birth of her child. She speaks as the favoured one, which may well be Lucan, and an important thread around which Mary in Church history has became so endeared. But what is often missed and what I want to pick up on today is that this song is a clever piece of editorial writing that leads us the listeners to the major themes of Luke and Acts and, in particular, it leads to the major point of who this child is and what he will bring. This child is the messiah and through him that which was lowly will be lifted up, and that which was high will be cast down. Salvation will come, restoration will come, vindication for the poor and the meek will arrive, all heralded from the mouth of Mary the chosen mother of God.
But a word of caution. It is not meant to be lovely and beautiful song, it is by contrast prophetic and highly political. And as one commentator writes that may well jar with us – why should politics be so meshed with music and prayer? We can perhaps understand politics and music. After all, the great political themes of the 60’s were songs sung by folksingers, and in every modern revolution it could be said that it was the musicians who articulated the hope of the masses. I have an amazing copy of a mural that is now hanging in the manse and on it there are many peace and justice advocates all centred around Jesus. One of the singers depicts a singer song writer named Victor Jara, whose guitar playing had been the catalyst for the hopes of the poor in Chile, until the day when General Pinochet seized power who promptly chopped off his hands.
In Nicaragua, a special Church liturgy was written by a Nicaraguan revolutionary named Carlos Meija Godoy, a liturgy used and sung in the radical base ecclesial communities of faith. And in this liturgy known as the Misa Campesina, congregations would sing to ‘the God who sweats in the street, the God of the weather beaten face, the God selling lottery tickets or working in the gas station checking the tyres of a truck or even filling in the holes along the highway’ and in their singing they would remember that in their desperate struggle for survival God was with them, God was one among them. Politics and song we know, but prayer? It jars with us, because we often like to keep life compartmentalized – religious things here, politics there! But Mary’s song cuts through that … Mary’s prayer of adoration and jubilation sears through the tidiness of all that: just as her son will do later on, challenging the Herods and the Caesars, doing secular things on the Sabbath like picking corn, and getting arrested for overturning the tables in the Temple. And so, while many think this song is lovely and poetic, and it is, most importantly it is a highly political song of jubilation. It is fanfare charged with biting rhetoric. It’s a sung prayer … that rallies us all to the significance and the importance of the person of Jesus, the baby yet to be born but whose presence in word and deed will crash into the human story, like no other.
Lets get to some examples of it in the song, and here I am indebted to a commentator named McAfee Brown in his brilliant description. In the beginning of the Song, Mary brings praise: her soul magnifies the Lord, and her spirit rejoices in God her Saviour. Why? Because in her, this lowly women of no repute, God will turn things upside down. Why not someone from royalty, or from the ranks of those of high regard. God, stoops to lift this woman to be the carrier of the salvation of the world. Not someone from Jerusalem, not someone from the echelons of power, a lowly slave girl as some translations have it. Can anything good come from Nazareth? Not much, but wait, from this town of nowhere God began his salvation plan, and it was nurtured through a peasant girl called Mary.
But Mary’s Song moves from singing about herself to singing about all who worship God, from generation to generation. But what will the story be like, and who will be singing it. Mary’s song makes it clear: God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. Those who think they have it together, those surest of themselves, those successful in establishing confident self images, they will be scattered, beyond any hope of putting it all together. And then the song moves on – the powerful will not be spared in this rampage of a revolution – they will be brought down from their thrones.
Israel has seen a succession of empires rise and fall – Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome. We have seen the same – the empires of Spain, France and Britain, the twentieth century Third Reich. Today the U.S. taunts the world with might and force especially in the America’s. But the mighty are not always political nations … more generally they can be ascribed as the manipulators of other people’s destinies: the trans-nationals and the big corporations who decide which plant will close and which will stay open, or even here we could say the mighty are those who have power … men who manipulate women to the degree of subordination. The rulers are those with power, whoever they may be, the mighty who abuse that power. In Mary’s song that power is destroyed, the oppression, the violence is vanquished, and the lowly lifted up, the rich sent away, disheveled, empty.
The final claim is, perhaps, so strange to us that we seldom notice it… ‘God has helped God’s servant Israel’. God helping a servant? Surely it is the other way around: servants help
masters. But Mary’s Song informs us that the other way around has become the wrong way around. The one who needs nothing helps those who need everything. It’s all in reverse. And if
servants are to be helped, then they no longer are servants but something else…they became friends, companions, equals. The divide is broken. And Mary’s song says therefore those who celebrate this God, those who honour this child, will become not just companions but brothers and sisters, they become children of God.
This Song is unapologetically political, it’s hardcore revolution, it is music but it is also a prayer, and yes it jars but it is a prayer of hope to all those who were or are on the wrong side of life and opportunity: to them the Song says violence, oppression, injustice will be no more; you will be lifted from the oppression and those in power who abuse that power to maintain dependency and subordination will be brought down.
Mary’s Song is a song of jubilation and hope and that hope is not part of pageantry but the stuff of real life. And in it Mary calls to us, sings to us all, if we dare listen to her tune.