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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

644 Mary’s courageous song of praise becomes a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy

Day 644: Monday, December 20, 2021

Mary’s courageous song of praise becomes a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy amid the suffering and conflicts of real life."


It's Monday of Christmas Week and I thought it good to return to the beginning of Advent and to Mary's fierce response proclaimed in the Magnificat:

Mary’s Magnificat – Luke 1:46-55

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Almighty’s servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is God’s name.

(Dolores Huerta)

God’s mercy is for those who fear God

from generation to generation.

God has shown strength with God’s arm;

God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

(Hanan Ashwari)

God has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

God has helped servant Israel,

in remembrance of God’s mercy,

according to the promise God made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

(Wangari Matthai)

The Context:

Mary’s song flows unpremeditated from her heart. Her words are her spontaneous response upon being pronounced as blessed by her relative Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist.

But that’s just the immediate setting in which we find Mary’s song. We would be wise to also keep in mind the larger context in which Mary spoke these words. It was a time of great uncertainty, for Mary faced a bleak future. Back then, when an unwed teenage peasant girl was found pregnant it usually resulted in devastating retribution from the community.

Matthew’s gospel account informs us that Joseph, the man Mary was betrothed to marry, was planning to quietly call off the wedding. His discreetness was his attempt to protect Mary from public humiliation and social ostracism. According to Jewish law, Mary faced the very real threat of being stoned as an adulteress.

(Simone Campbell)

Thus, in the words of Rev. Carolyn Sharp, “Don’t envision Mary as the radiant woman peacefully composing the Magnificat.” Instead see her as “a girl who sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future.” When we do this, Rev. Sharp goes on to say, “Mary’s courageous song of praise becomes a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy amid the suffering and conflicts of real life."

“The Magnificat is a revolutionary song of salvation whose political, economic, and social dimensions cannot be blunted. People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded: all are encompassed in the hope Mary proclaims.” – Sister Elizabeth Johnson, 2012

The Banning of Mary’s Magnificat:

Frequently throughout history, people on the margins have identified with this powerful poem and been inspired to believe that God can actually bring liberation to their plight. In fact, in the past century at least three different countries have banned the public recitation of Mary’s Magnificat. These governments considered the song’s message to be dangerously subversive.

“The Magnificat was banned being sung or read in India under British rule.

In the 1980’s, it was banned in Guatemala. In addition, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War (1976-1983)—placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song.” – The Subversive Magnificat: What Mary Expected The Messiah To Be Like

Blessed are you among women!

Elizabeth and Mary’s first interaction (Luke 1:41b-45)

And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

In Luke 1:46-55 we read Mary’s song of praise to God. It has come to be known as Mary’s Magnificat due to the first word of its Latin translation: Magnificat anima mea Dominum. Or as we tend to render that first line in English: My soul magnifies the Lord.

Seldom Known Facts About The Magnificat:

If you’ve grown up actively involved in a church community, you’re probably quite familiar with Mary’s Magnificat. But even if that’s the case, there are many surprising insights to be gleaned from this song. For example, did you know that:

The Magnificat has been part of the Church’s liturgy since its earliest days.

For centuries, members of religious orders have recited or sung these words on a daily basis. It is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament.

It is also the first Christmas carol ever composed.

Parts of Mary’s Magnificat echo the song of Hannah (found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10) and are also reminiscent of the anguish of the prophets.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer recognized the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song. Before being executed by the Nazis, Bonheoffer spoke these words in a sermon during Advent 1933:

“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

Hearing Afresh Mary’s Message:

Normally when we read or listen to Mary’s Magnificat, we’re tempted to soften its message and spiritualize its meaning. But I’d like for us to read Mary’s song afresh, as if for the first time. As we do so, let’s be asking why so many have understood Mary’s message to be subversive and revolutionary. But beyond considering other people’s interpretations, let’s be attempting to discover what Mary meant by her words. What sorts of things did Mary expect God to do through His Anointed One. In other words, what did Mary expect the long-awaited messiah to be like? What did she see as the messiah’s mission on earth? What sorts of things did Mary anticipate He would accomplish?

Wondrous Reversals:

The Messiah that Mary anticipated is referred to as the Mighty One who topples rulers, scatters the proud, and sends the rich away empty-handed. However, He also is mindful of the lowly, exalts the humble, fills the hungry with good things, and helps His servant Israel.

In other words, Mary anticipates that the Messiah will bring about “wondrous reversals” in the world, to borrow Rev. Carolyn Sharp’s phrase. Mary envisions God’s anointed one upsetting the status quo by turning virtually everything upside down. He is one who inverts human structures and values. After all, God chose for Him to be born of a “lowly servant girl” instead of a woman of prominence.

When Mary says that the coming Messiah would help Israel and extend mercy to them, did she realize that His mercy and salvation would extend beyond her own people? It seems doubtful. After all, did Mary even want the Messiah to offer mercy to other nations, which included her people’s occupiers?

Behold! Herod. King of the Jews:

Soon after reciting her now famous Magnificat, the Romans required Mary to walk seventy miles while pregnant with a full-term baby to the small rural town of Bethlehem. Recent archeological findings reveal that Bethlehem was home to no more than 200-300 inhabitants at this time. Small indeed. Soon after arriving in Bethlehem (or perhaps even while they were still traveling), Mary began to experience the pains of labor. There in this insignificant rural village, Mary would be homeless while giving birth to her first child.

That much you’re probably already familiar with, but here’s something you might not have heard before: Looking southeast from the stable or cave in which Jesus lay in a meager feeding trough, Mary would have seen Herod the Great’s majestic palatial resort which was known as Herodium. It was, and still is, an impossible site to miss from any part of Bethlehem. For you see, Herodium sits atop a manmade mountain nearly twenty-five hundred feet high. At the time, it was the largest palatial complex in the Roman world. As you looked up from Bethlehem, the lights shining down from Herod’s resort dominated the night sky.

So picture this with me, if you will: There sits Mary, attempting to recover from the long trip to Bethlehem and the stressful conditions in which she gave birth to Jesus. As she stared up at the night sky and undoubtedly saw Herod’s luxurious resort, what thoughts do you think entered her mind?

Obviously she would have been thinking about her newborn Son. That much is a given. But as she did, I wonder if she pondered the irony of the situation she found herself in (after all, we all know she was prone to pondering). Mary knew her Son was the only person deserving of the title “King of the Jews”, yet the reality is, the Romans had appointed Herod “King of the Jews”. While the true king lay helpless beside his almost equally helpless parents, the imposter king lorded his might over them (quite literally). And let us not forget that soon after the Messiah’s birth, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee with Jesus and become refugees in Egypt while Herod ordered half of Jesus’ playmates in Bethlehem to be killed.

I wonder if on that first Christmas night Mary found herself praying once again, like she had months before in her Magnificat, for God to topple rulers like Herod from their thrones of power and domination.

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