They must be the most famous words ever uttered by any woman in history.
I’m talking about the Magnificat, also known as the Song of Mary, which we sang in place of the usual psalm today.
Mary, a poor, unwed teenager, has just heard the startling news from an angel that she will give birth to the Messiah. As soon as the angel departs, Mary hurries to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who also is pregnant with the child who will become John the Baptist, a prophet who will prepare the way for his cousin and savior.
When Elizabeth greets Mary, and proclaims that the child in Mary’s womb is blessed, Mary bursts into song about what kind of Messiah her son will be.
When we hear these words chanted like a psalm or sung in a beautiful setting they can lose their rawness and power. We forget what courage is took for Mary to say yes to the angel, and then to proclaim exactly what kind of Messiah she will raise.
This week as I was reading about Mary’s song, I came across an essay written by Rachel Held Evans, an insightful writer of Christian commentary, who sadly died earlier this year at age 37.
Her essay was written two Advents ago, shortly after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. She reclaims Mary’s courage and the raw power of her words, and makes them speak to our situation today. Her words speak to my heart. I’d like to share them with you:
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It’s an unconventional birth announcement
We like to paint Mary in the softer hues – her robes clean, hair combed and covered, body poised in prayerful surrender – but this young woman was a fierce one, full of strength and fury. When she accepts the dangerous charge before her (every birth was risky in those days, this one especially so), rather than reciting a maternal blessing, Mary offers a prophecy:
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, for 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.
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 forever.
When sung in a warm, candlelit church at Advent, it can be easy to blunt these words, to imagine them as symbolic, non-specific, comforting.
But I’m not feeling sentimental this Advent. I’m feeling angry, restless.
And so this season, I hear Mary’s Magnificat shouted, not sung:
Shouted in the halls of the Capitol building…
“He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
Shouted in the corridors of the West Wing…
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
Shouted in the streets of Charlottesville…
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”
Shouted among women who have survived assault, harassment, and rape…
“He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
Shouted among the poor, the refugees, the victims of gun violence, and the faithful ministers of the Gospel who are at great cost speaking out against the false religions of nationalism and white supremacy…
“His mercy is for those who fear him, from generation to generation.”
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 with 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 unwed, unbelieved 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.
God is with us. And if God is with us, who can stand against us?
I hear a lot of professed Christians right now suggesting that it’s okay if powerful men resort to a little lying, bigotry, abuse, and misogyny as long as Americans “get to say Merry Christmas again.”
Besides the fact that virtually no one in this country has ever been prohibited from saying “Merry Christmas” in the first place, such a sentiment stands in blasphemous contradiction to the very doctrine of incarnation we are meant to embrace this time of year.
God did not wrap himself up in flesh, humbling himself to the point of birth in a stable and death on a cross, eating, laughing, weeping, and suffering as one of us, so that I can complain to management when a barista at Starbucks wishes me “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
The incarnation isn’t about desperately grasping at the threads of power and privilege. It’s not about making some civic holiday bigger and better.
It’s about surrendering power, setting aside privilege, and finding God in the smallness and vulnerability of a baby in a womb.
To claim that the lighting of a national Christmas tree each year makes this country a Christian nation, while its powerful systemically oppress the poor, turn away refugees, incite violence against religious and ethnic minorities, molest and harass women and girls and call them liars when they dare to speak up, is, in the words of the prophet Amos, sickening to God.
“I hate, I despise your festivals,” God says in scripture’s Book of Amos, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
We cannot claim to embrace the Holy Family while withholding justice from those who would most identify with them.
We cannot talk of “making Christmas great again” while taking the side of the powerful and violent over the vulnerable.
The season of Advent is meant to be a time of waiting.
In years past, I lit candles, sang “O Come Emmanuel,” and pondered in stillness the joy of Christ’s first coming and the hope of his second.
But this year I cannot be still.
This year, hope is hard, belief is hard.
And so I’m waiting with the angst of the prophets, with the restlessness of the psalmist who cried, “How long, oh Lord, will you hide your face forever?” and with the stubborn, unsentimental hope of a woman so convinced the baby inside her would change everything, she proclaimed in present tense that the great reversal had already arrived –
The powerful have already been humbled.
The vulnerable have already been lifted up.
For God has made a home among the people.
God has made a home with us.