24 December 2017

Singing Mary's Song

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Here we are on the threshold of Christmas Eve. Close, so close to his birth, to that moment when BC became AD. It’s this turning that the Church, indeed the world, has yet to fully grasp. Mary knew that the birth of her son would mean the end of life as we know it.  Nothing would ever, could ever be the same again. 

Against all the sentimentality and domestication of the Christmas season, the Church must remember that his birth marks a radical inbreaking of something new.  The arrival of this New Age means the complete upending of the status quo; his birth signals the grand reversal of everything, the dismantling of the powers that be, and extends a new horizon of hope and healing for God’s people. Remember what Simeon said to Mary, when Jesus was twelve, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).

This “turn” is beautifully captured in Mary’s Song, also known as the Magnificat.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…” (Luke 1:47).  Echoing the prayer of Hannah the prophetess, in 1 Samuel, Mary’s response of praise boldly declares what the birth of Jesus means for her and the world, especially the rich, the proud, and the powerful.  In quoting Hannah’s prayer, Luke wants us to see Mary as a prophetess of liberation who sings a song of high revolt against the powers, who sings of the power of God that provides for the powerless. My friend, Frank Jehle, a pastor and theologian in St. Gallen, Switzerland, describes Mary’s Song as a “New Testament psalm.”  I really like this, because it ties the New Testament with the Hebrew scriptures.  In many respects, the entire Old Testament is summarized in Mary’s Song.  It’s a distillation of all 150 psalms.[1]

“My soul doth magnify the Lord,” sings the King James Version, “and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For God hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.” (Luke 1:46-48a).  Martin Luther (1483-1546) loved the Magnificat. In his commentary on these verses, written in 1521, Luther said, “The stress should not be on the ‘low estate’ but on the word ‘regarded.’ [Mary’s] low estate is not to be praised, but God’s regard, as when a prince gives his hand to a beggar, the meanness of the beggar is not to be praised, but the graciousness and goodness of the prince. The evil eye looks only on the reward and the result of the humility. True humility does not know that it is humble.”

And contained in his Commentary is this prayer to Mary, which might assault one's Protestant sensibilities:

“O blessed Virgin and Mother of God,
how very little and lowly
were you esteemed,
and yet God looked upon you
with abundant graces and riches
and has done great things for you.
Indeed, you were not at all worthy of this.
But high and wide, above and beyond your merit,
is the rich, overflowing grace of God in you.
How good, how blessed are you
for all eternity, from the moment
you found such a God!”

Luther is, obviously, putting the stress on the mercy of God and moving the focus away from Mary’s “low estate.” My sense is that Luther wants to remove any notion that God was merciful because Mary chose to lower her estate, that she chose to lower herself, chose humility. And you can easily see how elevating Mary’s “low estate,” celebrating lowliness, making oneself low, putting oneself down, being submissive, unfortunately sacralizes this behavior and turns this way of being into a Christian virtue, which it isn’t (at least, not always). This has been detrimental for many, especially for women. It wasn’t because Mary chose to put herself down that God regarded her, it was God’s grace.

And, if we really listen to this text, really take to heart its message, we see that the Mary of the Magnificat is not meek and mild.  She’s not celebrating her lowliness, she’s not praising a God who’s commending her for being low; instead, she’s praising the God who regarded her low estate, who had compassion toward her, and empathy, who noticed her oppression, a God who sees her poverty, a God who sees her destitution, a God who sees her powerlessness—and has come to do something about it.  Martin Luther said, God’s work and God’s eyes are in the depths, but man's [eyes are] only in the height.”  God sees Mary, in the depths of her existence.  God recognizes her. She’s no longer invisible, as she was to the rich and powerful and arrogant. 

Yes, the Magnificat is a song of praise.  And there’s reason to rejoice. But the Magnificat is also song of protest—which is also a reason to rejoice.  Mary’s response of praise boldly declares what the birth of Jesus meant for her and for her world, especially the wealthy, the proud, and the powerful. It’s right there in the song.  His birth signals God’s grand reversal, it announces the great undoing, the falling and rising of many.  The halls of power, the kingdoms and governments and economic systems of this earth should tremble at his coming.  His birth puts the prevailing ways of the world on edge.  For, as Mary sang, he will scatter the proud, he will bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly—the lowly that have been put down, pressed down to the bottom by society by those at the top; God will fill the hungry with good things, and will send the rich away empty, disappointed (Luke 1:51-53).  The word for rich in the Magnificat is a form of the Greek verb plouteo, meaning, “to be very rich.”  It’s the root from which we get the word plutocracy, a form of oligarchy, meaning a society ruled or controlled by a small minority of its wealthiest citizens.  So, we could say, Jesus will send the plutocrats away empty.

This—all of this—is why Mary’s rejoicing, because this one, this Jesus, this Yeshua, whose name means “Yahweh saves” will save us from all that binds and enslaves us—not by taking us out of the world and bringing us to heaven. This child will save us from the power of sin and all that separates us from God, our neighbor and ourselves; he will release us, liberate us from all that oppresses and dehumanizes us, everything that causes us to be fearful and anxious—here, now, in this life, where we live. 

This is what his birth means for us.  And, this means that when we say, “Merry Christmas,” this greeting, which contains a variety of meanings and wishes, should at the very least include the wish that someone experience in their own life what the birth of Jesus meant to Mary, the turning of the world. 

We need to remember why Mary is singing. The contemporary hymn setting of the Magnificat, Canticle of the Turning, which we sang at the beginning of Advent, captures the full meaning his birth, the meaning of the turn:[2]

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant's plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day you bring. 
Let the fires of your justice burn. 
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone. 
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne. 
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread;
every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn: 
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. 
Let the fires of your justice burn. 
Wipe away all tears,
for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.

Here on the threshold of the turning, Mary invites us to sing.  
May her song be our song.  

Merry Christmas!

Image: George de La Tour (1593-1652), The Newborn Christ.

[1] Rev. Dr. Frank Jehle, from his Advent sermon/Weihnachtspost, 2017.
[2] Roy Cooney, Canticle of the Turning, set to the tune STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN. 

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