Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the Magnificat this way: “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.”
Bonhoeffer said that not long before he was hung by the Nazi’s for speaking out against their terrorism and criminal behavior. Bonhoeffer was not unlike John the Baptist in his efforts or his end. Point to Jesus, speak against corruption, and pay the price. Oh yes, never let anyone tell you the gospel is a nice story for nice people.
Mary’s song—the Magnificat—is a song about what Mary hoped and dreamed for. She sung about what she believed God would do through the promised Messiah. She sung as if it was already happening—had already happened. She sung with a kind of faith that can shift one’s reality—from hopeless and desperate to courageous and resolute. It’s the kind of song that can cause people in high places to take notice.
It is said—though not corroborated—that there have been at least three times in history in which the Magnificat was actually banned from public proclamation. When India was controlled by Great Britain, the government banned the singing of the Magnificat during worship. In the 1980’s the government of Guatemala banned it from being read because it was subversive and revolutionary. During the ‘Dirty War’ of Argentina, mothers of disappeared youth posted the Magnificat all over the capital plaza, and the military junta banned it from public displays. These governments were afraid of what would happen if people payed attention to what the song says:
“He has scattered the proud…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.”
The high school students just recently watched the movie, “Book of Eli.” In this post-apocalyptic setting, Eli is given the task by God to deliver the only remaining Bible to a library on Alcatraz Island so that this history of the world and of religion is not lost forever. You see, somehow, disagreements over faith—particularly over the Bible—caused people to go to the length of a nuclear holocaust. So, all known Bibles were destroyed.
Along Eli’s way, he comes to a town in which a man, Carnegie, is searching for the Bible. He wants it because of its clear power. If he has the Bible, he will have the power to control the world. Really, he doesn’t even know what is in the Bible—only that it had the power to destroy. That’s the kind of power he wants. The beauty of the end of this movie is much like the beauty of Mary’s Magnificat—even after Carnegie gets what he thinks he wants, he doesn’t have the power to wield it. Instead, a lowly woman in his house is the only one who is able to understand and appreciatewhat is before her. As always, God’s power never works alongside human concepts of power because in human hands, power corrupts.
Imagine what Mary must have felt like in the midst of her situation. And imagine Elizabeth, as well—both unexpectedly pregnant. An old, barren woman who wonders how she will ever keep up with a toddler. A young, single woman afraid to be in her hometown because she might get killed for her supposed unfaithfulness. Two pregnant women offering each other comfort and encouragement in their unusual situations. Two women—people of no consequence, people who are not to be listened to nor believed. People who have nothing of value to add to a conversation (in those days). They were the ones offering blessings and prophesying about God’s promise. And Zechariah the priest, Elizabeth’s husband, the one who should have had voice in the household, had none. He was struck mute by the same messenger who delivered the news of birth to both Elizabeth and Mary.
These two women dreamed of amazing change. And that’s no small thing. King Herod the Great had been put on the throne by the Romans and deemed ‘King of the Jews.’ But he was a tyrant, a narcissist. Not only would he end up killing all the children in Bethlehem under the age of 2, he also had had 70 elite Jewish people imprisoned so that, at his own death, they too would be put to death. Because he knew that people would celebrate his death. But they would grieve the death of 70 of their own. And he wanted tears when he died.
When Mary sings of the powerful and proud being brought down, she is speaking directly to the corrupt system that has taken over her beloved people. She is hoping for a Savior who will rescue her people from tyranny and terrorism—a Savior anointed by God, promised to lead Israel back into God’s favor. Sharon Ringe says that Mary dreams that “an economy marked by scarcity and competition is replaced by an economy of generosity in which all have enough.”
Doesn’t every good mother hope and pray and believe that her child should have opportunities she didn’t have? That the next generation might undo the damage this one has done? That life can be more than it has been? No matter whether you’re rich or poor, privileged or oppressed, we know that we’ve not gotten things right. We have regrets for the past and anxiety for the future.
Walter Brueggemann says,
“Everybody knows the world is at an edge. Everybody knows about the violence and abuse and exploitation. Everybody knows the world in our very moment is sick to death. But we are the ones who know he will come, called Elijah, called John, called Advent, called newness, a massive change. Because we believe that quite specifically, we celebrate Advent, which is the sense of being at the edge of newness. We are the only ones who believe that. Ancient Greeks did not believe it. And contemporary cynics do not believe it. That is what makes so many of us so resigned, so filled with despair, so selfish, so greedy, so anxious…because the world is hopeless. But we are not hopeless.”
We are not hopeless. Because we have a song to sing—a song that echoes Mary’s song. A song of freedom. A song of abundance. A song of life. A song of the world being put right. A song of hope that the systems we have put in place are not how things have to be—and not how things will be in the end.
We sing along with Mary when the rest of the world yells malice and poison towards one another. We sing along with Mary when we cannot see how it all ends. We sing along with Mary while those in power have nothing useful to say. We sing along with Mary and anticipate the birth of something altogether new and exciting and pregnant with possibility. We sing with Mary; we sing about Mary; we sing for Mary and for her vision of a world restored to goodness by the love of God.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church