My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior. (Luke 1:46-47) Amen.
The Magnificat, the song that Mary sings in response to the good news that she will give birth to the Christ, is one of the most familiar passages of Scripture. Perhaps no other biblical text has been set to music more frequently, with such masters as Vivaldi, Palestrina, Mozart, and Bach all having their version of Mary’s song. In fact, our attention to the music has all but eclipsed our attention to the lyrics, making of this disturbing and challenging text a beautiful cultural artifact: easy listening for our commute to work or the perfect background music for holiday shopping.
Cultural familiarity of this kind breeds complacency. Biblical texts can loose their edge when they become comfortably decontextualized. We hear this Gospel passage read in church once or twice each year: on this feast day and once every three years on the last Sunday of Advent just before Christmas. We think we know it well. But have we really heard it? Would we rejoice with Mary if we really understood its implications?
In his book, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, Robert McAfee Brown attempts to help us hear Mary’s song anew by placing it in a different context, one with which most of us are less familiar. In doing so, he also helps us to come a bit closer to its original context and revolutionary meaning.
The setting is mid-1970’s Chile under the brutal Pinochet regime, which came to power following the assassination of socialist President Salvador Allende. There was a severe persecution of church leaders under Pinochet, and a number of Roman Catholic priests cast their lot with the poor, living in the poorest areas of large cities. Brown records a discussion about Mary’s song that one such priest had with the people during the Sunday liturgy:
Priest: Today is September 12. Does that date mean anything special to you?
Response: Three years ago yesterday Allende was killed in Chile and the Chileans lost their leader. Now they are suffering repression.
Response: Allende’s death makes me think of the death of Martin Luther King.
Priest: Why do you think of the deaths of these two together?
Response: Because both of them were concerned about oppressed peoples.
Priest: Doesn’t the day mean anything but death to you?
Response: Well, today is also the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary. So this day also makes me think of her.
Priest: Is there any connection between Allende and Martin Luther King and Mary?
Response: I guess that would depend on whether Mary was concerned about oppressed peoples too.
Priest: Let me read part of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: “God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich has sent away empty.”
Response: Bravo! But, Father, that doesn’t sound at all like the Mary we hear about in the cathedral. And the Mary in the “holy pictures” certainly doesn’t look like a person who would talk that way.
Priest: Tell us about the Mary in the holy pictures.
Response (displaying a picture): Here she is. She is standing on a crescent moon. She is wearing a crown. She has rings on her fingers. She has a blue robe embroidered with gold.
Priest: That does sound like a different Mary from the Mary of the song! Do you think the picture has betrayed the Mary of the song?
Response: The Mary who said that God “has exalted those of low degree” would not have left all of her friends so she could stand on the moon.
Corporate Response: Take her off the moon!
Response: The Mary who said that God “has put down the mighty from their thrones” would not be wearing a crown.
Corporate Response: Take off her crown!
Response: The Mary who said that God “has sent the rich away empty” would not be wearing rings on her fingers.
Corporate Response: Take off her rings!
Response: The Mary who said that God has “filled the hungry with good things” would not have left people who were still hungry to wear a silk robe embroidered with gold.
Corporate Response: Take of her robe!
Response: But, Father, this is not right! We’re – we’re doing a striptease of the Virgin.
Priest: Very well. If you don’t like the way Mary looks in this picture, what do you think the Mary of the song would look like?
Response: The Mary of the song would not be wearing a crown. She would have on an old hat like the rest of us, to keep the sun from causing her to faint.
Response: The Mary of the song would not be wearing jeweled rings on her fingers. She would have rough hands like ours.
Response: Father, it may be awful to say this, but it sounds as though Mary would look just like me! My feet are dirty, my hat is old, my hands are rough, and my clothes are torn.
Priest: No, I don’t think it is awful to say that. I think the Mary you have described is more like the Mary of the Bible than the Mary we hear about in the cathedral and see in all the holy pictures.
Response: I think she’d be more at home here in the slum with us than in the cathedral or the General’s mansion.
Response: I think her message is more hopeful for us than for them. They are mighty and rich, but she tells them that God puts down the mighty from their thrones and sends the rich away empty.
Response: And we are at the bottom of the heap and very hungry, but she tells us that God exalts those of low degree and fills the hungry with good things.
Priest: Now let’s see, how could we begin to help God bring those things to pass?[i]
Sometimes, we need to hear Scripture in a different context to be able to hear it at all. When we do, we may be surprised, even shocked, by its implications. Mary, meek and mild, takes on a very different aspect when her song is heard in the context of the poor. She challenges us to consider the possibility that God takes sides, and that we may have to take sides too.
As Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has his foot on the tail of the mouse, and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”[ii] Devotion to Mary the Mother of God is inseparable from devotion to justice for the poor, from a commitment to the reign of God that her son, Jesus, proclaimed. Such devotion demands that we take the risk of choosing sides, the risk of choosing whom we will serve, the risk of making it clear where our loyalties lay.
Today, we face a situation where the demand to choose sides is more urgent than at any time since the issue of slavery. The putative “War on Terror” has precipitated a moral and political crisis representing the greatest threat to democracy and the rule of law in our Republic since the Civil War. The deception and secrecy with which the Bush Administration has cloaked the Iraq debacle; the misnamed “Patriot Act;” the policy of torture; the undermining of international law and institutions; spying on U.S. citizens and detaining them without due process; this litany of abuses of power, unparalleled in our history, has eroded the fragile legacy of liberty and justice that we treasure as citizens and as Christians.
According to Ed Bacon, Faith in action is called politics. Spirituality without action is fruitless and social action without spirituality is heartless. We are boldly political without being partisan. Having a partisan-free place to stand liberates the religious patriot to see clearly, speak courageously, and act daringly.[iii]
Devotion to the Blessed Mother, and other spiritual disciples, are essential to Christian social engagement. It is on the basis of prayer that we discern right action and acquire the capacity to act with compassion and humility. Prayer reminds us that we cannot act alone, that we need help, and that we need forgiveness to begin again when we are wrong. Prayer grounds us in our ultimate loyalty to God and the promises of God embraced in our baptism. Last time I checked, those promises excluded lying and torture.
Mary’s song is the politics of prayer and the prayer that grounds a politics of meaning. It is a call to prayer and a call to action; which is, finally, the same thing. It is time to choose sides. Amen.
[i] Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), pp. 85-88.
[ii] Quoted in Brown, p. 19.
[iii] The Rev. Edwin J. Bacon, “The IRS Goes to Church,” sermon preached at All Saints Church, Pasadena, CA, November 13, 2005.