39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
46And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."\
Again this Wednesday we joined the broader church in singing vespers, the evening prayer which always includes Mary’s song, The Magnificat. We joined Christ’s church and Christ’s mother in singing about the wondrous things God has done in blessing us and in casting the mighty from their thrones and in feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty
Some of you know that the church I went to in High School, and where my parents still attend, is a very theologically and socially conservative congregation in Centennial. It’s, suburban, white, very upper middle class, and privileged. Very privileged. Well a few years ago, over 10 years after becoming a Lutheran and singing the Magnificat in Vespers countless times and really loving how radical it was, I visited my parent’s church and was amazed to see in the worship folder that the closing song was The Magnificat. All through the service I kept thinking “I can’t believe that this wealthy suburban evangelical church is going to sing Mary’s song of the poor being fed and the rich being left hungry”. Finally the moment came. The congregation sang a praise music setting of…and I can’t make this up…the first half of the magnificat. They proudly sang a nice praise song based on the Magnificat about how their soul magnifies the Lord who had looked with favor on them and that generations will call them blessed because the mighty one has done great things and holy is his name.” And then the song ended. I was speechless. Well, not really. As I shook the preachers hand on the way out I said that it was theologically irresponsible to allow a profoundly privileged congregation to sing only the first half of Mary’s song.
They may not know what the Magnificat is about, but I do. I felt pretty proud of that.
Progressives see Mary’s song a bit differently. Mary isn’t a docile picture of obedience singing about how great it is to be pregnant. Mary is singing of nothing less than complete overturning of the social and economic order. She’s basically a first century female Che Guevara calling for revolution. There’s a reason why the magnificat is said to of terrified the Russian Czars. Because, the message is that if you find yourself rich and powerful then… watch out! This young little Jewish girl is not singing about a whole lot of good news for you. But the poor…their time is coming because now the poor will be the rich and the rich will be the poor.
The liberals understand the Magnificat and feel pretty proud of that.
But this explanation sounds more like retribution than redemption. Because when the oppressed become the oppressors then the oppression hasn’t actually gone away. It’s a zero sum gain. It’s the exact same play with the same plot and the same ending…just with a different cast. What Mary sings of is not an endless cycle of retribution, but a total dismantling of the entire system. The child she bears is not coming to make the oppressed the oppressors. He is coming to disrupt the whole notion of oppression itself. And the way in which God accomplishes this in the birth of Christ is the same way in which God accomplishes this in the death of Christ: namely vulnerable love. This divinely vulnerable love is the only way out of our cycle of power and oppression.
This all makes it a bit tough to pull of being prideful about knowing what the Magnificat is really about. For me or for anyone else. Ironically, to be prideful about understanding the Magnificat is to not understand it at all. Perhaps it is pride itself which causes the rich to be sent away empty. And not because God doesn’t want us fed, but because we don’t realize that we’re hungry. Maybe in Mary’s song the wealthy are sent away empty because we simply don’t need God. We’ve got plenty of daily bread and seem to be able to handle most stuff that comes our way. But the truly hungry… carry none of these illusions of self-sufficiency. It is our hunger which God feeds, not our fullness. The rich are left hungry because there is no entry point for God.
Mary’s song is perhaps not about being proud of being chosen by God and perhaps it’s not about pride in the coming reordering of things when she and those like her will finally be the ones in power. Maybe the Magnificat is about the entry points of God’s vulnerable love. The cracks into which the light of the Christ enters our hearts and enters our lives and enters our world. The entry points of God’s vulnerable love are not our pride and power and self-sufficiency and wealth, but our need for God…our hunger for God.
It reminds me of the song of another prophet… Leonard Cohen
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
It’s the cracks that allow the light to enter.
These cracks in ourselves and in the world are entry points for God’s redeeming work . The absurdity of Mary: Her insignificance, her poverty, her unwed femaleness, was the perfect crack for the light of Christ to enter. And her kinswoman Elizabeth, this inappropriately pregnant old lady from the hill country was the perfect crack into which the messenger of the light of God to enter.
So the very real suffering in our lives and in our world which makes us question if God is really just, if God is really present, and if the Magnificat is still singable…this suffering is right where God chooses to hang out. Ever since there have been men and women and children who weren’t allowed the dignity of heaven’s children, God has been right there, right next to them, preparing a way out of all that darkness. God has always been like this, and the ones like Mary, the ones who see that truth plainly, finally have all of the world’s power. But this power isn’t the kind we create for ourselves…it’s the power of brokenness and humility. Power-over and retribution and vengeance and oppression be damned. This vulnerable love of God is what claims us and what gives us hope, real hope, in a way that noting else can. Even amidst a world in which we are all very aware that the mighty sit on thrones and the hungry are still hungry we can sing her song. Because Mary doesn’t sing the Magnificat out of ignorance. I’m certain that the reality of empire and oppression and poverty and the abject powerlessness of her very self in her very context was not lost on the mother of our Lord. Quite the opposite. I think she knew. She knew that because of her lowliness and poverty and insignificance - because of this and not in spite of this that God was and is doing an entirely new thing. Never had the poor been so exalted than for God to slip into their skin insistently blessing the whole world in a radical way. She knew you simply can’t speak of such things. They have to be sung.
(blog post script: things change a lot in a few years. My parent's church has a new brilliant young preacher who really loves The Gospel. We meet together once a month with a couple other pastors to talk about our work and our preaching. If someone had told me 5 years ago that one day I would be in a colleague group with my parent's Church of Christ preacher I would have laughed like Sarah. But God is good and not a little mischievous. Anyway, we met this week. He too is preaching on the Magnificat today. The whole thing. May it be a Gospel Word for his people. Amen.)