On one of my office bookshelves sits a framed picture of the Visitation that Stephen and his wife Elizabeth gave me for Christmas one year. It depicts that infamous visit that Mary made to her older family member Elizabeth while they both were unexpectedly pregnant. Mary is standing there with her arms lifted in the air; Elizabeth is holding her belly, looking like she is noticing her baby doing flips. The gospel of Luke tells us that her baby, who we come to know as John, leaps for joy in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. As I was wrestling with our text for today, I pulled the picture down and set it on my desk. I began to imagine all that might have happened during Mary’s visit with Elizabeth. I bet there was a lot of work to prepare for John’s birth. I bet that Mary helped Elizabeth prepare her house and prepare her body to receive her baby. I bet that they both worked to prepare their spirits for welcoming life that they had not anticipated, babies that were already bringing them both joy and fear. I bet that they were talking about how their lives were getting ready to change. It is in the midst of this intimate time that Mary and Elizabeth are having with one another that Elizabeth utters the first confession of faith, as she calls Mary the mother of her Lord. It is in the midst of this sacred and holy time that these two women are sharing that Mary first sings her song, the song that we now know as the Magnificat.
What a song it is! It’s the song of an outcast woman who was longing for the world to change. It’s a song about great reversals. It’s a song about a new day, a new order. Mary praises God for having favored her, a lowly servant. She sings about how God has blessed her and how generation after generation will know what God has done for her. She sings about how God shows mercy on those who fear God. She sings about how God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty. It is a song of revolution. It’s a song of the world turning. It’s a song about everything being turned upside down.
The marginalized have often been inspired by the Magnificat, using it as a theme song for revolutions. During the British Empire’s occupation of India, they banned the Magnificat from being sung in churches. On the final day of imperial rule, Ghandi requested that the Magnificat be read in all the places where the British flag was being lowered for the last time. In the 1980s, the Magnificat emboldened the poor in Guatemala to fight for better wages, and they created such a stir that the government decided to ban the public recitation of Mary’s words. A group of mothers, whose children disappeared in Argentina’s Dirty War, put the words of the Magnificat on the posters that they used as they protested in the capital. The military then decided to ban the public display of her words. In 2011, members of the Occupy movement sang Mary’s song in New York’s Zuccotti Park as they challenged the unchecked greed of Wall Street and lamented the disparity between the rich and the poor. For the marginalized, the Magnificat is a song of hope and a song of joy.
But if you are benefiting from the way things are, the Magnificat is a dangerous song. I don’t think it’s any accident that our culture has sentimentalized Mary, recasting her as a character who is simple, passive, quiet, and obedient. As someone who grew up as a child in the nineties in a Southern Baptist Church, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the song, “Mary, Did You Know?” performed at Christmas. There’s something that’s always bothered me about it. It seems to treat Mary as a clueless, docile girl who has no clue what she’s agreed to. The whole song centers around asking Mary if she actually knows that she is pregnant with God’s child. It says, “Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?” Of course, she knew! God came to her and told her, and she responded by saying, “Let it be!” Her dear family member Elizabeth confirmed that she was the mother of her Lord! She sang about how blessed she was! Mary isn’t some sweet, unassuming character. Mary is a marginalized outcast who used her voice to proclaim the great reversal that her son would bring! Mary is the mother of the greatest revolution in all the world!
A woman named Jennifer Henry rewrote the lyrics to “Mary, Did You Know?” making the song more reflective of what we know about Mary from scripture and from her song. She wrote:
Mary did you know,
that your ancient words
would still leap off our pages?
Mary did you know,
that your spirit song
would echo through the ages?
Did you know that your holy cry
would be subversive word,
that the tyrants would be trembling
when they know your truth is heard?
Mary did you know,
that your lullaby
would stir your own Child’s passion?
Mary did you know,
that your song inspires
the work of liberation?
Did you know that your Jubilee
is hope within the heart
of all who dream of justice,
who yearn for it to start?
The truth will teach, the drum will sound, healing for the pain
The poor will rise, the rich will fall. Hope will live again
Mary did you know,
that we hear your voice
for the healing of the nations?
Mary did you know,
your unsettling cry
can help renew creation?
Do you know, that we need your faith,
the confidence of you,
May the God that you believe in,
be so true.
Jennifer Henry’s alternative lyrics make clear that Mary had confident faith and knew that she was bearing a son who was going to turn the world upside down. Henry’s lyrics wonder aloud about whether Mary knew how much of an impact her song would have on generations to come and how it would continue to inspire the work of liberation. As theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “The song of Mary…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 collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”[i] Mary’s song is about making a way to lift up the lowly in a world where it seems like there is no way, in world that is bent on upholding the powerful, in a world where the poor are trampled.
On this third Sunday in Advent, as we reflect on the joy that Mary experiences as she sings her song of revolution, we have to confess that many of us do not share in Mary’s joy when we realize what her song is actually about. Instead, we have to admit that we are filled with fear. We recognize that many of us are privileged, and we can’t help but wonder if we are among the powerful who are going to get thrown off our thrones or among the rich who will be sent away empty. We recognize that Mary’s song is good news for the marginalized among us, but we wonder if it is good news for us. Theologian John Boopalan illustrates our fears succinctly: “Can Mary not expect good things without turning every good expectation into a binary where privileged subjects necessarily experience loss? Binaries have a way of troubling us…, at least when it comes to our own loss. We might envy the 1% who have more—so much more—than us. We probably wouldn’t mind if their loss meant we get a little bit more. But when the binary highlights our privilege compared to severely disadvantaged others, that is a different story. Can’t the disadvantaged be advantaged without disadvantaging us? Does their uplift necessarily have to entail our own loss?”[ii]
Mary’s proclamation that the lowly will be lifted up and the proud will be scattered doesn’t mean that the marginalized are going to become the new oppressors. It means that God’s way of ordering the world is going to shake things up entirely, and sure, if you’ve been unjustly benefiting from the way things are, you might come up against Mary’s song kicking and screaming. I once heard it said that when you are accustomed to living in power and privilege, equality often feels like oppression. And perhaps when you are the proud and the powerful, being reminded through Mary that God is on the side of the oppressed is a hard word to hear. As we wait for the second Advent of Jesus, I think we meet Mary again and again in our world, and I’m afraid that when we meet her, we try to silence her because we are threatened by her.
We met Mary in Claudette Colvin who when she was just fifteen years old refused to give up her seat on a bus, nine months before Rosa Park did. Claudette had been inspired by women who had come before her who imagined that another world was possible, a world where the lowly would be lifted up. When she was interviewed about the experience, she said, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn't get up."[iii] Claudette said she would never forget what her pastor, Revered Johnson, said to her after he bailed her out. “Claudette," he said, "I'm so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom. We've all been praying and praying. But you're different—you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.”[iv] We continue to meet Mary in young women all over the world who are singing Mary’s song, calling for a revolution, calling for the lowly to be lifted up, calling for the world to turn. We meet Mary in Greta Thunberg who imagines a world where we don’t decimate God’s creation. We meet Mary in Malala Yousafzai who imagines a world where girls receive the education that they need. We meet Mary in Emma González who imagines a world where teenagers can go to high schools across our nation, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, without fearing for their lives. When we meet Mary, do we hear her song as a song of joy or do we hear it as a song of fear?
What we have to realize is that Mary’s song isn’t just good news for the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized. It is good news for the rich and the powerful and the proud, too. If we can break free from the powers and principalities of this world and live under God’s order, we all can experience the joy that comes from living in a just world. We can be liberated from pride, selfishness, greed, apathy, jealousy. We can be liberated from all the things that keep us from living as God would have us to live as beloved children of God. Oscar Romero once said: “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.” I pray that on this Third Sunday of Advent, as we prepare for the Christ child to break into our lives and our world, that we will all be hungry for the lowly to be lifted up, that we will all recognize our need for God to come on our behalf, that we will all experience the joy that will come from the world being turned upside down. And I pray that, like Mary, we will become bearers of God, committed to the work of justice and liberation, and members of the greatest revolution of all.