An Advent Song that Calls Us to ActionGod, Christmas , Theology
Contributed by: Food for the Hungry Canada
Written by Jim Heuving. You can scroll to the end of this article to read Mary’s Magnificat in its entirety, or click here to read Luke 1:46-55 on biblegateway.com.
What is your image of Mary?
The Christmas season is filled with all sorts of important events and happenings, not the least of which is the most anticipated by picture-taking grandparents—the children’s Christmas pageant! For weeks, volunteers scurry to practice songs and lines, make costumes, prepare staging, and cast children for the key nativity parts.
It’s easy to fill some roles, like the shepherds—it always goes to the rowdy boys. But Mary’s role requires some extra consideration. It has to be the right sort of girl—not too boisterous, nor too comedic, nor energetic. You want someone demure—quiet, shy, humble. But reading Mary’s song might make us rethink our impression of Mary.
Let me suggest that Mary had what Jewish people like to describe as chutzpah (hoots-pah). Consider this example.
There was this one time when 30-year-old Jesus and his mother went to a wedding in Cana, a city near where he grew up. Jesus wasn’t a big deal yet. The wedding was either poorly planned or more people showed up than expected. The result? The host ran out of wine! It was terribly embarrassing. Mary approached her son with an expectation that he should solve this party-ending problem, “They have no more wine,” she pressed him. He responded hesitatingly, “Why do you involve me? My time has not yet come.”
Mary didn’t agree with her son as she turned to the distraught party organizers and said, “Do whatever he tells you.” What did Jesus do? He listened to his mother and performed his first miracle by filling empty jugs with the best wine of the wedding celebration. This key episode highlighted that Mary, the mother, knew best. She prompted her son to get going while being quite aware that she was speaking to the creator of the universe. That takes nerve, audacity, and perhaps a bit of cheekiness—in other words, chutzpah.
I sat down some months ago and decided that Mary’s song, known by its Latin name as the Magnificat, would be valuable to reflect on—just for my sake. First, it connects clearly to Advent. Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus, like us, was longing and waiting for a rescuer to begin his liberating work in her nation, Israel. Her song anticipates and proclaims how her human-divine infant will accomplish this stunning transformation—not only for Israel, but for the entire world. Second, the song clearly connects to the concerns that drive FH Canada’s work—poverty, injustice, hunger, inequality, and oppression. Perhaps we need to see this song as Mary’s chutzpah way of saying to us, “We have a problem. God is the solution. Let’s get going!”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian who resisted the Nazi regime of World War II and was executed for it, described Mary’s song as “the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of men.”
“The most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of men.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
A 2018 Washington Post article adds to Bonhoeffer’s perspective. Throughout history, the author notes, women who experienced injustice, poverty, and oppression identified with Mary’s song. Most strikingly, she points to three governments in the last century who outlawed Mary’s song as too subversive—India when under British rule; Guatemala when the poor of the country embraced the song in protest; and Argentina when the military banned posters printed by mothers quoting the song and seeking justice for their disappeared and unfound daughters. Mary’s song is a courageous hopeful song sung by ignored people enduring injustice against powers that resist change.
Can you understand why Mary felt so blessed? God called her, one so powerless, to participate in his most stunning work—to bear the one who would fill the world’s empty jars with jars of joyful energy. She celebrates what she knows to be true. Her faith in God makes her humble yet audacious, nervy, and somewhat cheeky. The Lord and Creator of all things becomes little and helpless within her, in seclusion, unnoticed, and enters the world by dwelling with the humbled (Bonhoeffer’s words). She, the blessed one, willingly responds to God’s call to participate with chutzpah.
There’s an artist by the name of Ben Wildflower. He is Christian. Some describe his work as protest art. He likes to awaken people by making them uncomfortable—in the true fashion of biblical prophets.
One of Wildflower’s favourite biblical characters is Mary. One year, he sent out a Christmas card with Mary on the front that drew mixed reactions. It is a wood print of Mary standing victoriously upon a snake and a skull—symbolic of defeating evil and death. Above and below her is written, “Cast down the mighty and send the rich away,” while to the sides of her is written, “Fill the hungry and lift the lowly.” These words arise from Mary’s song which Wildflower understands as a call to action.
Magnificat, by Ben Wildflower
In a description about this piece, he shares that he and his wife have struggled with their own relative wealth in their years living in an economically depressed community. “We have found that siding with the lowly and oppressed has helped us find God in a place where it often seems like God is absent. Singing the song of Mary is a good way to end the day and it helps us remember that, in Jesus, something has been accomplished that elevates the oppressed and saves the rich from what is empty.”
“We have found that siding with the lowly and oppressed has helped us find God in a place where it often seems like God is absent. Singing the song of Mary is a good way to end the day and it helps us remember that, in Jesus, something has been accomplished that elevates the oppressed and saves the rich from what is empty.” – Ben Wildflower
My image of Mary has shifted. It makes me hope that some creative type might rewrite the standard children’s Christmas pageant play and give that more brash, energetic, and cheeky girl with a good dose of her own chutzpah the part of Mary. How about you?
I may be evoking some questions, yet unanswered. Is Mary’s song so political? Is she looking for a revolution? Next time, I will unpack that question more by reflecting on how this song fits into a stream of biblical songs (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and themes. It turns out the Magnificat, though fresh, is not new. If you have a little time, you may enjoy reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s message on Mary’s song or perhaps Ben Wildflower’s description of his art piece on Mary. Both are quick to read. If you are interested in D.L. Mayfield’s Washington Post article, you can find it here.
Luke 1:46-55 (NIV)
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me
– holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”