In the season of Advent and Christmas, we will hear a lot about Mary, the mother of Jesus. We’ll hear about her obedience, her purity, her faith, her consent. We’ll see her in outdoor Nativity displays, draped in blue, with downcast eyes and a beatific smile. We’ll enjoy watching our children dramatize her story in “virtual pageants” on Christmas Eve. We’ll honor her legacy with some of the most beloved prayers, liturgies, and carols we know. All of it true and right. But this morning let us consider Mary, the prophet. Mary, the voice of the downtrodden. Mary, the singer of the Magnificat, God’s gorgeous justice song.
I don’t recall and Sunday school class or a single sermon about the song Luke attributes to the teenage girl who gave birth to Jesus. I don’t think anyone mentioned that she was probably a teenager – a norm of her day, but certainly not is ours. No one told me that Mary’s song, the Magnificat, comprises the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament. No one remarked on the astonishing fact that Mary sang her prophetic song on her cousin Elizabeth’s doorstep, while Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, the “official” spokesperson of God, endured his divine silencing. I didn’t know that the song echoes the words and stories of Miriam, Hannah, Judith, and Deborah – or that this is one of the Church’s oldest Advent hymns, set it to music in every age over the centuries.
“He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53)
I had no clue that the song’s socioeconomic and political implications are so subversive, its lyrics have been banned many times in modern history. When the British ruled India, for example, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in churches. During the “Dirty War” in Argentina, after the mothers of disappeared children had plastered posters in the capital plaza with the words of the Magnificat, the military junta banned all public displays of the song. Mary’s version of hope, they decided, was too dangerous a thing for public consumption. I’m grateful to know these things now, but I wish I had learned them earlier.
But all that follows in the Magnificat begins and is rooted in joy. We are reminded that the appropriate response to God’s complicated presence in our lives is joy. Not fear. Not guilt. Not penance. Not obligation. Joy. Indeed, deep and irresistible joy is at the heart of the entire Christmas story. The angel tells Zechariah that “joy and gladness” will mark John the Baptizer’s birth. When Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth’s unborn baby “leaps for joy.” When an angel choir announces Jesus’s arrival to the shepherds, they describe “good news of great joy.”
Mary is a peasant girls living under the occupation of the Roman military rule, living in a part of Israel that is considered “in the sticks.” She is pregnant, unmarried in a culture where the response is stoning to such transgression. At this point we have yet to hear about Joseph’s response to the news. The angel’s announcement that her cousin, already old is also pregnant – good news in its own right – is perhaps the motivation for her to flee the hometown where she feels vulnerable, perhaps threatened.
And yet this young girl sings of joy. It is her first response: joy. She dares to believe that what is happening to her is not horror, not tragedy, not random, not meaningless. She doesn’t succumb to the blistering narratives swirling around her — narratives of shame, scandal, and sinfulness. Instead, she insists that her very body is infused with the presence and power of a God who acts decisively and generously in history. In her history. In her life.
What would it be like to frame our own lives in this way? What would it be like to look for God in the most intimate details of our days? What would it be like to make joy our bedrock?
May the joy of the Virgin Mother infect and inspire you days.
Debi Thomas, Mary’s Song @ Journey With Jesus