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"Do You Hear What I Hear?"

Hearing the call to justice in Mary's song

I once stood in front of 65 of my students and read Mary’s song from Luke 1:46–55 loudly, with the emotion of protest. I asked this question: What kind of woman would have sung this song?

Deep inside I wanted to know, Do you (students) hear what I hear (in Mary’s song)? Do you hear that the woman who sang this song had vision? Do you hear her courage? Do you hear that she must have been what some have called a “dangerous” woman?

Dangerous? Mary? Most evangelicals are accustomed to the Mary of icons with an emotionless face, the Mary of statues draped in a powder blue robe, and the Mary of piety who quietly and submissively obeys orders. And, if you are like me, you have been nurtured in a faith that, intentionally or not, ignores Mary. One of my favorite books on women and the Bible, Discovering Biblical Equality, paid little attention to Mary. Why? Because Protestant evangelicals aren’t quite sure what to do with Mary—so she gets ignored.

It’s time to change that.

The real Mary

It’s time to take Mary out of the nativity scene we get out every Christmas and give her a permanent place in the home—after all, she is Jesus’ mother! A careful look at Mary in the Gospels reveals an altogether different Mary than the one we’ve rejected. The real Mary was more like Harriet Tubman and Mother Teresa than the soft image of traditional piety. 

We live in a world wracked by pain and systemic injustices based on gender, ethnicity, and economics. When my students ask me for a good example of someone in the Bible who believed in and fought for justice, I refer them to the song (and life) of Mary. “Just take a gander at the Magnificat; it’ll surprise you,” I tell my students. 

Read the Magnificat aloud, not silently. Shout it if you can. As you read, imagine two things: First, Herod the Great (and whatever comes to your mind about him) on the throne; second, Mary as a poor, young, unmarried, pregnant woman in far-off Galilee who, with thousands of others, was sick and tired of oppression. Here’s her song. Hang on.

46 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. (Luke 1:46–55 TNIV)

A victory speech

We’ve just experienced yet another election in the United States. Every candidate had either a victory speech or a concession speech. The Magnificat is a victory speech—Mary has been told by the angel Gabriel that her son would be the Son of the Most High God, that her son would rule on the throne of David, and that her son would be Messiah. When Mary visits her relative, Elisabeth, Mary bursts into a song celebrating the victory of God and the poor over the proud and the powerful. 

Mary, and thousands like her, had been yearning—for generations—for the promise of God to be fulfilled, the promise that God would someday place the Messiah on Israel’s throne. That promise involved a Messiah who would establish justice and peace and righteousness. This is the victory about which Mary sings.

The parallels between Mary’s song and Hannah’s Old Testament song of praise (1 Sam. 2) are often noted. But Mary’s song is also the New Testament equivalent of Moses and Miriam’s great song of victory after their exodus from captivity in Egypt (Exod. 15) and the worship services of Ezra and Nehemiah after the return from Exile. Mary’s agile willingness in Luke 1:38 also parallels Abraham’s response to God’s call (Gen. 12, 15), and the other heroes of faith celebrated in Hebrews 11.

The verbs in Mary’s Magnificat are in the past tense: though the things Mary celebrates have not been fully realized, she sings as if they have already occurred: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones” and “He has filled the hungry with good things.” Mary, a poor, pregnant woman sings not “we shall overcome”—as if that victory would come soon, but “we have overcome.” Why? Because Mary believed that God’s justice had already begun to roll in the baby in her womb.

Herod de-throned, Jesus en-throned

If you have imagined with me that Mary’s Magnificat is more like a rally or a victory speech than anything else, then you will have to admit something else: Mary is going toe-to-toe with Herod the Great in the verbal fisticuffs of the Magnificat.

Who was on the throne? Who was proud? Who was oppressing the poor and humble? Whose policies ripped the gleanings from the table of the poor? Whose system favored the rich at the expense of the poor? Whose kingship called into question the promises of God? 

Herod’s.

These words of Mary’s are an assault—if I may be so bold—or at least a prophetic assault, something like Nathan’s words to David, on Herod. He is the one whose ways are about to change, whose policies are about to be subverted, and whose ethic is about to be deconstructed.

Mary’s song is about Jesus being en-throned and Herod being de-throned. 

Mary knows it is God’s work

Read the Magnificat aloud one more time, but this time consider how Mary knows that God is at work. She is pregnant—but God has brought that about through a supernatural conception; her son will be king and Messiah—but that is God’s work; her son will establish justice in the Land—but that, too, is the work of God.

Notice how often the sentences begin with a personal pronoun that points us toward God. Over and over Mary’s focus is on God because she knows that what is happening in the birth of the Messiah is the promised work of God.

Mary’s song begins with “My soul glorifies [or, ‘magnifies’] the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary is captivated by the missio Dei, the work of God in this world, and she exults in what God is doing here and now.

God works through those who fear God

No one who reads the Bible should be surprised that God chose a most unlikely person—a poor, young, unmarried woman—to play such a key part in this new era. God has never been attached to human strategies or our values; God doesn’t think it is important to begin with the most powerful people or with the most practical plans. 

God, after all, chose Moses—a murderer, and then David—a shepherd boy. He chose younger sons, like Jacob and Joseph. And God has worked mightily through women like Miriam the prophet, Deborah the judge, and Huldah the temple scribe. Women are noted in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (Matt. 1:1–17). Each of these women had a scandalous reputation similar to the one Mary was given by her contemporaries.

Mary’s song reminds us that God works with those who “fear God” (Luke 1:50): those who stand in awe of God’s work in this world. Mary was such a woman, and she points us to renewed hope that our fear of God will be rewarded as we work for God’s mission for this world. She offers liberating words for those who have been disqualified on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, or class. Mary’s example shows that anyone who fears God can be called to be a servant of God.

God’s work deconstructs injustice

Mary sings that when God bares (and swings into history) that heavenly arm of might, God will:

Scatter the proud with their haughty hearts;
Strip rulers from their top-heavy thrones;
Send the rich away with empty pockets.

This is the work of God in the kingdom of Mary’s son. God’s will is to end the power of the proud, end the power of unjust thrones, and end the rapacious policies of unjust rulers. Anyone who wants to follow Jesus will join Mary in singing and working for the end of injustice.

We might need to remind ourselves that once Herod the Great realized that the next-born king was now loose in the Land, he sought to kill Jesus—and I am persuaded that he would also have liked to get his hands on the woman who had the audacity to sing the Magnificat as a song that threatened those who used power and wealth unjustly.

God’s work constructs justice

Not only did Mary sing of deconstructing injustice, her song was balanced by constructing justice. Notice these elements of Mary’s vision for the “new world order” called the kingdom of Jesus:

Mercy to those who fear God;
Exaltation of the humble (poor);
Food for the hungry.

Mary describes these acts of deconstruction and construction done by the power of God’s mercy as demonstrations of God’s faithfulness to his covenant and his promises (see vv. 54–55).

Our understanding of covenant tends to focus on the forgiveness of sins and overlook the covenantal theme of justice. A fuller biblical view of covenant involves Abraham’s call (Gen. 12, 15), the promises for David’s kingdom (2 Samuel 7), the formation of the new community in the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14, 1 Cor. 11, Heb. 10), and right up to Pentecost when the new community receives the Holy Spirit and is healed of divisions reaching back to the tower of Babel (Acts 2). Mary was among the men, women, and children who were pioneers of this new Pentecost community (Acts 1:14). 

“Practicing Pentecost,” to use the words of blogger Anthony Smith (postmodernegro.wordpress.com), means letting God’s Spirit invigorate the community into unity. Practicing Pentecost means living “in Christ,” where there is no male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. Practicing Pentecost is learning to live the Magnificat’s dream.

Responding to the call

Here’s what I hear in the Magnificat: The power of Mary’s song is the power of telling her story about Jesus. Who was the first person to tell the world the good news about Jesus? Mary, who learned to call Jesus Messiah and Son of the Most High God. She is an example of what it means to stand up to injustice, fight for justice, and point others to God’s redemption work in Jesus. Do you hear what I hear? 

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