Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Who are we to sing Mary’s song? Our canticle for today, better known as the Magnificat, is the song we’re told that a poor, young, pregnant Mary offers in response to her cousin Elizabeth when they meet up in today’s Gospel. The song of Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been a song of the church pretty much ever since – chanted by monks in monasteries, sung by choirs at Evensong, given orchestral settings by ambitious composers. One wonders, though, how many have paid attention to the words. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Pretty spicy stuff. Makes you question why our carols keep insisting she’s mild.
Martin Luther once said that we sing the Magnificat for three reasons: to strengthen the faithful, to comfort the lowly, and to terrify the mighty. On the last front at least, it appears to have worked. Guatemalan authorities in the 1980s actually banned its use in public worship. Yes, they banned Scripture in church because it sounded too much like revolution. Which begs the question - how comfortable are we putting these words in our mouths? More to the point, how comfortable should we be? Whether it’s as individuals who frankly lack Mary’s faith, or as a church that’s historically silenced young women like her, or as a nation that’s telling her peers today fleeing poverty and violence that there’s no room for them (or their children) in the inn, I’m not sure we deserve to make her words our own.
To be fair, they’re not completely her words either. Whether she or Luke, her ghost writer, composed them – or, if as some suspect, this was already a popular hymn of the early church that Luke placed on her lips, its content isn’t all that original. It borrows heavily from the psalms and most directly from the Song of Hannah in 1st Samuel. Mary stands in a long line of biblical women of song, it turns out – Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Judith. Originality, though, isn’t the point. Words don’t need to be new to be true. In fact, if we’re communicating what’s always been true about God’s might and mercy, new words might get in the way. Assuming that this text that has nourished Christians for the last 2000 years might have something to teach us, that we haven’t outgrown the need for mercy (and judging by this past week’s news, I’d say we haven’t), let’s take a closer look and see if the good news of the Magnificat is good news for us.
The problem with old words, of course, is that their meanings sometimes shift over time. The song begins: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” When we use the word “magnify” today, we usually mean that we’re taking something small and making it look bigger so we can see it clearly. God’s not small, so for us, “magnifying” the Lord doesn’t make much sense. But that’s not what’s meant here. Back in the 1500s when this particular text was translated into English for the Great Bible, to magnify someone was to celebrate their greatness. Most of us can magnify God without too much of a problem; it’s no skin off our nose to say that the Creator of the universe is worthy of praise. It’s the next use of the word that’s problematic. “For he that is mighty hath magnified me.” We can believe that God might celebrate the greatness in someone like Mary who carried and raised Jesus, but we’re not so sure about God celebrating the greatness in us. Are we that kind of great? Likewise, we can buy all generations calling Mary blessed, but do we dare to say the same of ourselves? Honestly, do we have any business making this song our own?
I’ll admit my queasiness at hearing some of our brothers and sisters in the faith bandying about their “blessedness.” If their good fortune – their beautiful home, their successful children, their healthy nest egg - means that God is smiling on them, what does that mean for those who don’t have what they do? Are they somehow less blessed by God? Since when did we start measuring blessing by net worth?
Perhaps it’s to guard against this very tendency that the song makes its next turn. It’s mercy that’s available to all generations, mercy that forms of content of blessing, mercy perhaps that’s the measure of our greatness. Everything else seems to be up for grabs. As contemplative Richard Rohr points out in his reflection on this passage, our thirst for power, for prestige and for possessions are all on the line here. We are told that God “hath scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.” “He hath put down the mighty from their seat…and sent the rich empty away.” For those of us with what we feel are justifiable causes for pride, who are fairly rich and mighty ourselves (at least compared to Mary), this doesn’t sound like good news.
But let’s stay with it a little bit longer. If power in itself is such a bad thing, why bother exalting the humble and meek? Why bring anyone up if we all belong in the gutter? Perhaps the first step is owning up to our own power. I remember getting hit over the head with this in seminary. I was interning for an AIDS foundation, where I was partnered for a year with an 8-year old boy with HIV named Curtis. I’d been so used to thinking of myself as young and female and without very much power. Revolution was easy to contemplate. But looking at myself through Curtis’ eyes, I saw that I was also white and educated and healthy – things that seemed to give me power in our society at his expense. I’ll never forget what my supervisor said as I struggled with what to do with this imbalance that neither of us had asked for. The last thing powerless people need, she said, is for us to pretend we have none; they don’t need us to throw away our ability to effect change out of some misguided sense of guilt. What they need is for us to share our power with them and use it effectively so that everyone might be fed with good things.
The song of Mary doesn’t demonize power, not by a long shot. It just reminds us of its true Source - and our accountability to the One who has shared the powers of creation with us in the first place. It’s when we start enjoying the view from on top too much and start thinking that others need to be down so that we can be up that we get ourselves in trouble and might need to be pulled down from our seats. When we think that our possessions are our source of strength or identity, that they’ll somehow protect us from mortality, when we allow them to isolate us from the hunger and need of our fellow creatures, when our hands are so full of our own stuff that we can’t reach out to God or anyone else – maybe that’s when we need to be sent empty away. When we’re knocked off our high horse and forced to unclench our fists, we might finally be free to receive the mercy that has been promised all along. We might finally be ready for the good news that was always meant for all of us.
I began this sermon by asking “Who are we to sing Mary’s song?” Given the truth and the hope that it holds for a world in desperate need of both upheaval and mercy, who are we not to? In the silence that follows, I invite you to sit with our not-so-mild Mary for a moment and hear her song again as we approach this Christmas. Let it ring in your ears at least as loudly as all the other voices claiming your attention. In the Name of the One who sees both our greatness and our need – Lord, have mercy. Amen.