By Gordon King, CBM Resources Specialist
There is a story of a young Syrian girl that is part of a fundraising appeal. She may be six or seven years old. Two years ago she was outside her home when a bomb exploded. She saw the bodies of neighbors that were killed or wounded. Her home was badly damaged. Somehow her family survived and fled to a refugee camp in Jordan. The girl has not spoken for two years.
Our hearts respond to an innocent child who is the victim of war. One wants the power to be able to turn back the clock and to make life different for her and her family. We want her to be in school. To have a home. To eat nutritious food. To play with friends. We wish we could turn the world upside down so that those on the bottom receive mercy and the perpetrators of violence are called to justice.
The overturning of the world order by God is one of the themes of the gospel reading that we call the Magnificat. The words are both familiar and mysterious. The poem helps us to understand the life experience of an adolescent woman named Mary and the faith of the community in which she lived. We remember that Mary, her family, and her community raised, supported, and shaped the faith of Jesus in his early years.
The expressions of faith in the Magnificat resonate with the deepest longings of our heart. They remove us from the consumer’s desire to have more possessions, more comforts, and more rich desserts over Christmas. The words remind us of who we really are as people made in the image of God. We are loved and we live in a broken world. The phrases of the Magnificat express our longing for God to act with mercy and power to change the world and heal the wounds that are all around us.
The poem or hymn is grounded in the painful reality of the world in which Mary lived and the mystery of God’s love.
What do we know about Mary and her hymn?
We can guess that Mary was a thirteen year old girl that grew up in a peasant family in a poor village. She and her family belonged to a social group that were called the anawim, the pious poor. Like other girls her age, Mary was betrothed, at the age of 12 or 13, through an arranged marriage to an older man. The families decided on the marriage and negotiated the payment of the dowry from the bride’s family and the bridewealth paid by the groom’s family. The one year of engagement allowed time for the negotiations and wedding arrangements. We would call Mary a child bride. In Mary’s context, women seldom lived past the age of 35. Marriage was early. Death at child birth was common. Life was fragile and uncertain.
The anawim were the pious poor. They were mostly peasant farmers. They lived in simple houses and were under threat of losing their traditional lands to the rich. They were illiterate. They experienced hunger and repression. When the Roman General Varus entered Galilee in 4 BC, villages were burned, 2,000 men were crucified, women and children were taken into slavery. Peasants were forced to pay taxes to the Roman occupation and to Herod Antipas who built palaces in Sepphoris and Ceasarea. Herod’s prisons held dissidents like John the Baptizer who dared to criticize his royal rule. Far away in Jerusalem, the temple authorities lived in luxury while sending enforcers to the fields of peasants at harvest time to collect their own taxes.
The pious poor clung to faith as a form of resistance. Faith gave them comfort that they were not forgotten. Faith gave them hope that God would act to right the wrongs inflicted on them. You can feel that faith pulsating in Mary’s Magnificat. This is the faith of people that are bowed but not broken. Perhaps you have met people like Mary somewhere.
In our reading, we see that there are only two people present – Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. There were no recording devices. So who wrote down the song? How can we receive these words as being from Mary?
Here is how I read the text. Mary has taken a song of her community, of her people. She has sung the words of that Psalm or repeated that poem many times. People learned the substance of faith through music and poetry. Mary adapted that Psalm as a response to her own situation. She has been chosen by God to give birth to the one who would be called The Son of God. She has been told that of his kingdom there will be no end.
We have a hymn or a psalm of faith from her community. We have Mary’s own words that have been added to the psalm. But there is one more stage. This song came to Luke the evangelist as a hymn, as a psalm, of the early communities of anawim Christians. They were the pious poor who confessed Jesus as Lord and Saviour. They kept these words alive as they repeated them and sang them when they gathered to worship God who had been faithful to his promises. God had chosen one of them, a girl named Mary, through whom his son would enter the world.
We are on holy ground at Advent. I hope you can feel the mystery and the wonder. The transforming miracle we celebrate at Christmas begins with a young, adolescent girl. She is illiterate. She is poor. She is already a woman of faith. When the angel speaks to her, Mary responds: Here I am, the slave (not servant) of the Lord. She is truly the first believer. Through Mary we learn the truth of St. Paul’s words: God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.
The Text of the Magnificat
Every phrase of the Magnificat draws on words of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish writings including the Dead Sea Scrolls. The clearest parallel for the Magnificat is the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2. Hannah knew that she would give up her son Samuel after he was weaned. He would be raised in the temple and dedicated to God’s service. Like Mary, Hannah would have to let go of her child. She had sung:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength….
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
You can see how Hannah’s poem or song stands in the background of the Magnificat. The God of history is acting again through a humble woman and her son. The gift of God to the world will be costly for the mother.
The Magnificat can be divided into two sections. In the first part Mary inserts her personal testimony into a song of her community. “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” “He has looked with favor on the low estate, the low social standing, of his slave.” She recognizes that in the world she is insignificant, she means nothing more than another peasant girl. But God looks on her with love and favor.
We should notice how the Magnificat describes God in this first section. Listen to the words. Lord. Savior. The Mighty One. These words are a defiant statement of faith. Augustus Caesar ruled the Roman Empire from 27 BC to 14 AD. He had brought peace by the sword and conquest. He was given the official titles of Lord, Son of God, Bringer of Peace, and Savior of the World.
Here we have a peasant girl who resists the ideology and religion of the empire. She has been exposed to the violence of armed men. They are not worthy of her faith and her loyalty. She trusts in God and critiques the rule of the emperor. She knows that God is holy and merciful from generation to generation. The Son in her womb will be called: Lord, Savior, Son of God, the Prince of Peace.
We live in a time of powerful men that make arrogant boasts, who command armies, who demand loyalty, and who offer empty promises. The first section of the Magnificat invites us to enter into the faith of Mary and her community. As we approach Christmas we contemplate God who approaches us in love and mercy. We look to God for redemption, for peace, and for salvation. The Magnificat invites us to say with Mary: “My soul reaches out to the Lord, my spirit finds joy in God my Savior.”
Section two has the theme of the great reversal. God will act in the world on behalf of the weak, the oppressed, the voiceless, and the marginalized. He will bring down the powerbrokers that use violence and intimidation to plunder and destroy for their personal gain. He will bring down those that trample and oppress the poor. Mary and her community believed that God would act in justice and mercy for the poor. The child in her womb, not Caesar in Rome, would be the real son of God. The empires of the world would fall. There would be no end to the kingdom of her son.
You can hear Mary’s faith expressed in the words of the Magnificat.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
We might ask two questions. (1) Why does Mary use the past tense? (2) When did this happen?
There are two answers to the first question. Some interpreters propose that prophetic speech could use the past tense about the future. Past tense verbs expressed a certainty that these things would happen. Personally, I think the Magnificat was a hymn of praise sung by early disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection. They looked back and saw the promises of God fulfilled for his people.
The gospels tell us that through Jesus, God’s kingdom came to the humble, the weak, the poor, the broken, and the wounded people of Galilee and Judea. “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” “Blessed are those who mourn, for you will be comforted by God.” “Blessed are you who are hungry, because God will take care of your needs.” Listen to how Jesus answered when he was asked if he was the one sent by God. “The blind receive sight. The lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. Dead people are raised. Good news is given to the poor.” God was working in the borderlands of Galilee and Judea.
The tables are turned. God’s mercy and transforming power are neither found in the courts of Caesar Augustus nor in the temple in Jerusalem. God is present in mercy among ordinary people that call out to him in their need and turn to him in faith.
The cross represents the power of evil turned against Jesus and his message. The resurrection is the victory of God. We proclaim Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. The faith of the church is that the way of love, the way truth, the pathway of humble service, the way of faith, and the road of compassion will triumph. God has the last word. Today Jesus is worshipped around the world. Caesar Augustus is just a name from the past. God has brought the mighty down from their thrones even if it seems that they cling to power. He reaches out to fill the hungry with good things.
The Meaning of the Magnificat for Today
Many of us approach the Christmas season with mixed emotions. We may remember times when we got sucked into consumerism and continuous rounds of activity. When it was over, we were fatigued and felt that we had missed the meaning. Some of us may feel tired and broken as we approach Christmas. We may be struggling with finances. We may feel beaten up by life and relationships. Others may be full of enthusiasm and hope. How does the Magnificat speak to us as a community of diverse people?
First, we are reminded that there are no small people for God. Mary was a peasant girl in rural Palestine. The Son of God would enter the world through her. You can use the coming days to ponder the mystery that you are loved and valued by God. This is not theory. This is not just theological talk. God’s love is the unseen reality of human life. Perhaps you feel the Spirit’s whispers in your heart to Invite God to walk through the Christmas season with you. You have the capacity to create sacred spaces in which you can reflect on his mercy in your life. Perhaps you will say with Mary: “Lord, here is your servant and your child. Let me offer you my life in gratitude for your love.”
Second, the Magnificat reminds us of the importance of community. The words of Mary’s poem were rooted in the faith of the community around her. Our circumstances are different from those of the poor in first century Palestine. But we also need community to support us and to help us to resist the messages of the empire – in our case the empire of consumerism. We need a community that takes joy in the message: “The young woman will conceive and bear a son, they will call him Emmanuel, which means God with us.” “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The Magnificat reminds us that we need others to journey with us and to support us.
Third, the Magnificat reminds us of God’s work in the world. God is found in a special way among the poor that live in the borderlands and in the margins of our world. Jesus said that when we feed the hungry, when we welcome strangers, when we care for the sick, when we show mercy to one of the least of these we are actually offering our service directly to him. We meet Jesus in our care for those in the borderlands where life is fragile and painful.
The Magnificat tells us that God will fill the hungry with good things. I would encourage you to make a financial gift to CBM over the Christmas season. You can designate your donation to CBM’s CFGB (Canadian Foodgrains Bank) projects. Your action will provide food aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and for families displaced by violence in South Sudan. You will also support agriculture assistance for farming families in Rwanda, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Local Christians ensure that the witness in action is accompanied by witness in words about God who seeks to fill the hungry with good things.