This Sunday we remember the Magnificat. Mary’s song. So often we hear Mary portrayed as meek and obedient. But the lyrics to this song are anything but. When we hear the words of the Magnificat with lyrics like, “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty,” it sounds to me more like something Pete Seeger or Ani DiFranco or Billie Holiday would write than the stereotype of Mary we have been sold. The Magnificat is the protest song of a prophet, proclaiming God’s vision for the future. A vision that sounds like really good news to the lowly and hungry, and probably sounds like real bad news to the mighty and the rich. When Mary was told she was going to be a mom, and not just any mom, the mom of the savior, she knew what that meant right away. She knew that it had implications not just spiritually, but politically and socially. She knew the coming of the savior meant things would be different, not just later one day in Heaven, but here and now on Earth.
I like to picture Mary singing this song to baby Jesus once he was born. The first time Jesus heard this song it was probably muffled, filtered through the walls of Mary’s womb while Jesus was in utero. But I imagine that once Jesus was born, Mary reprised this song several times. I can picture her singing it before bedtime to Jesus, as a lullaby. I can picture her whispering it into his ears as a newborn when he woke every two hours in the night for feedings. I can picture her bouncing him on her knee as a toddler, playfully singing it. I imagine that this song was hummed in and around Jesus throughout his life. And I feel that way because it seems pretty clear that a revolutionary leader like Jesus was raised by a revolutionary woman. I know Jesus was listening to his mom, because a lot of his big ideas sound a lot like echoes of this song.
Adam tells me that in art circles they sometimes say that there is no such thing as new art, that everything created is sampled from or riffing off of something that came before it. Jesus was influenced by Mama Mary and this song. And like I said, I bet this song had many various versions, reprised each time Mary sang it. But even this song wasn’t totally new. Some of the best music out there samples chord progressions of other songs. Hiphop for example borrows beats from other songs, adding and layering something original on top to create something new. Each artist puts their own spin on a song, incorporating what came before, speaking back to it, adding to it, tying the new to the old.
The Prophet Mary is special. She’s God’s mom. She housed the Almighty Creator of the Universe in her very body. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition they sometimes compare Mary to the burning bush, because she also housed God and was not consumed. Mary was a genius. She was courageous and bold. And part of the reason that she was able to be so brave was that this song she sang? These perfect, powerful words about God turning the world upside down? They were not totally new. They were sampled from older songs. The freedom songs of her ancestors.
In scripture unfortunately a lot of the time women’s voices are erased. But the times when female prophets had their words recorded, they were almost always in song.
After God parts the Red Sea and the Israelite people walk across to dry land, safe from their enemies, the Prophet Miriam sings a song about God casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. She sings, “God has triumphed gloriously! Horse and rider God has thrown into the sea!”
During the time of the Judges when the leader of Israel Deborah, sings a song about the way that Jael the warrior defeated the head of the enemy army. She calls Jael the “most blessed of women,” just as Elizabeth said of Mary. And Deborah too sings of God casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly, telling the story in her song of the housewife who defeated a general.
And again in the book of 1 Samuel, the prophet Hannah who is barren prays for a child in the temple. And when that child is born, Hannah sings out a song of praise to God. And her song has lyrics like this,
“My heart rejoices in the Lord…
The bows of the mighty are broken to pieces,
But those who have stumbled strap on strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for bread,
But those who were hungry cease to be hungry…
God humbles, God also exalts.
God raises the poor from the dust,
God lifts the needy from the garbage heap
To seat them with nobles,
And God gives them a seat of honor as an inheritance.”
Mary’s prophetic song is powerful and true because she knows the songs of her ancestors. And she sees how that song is true for her, here and now. And she samples their words, giving them new life.
This Advent season as we are waiting for the birth of Jesus and at the same time, waiting for Jesus to return and the Reign of God to come in all of its fullness, it is our turn to sing of God’s goodness. We can learn the songs of our spiritual ancestors like Mary, Mother of God. Like Hannah. Like Deborah. Like Miriam. We can memorize their words until they are written on our heart. And in the moments when it is our turn to speak, we will be able to recognize that what God is doing is not just for people long ago and far away. That it is for us, here, and now.
As we learn these protest songs of our ancestors, as we listen to their prophetic words, we might feel afraid. It can be scary to join our voices in solidarity with the lowly and proclaim they will be lifted up. What will the mighty think? It can be scary to join our voices with the hungry, and proclaim they will be filled. What will the rich say when they are sent away empty? And so as we are learning these songs, as we are hearing them, we are also challenged by them. We are challenged to be brave, like Mother Mary. And we are challenged to be like her and like so many other prophets throughout scripture who not only proclaimed these things, but helped make them real.
Mary didn’t just sing about God lifting up the lowly and casting down tyrants. She raised up the One who would do that. Mary didn’t just sing about the hungry being filled. She fed her child Jesus from her own body and he would go on to say to all of humanity, “this is my body, given for you.”
Later we are singing, “The Canticle of the Turning.” This beloved hymn is a song that was written based off the words of the Magnificat, Mary’s song. It is just another example of a version, a sample, of the songs of our ancestors. As we sing it, I hope we take the words seriously enough that they scare us a little. And at the same time, I hope that we are comforted by the fact that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who came before us and showed us how to be brave. Like Mary.
So as we learn these freedom songs of our ancestors, as they become a part of us, as we recognize their place here and now among the mighty and lowly of our own day, let us also pray. Let us pray that we will have the courage to proclaim the bold words of this vision. And the courage to join with God in making it a reality.