Where do we put the Magnificat?
A few years ago, while I was still working in the Scottish Parliament, I was asked to read the Gaelic lesson at the Parliament’s carol service. The reading happened to be Mary’s great song of praise that we’ve just heard — the Magnificat, as it’s known from its first word in Latin — but it wasn’t quite all the Magnificat, for the text that I was given ended at the line “and holy is his name”.
- What happened to the rest — to the proud, the mighty and the rich, let alone the lowly and the hungry?
- What happened to God’s mercy and remembering the covenant?
Well may we ask. I wasn’t party to the reasoning behind this rather striking omission. I suspect it might have something to do with wanting to keep the Gaelic reading short for all the non-Gaelic speakers. Nonetheless, it has helped me to take a fresh look at the Magnificat.
On the face of it, stopping at “holy is his name” makes a strong statement about what God is like. But there is a more subtle effect, too, because it also makes the reading all about Mary and God. The wider context is stripped out and Mary seems to be singing praises for what God has done for her alone.
Of course, it’s ‘right to give God thanks and praise’ as we say each Sunday. And while it is right to give praise and thanks for what God has done and is doing in our own lives, we shouldn’t forget that we say that line together.
If we stop the Magnificat before Mary mentions God’s mercy to the generations, her song stops being part of something bigger. But what God is doing in these early parts of Luke’s Gospel is definitely something far bigger. For Mary, it is the deliverance of Israel at the very least but, as Luke’s Gospel and its sequel — the book of Acts — go on to show, it’s far more than that: it’s the salvation of the world. It couldn’t be much bigger.
To switch the perspective round the other way, the Magnificat — and in fact our Gospel reading as a whole — brings to light the fact that God acts for the salvation of the world in and through the lives of individuals. God does the big stuff through the small stuff. Sometimes that small stuff is hidden away, just as God-with-us is hidden away in the embryo developing in Mary’s womb at this point in Luke’s story. But God allows people to see and name what is going on, as Elizabeth does for Mary in our reading.
I find that perspective encourgaing. It means that our everyday lives can become part of God’s working to renew and restore the world. We don’t have to do big things for God; we just have to be available like Mary and Elizabeth and to allow Christ to be born in us, in our words and actions. That can include naming for others the work of God that we see in their lives, like Elizabeth did.
As women in first-century Palestine, Mary and Elizabeth found themselves on the margins of society. That reminds us that the margins are where God often acts. Israel’s hopes of deliverance from the power of the Roman Empire were focused on the great symbols and institutions of Jewish nationhood: the temple and the monarchy. In working through Elizabeth and Mary, God is overturning the expectations of that culture. This is part of what Luke is getting at when he places Zechariah’s skeptical reaction to the angel announcing John the Baptist’s birth to him against Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s Annunciation of Jesus’ birth earlier in the same chapter.
There is, of course, a broader, deeper overturning in the second chunk of the Magnificat. In language that echoes the Psalms and that harks back to the prayer of Hannah when she dedicates her son — the prophet Samuel — to God’s service, Mary celebrates how the Lord has turned the world on its head. The proud are confounded, while the mighty swap places with the lowly and the rich with the hungry. The people who thought they were on top find themselves at the bottom.
That can be hard for us to hear. As a society, we’re quite okay with individual religion but less comfortable with a God who wants to shape and shake our social structures, to subvert expectations. However, the God Mary praises, the one who is at work in her and Elizabeth, is just such a God.
It is revolutionary stuff! So anyone who tells you that the gospel is not political hasn’t been reading the Magnificat. Mind you, this isn’t politics as we know it: the King who is coming casts the mighty down from their thrones not to grab hold of the top job or jump on the gravy train, but to lift up the downtrodden and satisfy the starving. He isn’t a leader who will offshore his assets when it suits him but one who will give everything to free his people.
This is what has become known as God’s preferential option for the poor. It is scattered throughout Scripture as obviously and liberally as Christmas lights are scattered throughout the city centre.
We still need that revolution today. The horrors of Syria and Yemen; the horror of the number of people dying on our own streets for lack of food, shelter and care; the mere fact that, in a country so rich in resources, people need to use feedbacks to survive — these all cry out for the great reversal Mary sings about.
The first place where that revolution needs to take place is in our own lives:
- We need God to topple the pride in our own imaginations, keeping us thankful and humble, open and generous.
- We need God to pull us from our thrones, bringing to light the ways that we use and abuse power and privilege in our relationships and dealings.
- We need God to heal us of our attachments to our things, freeing us from the urge to have more and more, freeing us to be happy with enough.
But we can’t allow the revolution to stay there. To do so would be to stop at “and holy is his name”, to live out an individual faith that doesn’t connect with anything bigger. It would be to spiritualise the Magnificat and confine God to the realm of our worship.
Mary’s song challenges us to place ourselves on the side of the poor, the victim and the hungry, not simply through charity but in confronting injustice directly. When everything around us is screeching at us to buy this, buy that, buy more for a happier Christmas, it can be the struggle to remember that the real meaning of the celebration is how the Lord has turned the world on its head, bringing liberation and salvation. Perhaps this Christmas, we should read the Magnificat and ponder prayerfully how we can join Mary and take an active part in God’s great work of reversal, renewal and justice.