I have a mixed relationship with Mary’s Magnificat found in Luke 1. On the one hand it is a wonderful message of justice; that the lowly in life will be vindicated and remembered by God. I love singing the song A Canticle of the Turning by Rory Cooney.
But the text also is bothersome to me. It’s take on the rich and powerful is not one of charity; instead it is a hard justice-one where the rich are sent away empty and the powerful are made low. God of grace and love it isn’t.
David Neff writes in Christianity Today that he wished modern hymnody would not try to blunt the message that Mary sings. He notes:
As a worship musician who tries to fine-tune what we sing with the Scriptures we read, I have felt frustrated by the way musicians blunt the Magnificat’s protest against the 1 percent (to borrow Occupy language). Take Dudley-Smith’s otherwise excellent “Tell Out, My Soul” as an example. Five years younger than his Cambridge friend John Stott, Dudley-Smith was part of the circle that renewed English evangelical hymnody midcentury. But in “Tell Out, My Soul,” he focused on the first half of Mary’s poetic parallelism that contrasted the powerful with the humble and neglected the second half that counterpoised God’s treatment of the hungry with the rich. Talbot and Cooney commit the same sin of omission….Now, we know that pride and stubbornness are not the exclusive province of the rich. If the Holy Spirit had wanted to talk about these vicious habits of the heart, he would have inspired Mary along those lines only. But he didn’t, fingering the rich along with the powerful.
Neff frames this in modern garb talking about how the Magnificat was a blunt criticism of the one percent to borrow language from the Occupy Movement and I guess I understand that, but the song seems at times so graceless. There is not distinction between those who might be wealthy but are also caring of the poor. Nothing is ever said of leaders who are benevolent instead of hurtful. The rich and powerful are all just lumped into one catagory and soundly condemned.
Which brings to mind the nature of God. I grew up with a view of God that was one of both love and justice; a God that loved people, but wasn’t afraid to punish as well. As I got older, I was told that God wasn’t a vengeful God, but instead this wonderful God of grace that sits besides us and cries with us. People seem to believe in that God, but there always seem to be a big astrisk beside the God is love thing, because the Magnificat is asking for a God that will execute justice and Mary doesn’t want God to show any mercy.
So is God all love with us, or does God also judge and send people to punishment?
Neff’s article brought up another point: who is rich? In his article he basically says it’s the one percent. But…I wonder, what about those of us who aren’t in the one percent but make a decent salary and have all the nice shiny things like a flatscreen tv, laptops, iPads and smartphones? Is there danger there as well, or am I off the hook?
And what about the powerful? It’s easy to talk about Roman despots, but what about someone like say, a pastor? Are we off the hook or is God gonna get me if I stumble.
The Magnificat is a wonderful text, but I think it should have more than just the one percent shaking in their books and being driven to the mercy of God. Maybe the Magnificat reminds us that God is a just God and will set things right and if any of us, be it the one percent or someone in the middle class like me, abuse the poor and powerless- well, facing God is never pretty.
Listen carefully to the words of the Magnificate. Not the poetry of the words, the beauty of the words, the loveliness of the words. Listen to the five important verbs. In the Magnificate, God tells us that God regards or respects the poor, exalts the poor, feeds the poor, helps the poor, remembers the poor. In that same chapter in Luke, we hear the story that God chose a slave girl, Mary, to be the mother of Jesus. God didn’t chose the beauty queen of Ballard; God didn’t chose a mother who was a millionaire; God didn’t chose a bride with brains. God chose a little thirteen year old girl from a fourth world country, with dark skin and dark brown eyes and dark brown hair to be the mother of Jesus. The Bible didn’t call her a handmaiden. The word, “handmaiden,” sounds so pretty. The Greek word is, “doulos,” which means slave or servant. Mary was a servant girl. God exalted a servant girl from a fourth world country to be exalted and lifted up. And this servant girl sang her song and it is called the Song of Mary. The actual words of her song are revolutionary. The Song of Mary is a revolutionary bombshell because it turns the values of this world upside down.
In the Magnificate, God totally changes the values of life. We have agreed that this is what a revolution is: it totally changes things such as the computer or the cotton gin. In Christian language, before the revolution, we were impressed with the rich. After God’s revolution, we are impressed with the poor. Before God’s revolution, we are impressed with bucks and beauty. After God’s revolution, we are impressed with paupers and poor people. The Magnificate is revolutionary stuff. Don’t get caught up in the poetry. Don’t get caught up in the music. Don’t get caught up in creative interpretations that allow you to water down or dismiss the Magnificate. Let the revolution begin in your life, and mine. This is God’s revolution in our hearts. God’s value is to respect the poor, exalt the poor, feed the poor…within our hearts and actions.
Update II: Peter Leinart tears apart our beloved Christmas hymns and yes, it has something to do with the Magnificat. Merry Christmas!