The Subversive Magnificat

In Luke 1:46-55 we read Mary’s song of praise to God.  It has come to be known as Mary’s Magnificat due to the first word of its Latin translation: Magnificat anima mea Dominum.  Or as we tend to render that first line in English: My soul magnifies the Lord.

Seldom Known Facts About The Magnificat:
If you’ve grown up actively involved in a church community, you’re probably quite familiar with Mary’s Magnificat.  But even if that’s the case, there are many surprising insights to be gleaned from this song.  For example, did you know that:

  • The Magnificat has been part of the Church’s liturgy since its earliest days.
  • For centuries, members of religious orders have recited or sung these words on a daily basis.
  • It is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament.
  • It is also the first Christmas carol ever composed.
  • Parts of Mary’s Magnificat echo the song of Hannah (found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10) and are also reminiscent of the anguish of the prophets.
  • In the past century, there were at least three separate instances of governments banning the public recitation of the Magnificat.  Its message, they feared, was too subversive.  More on this later.

The Context:
Mary’s song flows unpremeditated from her heart.  Her words are her spontaneous response upon being pronounced as blessed by her relative Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist.

But that’s just the immediate setting in which we find Mary’s song.  We would be wise to also keep in mind the larger context in which Mary spoke these words.  It was a time of great uncertainty, for Mary faced a bleak future.  Back then, when an unwed teenage peasant girl was found pregnant it usually resulted in devastating retribution from the community.  Matthew’s gospel account informs us that Joseph, the man Mary was betrothed to marry, was planning to quietly call off the wedding.  His discreetness was his attempt to protect Mary from public humiliation and social ostracism.  According to Jewish law, Mary faced the very real threat of being stoned as an adulteress.

Thus, in the words of Rev. Carolyn Sharp, “Don’t envision Mary as the radiant woman peacefully composing the Magnificat.”  Instead see her as “a girl who sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future.”  When we do this, Rev. Sharp goes on to say, “Mary’s courageous song of praise [becomes] a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy amid the suffering and conflicts of real life.”[i]

The Banning of Mary’s Magnificat:
Frequently throughout history, people on the margins have identified with this powerful poem and been inspired to believe that God can actually bring liberation to their plight.  In fact, in the past century at least three different countries have banned the public recitation of Mary’s Magnificat.  These governments considered the song’s message to be dangerously subversive.

During the British rule of India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church. In the 1980s, Guatemala’s government discovered Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor to be too dangerous and revolutionary. The song had been creating quite the stirring amongst Guatemala’s impoverished masses.  Mary’s words were inspiring the Guatemalan poor to believe that change was indeed possible.  Thus their government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words. Similarly, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War—placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer recognized the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.  Before being executed by the Nazis, Bonheoffer spoke these words in a sermon during Advent 1933:

“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

Hearing Afresh Mary’s Message:
Normally when we read or listen to Mary’s Magnificat, we’re tempted to soften its message and spiritualize its meaning.  But I’d like for us to read Mary’s song afresh, as if for the first time.  As we do so, let’s be asking why so many have understood Mary’s message to be subversive and revolutionary.  But beyond considering other people’s interpretations, let’s be attempting to discover what Mary meant by her words.  What sorts of things did Mary expect God to do through His Anointed One.  In other words, what did Mary expect the long-awaited messiah to be like?  What did she see as the messiah’s mission on earth?  What sorts of things did Mary anticipate He would accomplish?

Luke 1:46-55
“And Mary said:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
For the Mighty One has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
From generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
But has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
But has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
Remembering to be merciful to Abraham
And his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.’”

Wondrous Reversals:
The Messiah that Mary anticipated is referred to as the Mighty One who topples rulers, scatters the proud, and sends the rich away empty-handed. However, He also is mindful of the lowly, exalts the humble, fills the hungry with good things, and helps His servant Israel.

In other words, Mary anticipates that the Messiah will bring about “wondrous reversals” in the world, to borrow Rev. Carolyn Sharp’s phrase.  Mary envisions God’s anointed one upsetting the status quo by turning virtually everything upside down.  He is one who inverts human structures and values.  After all, God chose for Him to be born of a “lowly servant girl” instead of a woman of prominence.

Now, Mary’s words were inspired by God. So, I do not doubt their accuracy.  However, I suspect Mary could only guess at how Jesus would fulfill the things she prophesied about Him.  How would the coming Messiah topple rulers and scatter the proud?  By what means?  Mary refers to the Messiah as the “Mighty One”.  Did she expect the Messiah would use His might and divine power to forcefully remove rulers from their positions of power?  And when Mary says that the coming Messiah would help Israel and extend mercy to them, did she realize that His mercy and salvation would extend beyond her own people?  It seems doubtful.  After all, did Mary even want the Messiah to offer mercy to other nations, which included her people’s occupiers?

Behold! Herod. King of the Jews:
Soon after reciting her now famous Magnificat, the Romans required Mary to walk seventy miles while pregnant with a full-term baby to the small rural town of Bethlehem.  Recent archeological findings reveal that Bethlehem was home to no more than 200-300 inhabitants at this time.   Small indeed.  Soon after arriving in Bethlehem (or perhaps even while they were still traveling), Mary began to experience the pains of labor.  There in this insignificant rural village, Mary would be homeless while giving birth to her first child.

The Subversive Magnificat 1

That much you’re probably already familiar with, but here’s something you might not have heard before: Looking southeast from the stable or cave in which Jesus lay in a meager feeding trough, Mary would have seen Herod the Great’s majestic palatial resort which was known as Herodium.  It was, and still is, an impossible site to miss from any part of Bethlehem.  For you see, Herodium sits atop a manmade mountain nearly twenty-five hundred feet high.  At the time, it was the largest palatial complex in the Roman world.  As you looked up from Bethlehem, the lights shining down from Herod’s resort dominated the night sky.

So picture this with me, if you will: There sits Mary, attempting to recover from the long trip to Bethlehem and the stressful conditions in which she gave birth to Jesus.  As she stared up at the night sky and undoubtedly saw Herod’s luxurious resort, what thoughts do you think entered her mind?

Obviously she would have been thinking about her newborn Son.  That much is a given.  But as she did, I wonder if she pondered the irony of the situation she found herself in (after all, we all know she was prone to pondering).  Mary knew her Son was the only person deserving of the title “King of the Jews”, yet the reality is, the Romans had appointed Herod “King of the Jews”.  While the true king lay helpless beside his almost equally helpless parents, the imposter king lorded his might over them (quite literally).  And let us not forget that soon after the Messiah’s birth, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee with Jesus and become refugees in Egypt while Herod ordered half of Jesus’ playmates in Bethlehem to be killed.

Given these circumstances, it is easy to envision Mary praying for God to bring vengeance upon Herod and the entire political establishment that he represented.  I wonder if on that first Christmas night Mary found herself praying once again, like she had months before in her Magnificat, for God to topple rulers like Herod from their thrones of power and domination.

When we couple the effect these events would have had on Mary with the obvious meaning of the Magnificat’s words, it seems safe to conclude that Mary did not want the Messiah to offer mercy and salvation to the Romans.  In fact, it appears that Mary believed He would be the means by which God would overthrow them.  As Mary says in her song, the Messiah was to be Israel’s helper…and by that, Mary almost certainly meant, Israel’s helper alone.