The Nativity is a longstanding symbol of the Advent and Christmas Seasons depicting the holy family gathered together on that blessed night. As we view the scene of the Nativity, our attention is of course drawn to Jesus, the new born babe. Yet, we cannot help but give some attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and ponder what thoughts were in her mind that night.
Although Mary is a central figure in Christian history, she is perhaps one of its most enigmatic figures. Much of the problem in our not knowing Mary more fully is that the biblical texts do not offer us a lot of insight into Mary’s life, particularly after Jesus’ childhood. This has given rise to various understandings about Mary, most notably differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant views of her.
We know that the Roman Catholic Church teaches Mary to be in a perpetual state of virginity; which says a little something about some wrongheaded views about Mary’s position. Yes, Roman Catholics hold her in high esteem, but more for her supposed virginity than anything else.
And, we Protestants are no better when it comes to Mary. Instead of holding her in high esteem as the Roman Catholics do, we sort of push her aside. Oh, we celebrate her as the mother of Jesus, but that it is about it. For many Christians, Mary may simply be the incubator of the baby Jesus.
Yet, while Mary remains a mystery to us, beyond her giving birth to Jesus, there is one piece of biblical material that offers us insight into the kind of person Mary may have been. The song of Mary, or as it is known by its Latin title, the Magnificat, is found in Luke 1:46-55, and may give us enough material to help us understand her and her impact on Christianity.
From an historical critical viewpoint, we must admit that Mary may not have actually sung these words. It is probably the case that the author of this Gospel created this poem and placed it on the lips of Mary. However, this does not mean that Mary would not have sung such a song. Indeed, by placing this song on Mary’s lips, the author of Luke’s Gospel may have understood that such a poem fits Mary’s perspective on the birth of her son.
But beyond these historical issues, we are left with this narrative character singing a song that is very personal; expressing her joy for what God was doing in her life. It is a song that comes from deep within her as she responds to the mighty promises of God. It is a song she sings as a result of her hope in what God is doing both in her and through her. Indeed, it is because of the joy that wells inside her that she cannot help but sing this song.
But at the same time that Mary’s song is a song of personal spiritual fulfillment and hope in the promises of God, it is also a very revolutionary song. It is a political song. It is a song about social justice. It is a song about the redistribution of power and wealth. It is, in fact, a politically dangerous song for Mary to sing at her time and at her place in life.
She is a young peasant female who sings as an unlikely and unauthorized prophet, declaring the coming of God. Outside the religious power structures of formal Judaism, this young peasant female sings a song that is a radical shift from the religious messages of her day, and her vision of God is starkly different from that held by the religious establishment.
Her vision of God shaped her understanding that God was turning upside down the normal power structures of her society. Her song announced that the proud and powerful would be cast down from their high places, and the lowly would be lifted up. The hungry would be fed, and the rich would have nothing. She understood that God was coming to alter the economics of her world by redistributing wealth and by overturning the normal politics of her world that were based on status.
This may give us some insight into the kind of person Mary really was. For her to sing a song that is so dangerous and so subversive, and one that is focused on justice for the poor and oppressed of her time, meant that she hungered for justice not just for herself, but for all her people. She witnessed daily the pain and struggle of the marginalized and oppressed poor around her, and she found in God’s visitation of her a sense of hope that things were moving toward God’s justice and peace.
Mary may have understood, however, that it would be through the good acts done by God’s people that the values of her society would radically shift. In other words, because she knew that she and her community could not directly challenge the religious authorities or the Roman powers, she instead believed that through radical living by doing good to those around them, God’s justice would prevail. It would be through living out the ethics of the rule of God in living together as a faithful community that God would reverse the values that shaped her secular society.
Does this sound familiar to you? It should. For what we find buried in Mary’s song is the message of her son, Jesus. Though I have no strong evidence for this, I believe that more than any other person who shaped Jesus’ central message of justice for the poor and freedom for the oppressed, it was Mary’s world view that had the greatest impact on him.
Although we might piously think that Jesus came into the world programmed to know what God desired, I suggest that Mary shaped his way of thinking about God and the world more than any other source. Given what we find in Mary’s song, we cannot help but consider her impact on his thinking, his message, and his actions.
But all of this raises a significant question for us this Christmas Season. While we sing the popular carols of Christmas, do we dare to sing Mary’s song? And if we chose to sing Mary’s song, can we envision and enact a new economy that embodies simplicity and generosity, and a new culture that is characterized by welcoming strangers and loving our neighbors and our enemies?
How would singing Mary’s song alter our American values so that we would instead embrace the values of God and of God’s son Jesus?
Mary’s song is not just her song, and she should not sing it alone. It is a song followers of Jesus are to sing throughout all generations. But we cannot just sing this song, and continue to pay lip service to God. It is a song we are called to live in defiance of the norms of our culture until God’s revolutionary hope for the world is fulfilled.