In Bethlehem the Christmas we all know and love is happening. It involves a baby, a manger, Joseph, Mary, angels, a bright and shining star and lowly shepherds. This is the Christmas we celebrate in school plays and the one we think about as we decorate the tree and hang our stockings on the chimney with care. It’s the sights and sounds of this Christmas that feels so good as we walk through Busch Garden’s Christmas in lights or stroll about Colonial Williamsburg the night of Grand Illumination.
We love Christmas. The reality, what we love most about Christmas is only a part of the story. Matthew and Luke do not want to us to miss the larger story of Christmas.
The gospel writers Matthew and Luke tell us that Christmas includes a crazy king who rules over Jerusalem. He has privilege with Rome, position in Jerusalem, and power over the Jews. He goes by the name of Herod the Great. Like all people of privilege, position and power, his most pressing concern is keeping it. Herod the Great wants nothing less than to remain great.
Christmas is also about a young unmarried peasant girl named Mary who receives a word from a heavenly messenger that she would give birth to the long awaited King of Israel promised by the prophets. It’s a song she sings in contemplation and celebration, in protest and prophecy; we call it Mary’s Magnificat. It’s the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament. It’s a revolutionary song so politically charged that centuries later it would be banned in various forms by different governments, three just within the past century.
Around 1857, the British in India, under the East India Company, banned the Magnificat from being sung in monasteries. Getting the natives stirred up with ideas of the hungry being fed, the poor lifted up and the rich and powerful overthrown and sent away empty might not go well for the British. It is also written that in the 1980s, Guatemala’s government discovered Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor to be dangerous and revolutionary. The song could inspire Guatemala’s impoverished people. Additionally, Argentina’s militia outlawed any public display of Mary’s song when after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children all disappeared during the “Dirty War” (1976-1983), placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the plaza of the Capitol. It goes like this:
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.”
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song. Before being executed by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer spoke these words in a sermon during Advent in 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 paint- ings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here….. This song…..is a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth”
Dr. Scot McKnight has suggested that Mary’s Magnificat was to oppressed Jews what “We Shall Overcome” was for oppressed black men and women during the Civil Rights.
The Magnificat is a song about how God will bring down all earthly kingdoms, from sea to shining sea and from Princes to Presidents. Only one kingdom will stand forever. Mary sings about how God will scatter the prideful and powerful and side with the poor, filling them with good things. Her Magnificat is not a nursery rhyme for a baby but a war cry for a Savior-King. It was a prophetic song about what God will do in the Advent of Jesus, as if He had already done them in the past. God’s love, justice and righteousness is working itself out before our very eyes because the King has come and is coming again.
Join Mary in her song and wait in hope. The King has come and is coming again.
(The next post will come Wednesday.)