Saturday, December 22, 2018

Advent Reflections: The Magnificat

And Mary said, 

"My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. 

"For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for he who is mighty has done great things for me, 
and holy is his name. 
And his mercy is for those who fear him 
from generation to generation.

"He has shown strength with his arm; 
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones 
and exalted those of humble estate; 
he has filled the hungry with good things, 
and the rich he has sent away empty. 

"He has helped his servant Israel, 
in remembrance of his mercy, 
as he spoke to our fathers, 
to Abraham and to his offspring forever."

~ Luke 1:46-55

Ben Wildflower.
Today's lectionary has Mary reciting the Magnificat, the longest passage spoken by a woman in the New Testament, and a manifesto of Christian values so revolutionary that its public recitation has been banned more than once over the years. Such is the case when the everyday people threaten the privilege of the powerful. And that is precisely what Christ came to do.

Yet a recent Washington Post article cited an unscientific Twitter poll showing that a vast majority of evangelical Christians -- 71%! -- either had never heard of the Magnificat, or their churches never read or discussed it. A further 21% said they'd come across it only a few times.

That's 92% who either have never heard the text or barely ever encountered it.

And that, in a nutshell, explains so very, very much about the state of evangelical American Christianity.

The Gospel of Jesus is a social gospel. He came to establish a kingdom of love that enshrined justice and equality. Being born into a world that was occupied by powerful foreign oppressors, he saw the plight of his people. And being born into the humblest of families in the humblest of circumstances, he became their voice, their advocate.

But he didn't bring the message that many expected. They expected a leader who would organize a violent revolution and take back their land for their own. Instead, he taught a gospel of loving and praying for those who persecuted them. Rather than stooping to their level and meeting violence with violence, he called on his followers to end the cycle of violence. More than that, he urged his followers to be so kind and generous to their oppressors as to bring shame upon them. If someone sues you for your coat, give him your cloak as well, and stand naked before him in court. If a solider conscripts you to carry his belongings for him for a mile, insist that you go two miles and expose the injustice of the request. As Paul put it, echoing Proverbs, by doing so you heap burning coals on their heads.

Thus can we see that Jesus did not teach a gospel of passivity in the face of the evil his people faced. It's often said that the nonviolence he preached isn't realistic for this world, in that we simply must meet violence with violence. But when Jesus said to turn the other cheek to the one who strikes you, he wasn't telling people to simply sit there and take the abuse. Just as when he told his followers to expose the injustice of their oppressors by doubling down on what they asked, so here he is exposing the hollowness of the violence that systems of power use to control the people. Rather than cower away after being struck, you stand up, brush yourself off, look your attacker square in the eye, and let him know that there's nothing he can do to take away your humanity.

In that sense, the nonresistance Jesus teaches is quite radical. It challenges systems of power both by refusing to meet their violence with your own violence and by showing them that they can't use their violence to control you.

That is what made Jesus so dangerous to those in power. He taught a gospel that, if followed, would render the common people unable to be controlled through coercion and violence, the only means that systems of power know. To meet their iron fist with love would confound them. To not passively cooperate when they demanded it of you would not compute. Gandhi understood this. Martin Luther King Jr. understood it. And before they paid with their lives, they changed the world for the better.

It's for this reason that Christian anarchist and activist Ammon Hennacy once said:
Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. Therefore one with love, courage, and wisdom is one in a million who moves the world, as with Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi.
Yet somehow this revolutionary message has been lost, as Christianity has been turned into a system of using select quotes to condemn and other the very outcasts Jesus embraced, a system that seeks the very kind of temporal power Jesus rejected, a hollow philosophy that eviscerates the Sermon on the Mount and reduces Jesus to a ticket to heaven.

Couple that with the fact that most Protestant Christians are allergic to Mary, and it's no wonder the Magnificat is forgotten. An evangelical once told me she didn't even know what the Beatitudes were, and if practicing Christians don't even know something that basic and essential about Christ's teachings, it's clear that the Magnificat doesn't stand a chance.

There's also the obvious fact that the Magnificat shows a woman preaching a powerful message, which to some simply gives too much agency to women. Far too many corners of the church would rather cite Paul's insistence that women remain silent than to point out that Jesus was an absolute radical for treating women as equals in a time when they were no more than the property of their fathers or husbands.

He has brought down the mighty from their thrones 
and exalted those of humble estate; 
he has filled the hungry with good things, 
and the rich he has sent away empty.

That is the essence of the upside-down kingdom of God that Jesus brought to the world. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. And it was Jesus' mother, whom all generations shall call blessed, who first proclaimed it.

It's an astoundingly powerful statement from a woman so often portrayed as silent, passive, obedient -- at times no more than a human flowerpot. For although Mary was fair and humble, she was also extraordinarily courageous and strong. To be told at age 14 or 15 that you're going to bear the human incarnation of the God of the universe? And that this pregnancy could cost you your marriage, your social standing, even your life? And then to journey for miles while ready to give birth, and to give birth surrounded by farm animals in a stable? To be told by a prophet that both you and your child will suffer? To lose your young boy in the city and you have to go back and find him? And, finally, after apparently being widowed, to have to watch your son die a horrible and gruesome death before your eyes?

This woman is as tough as nails. Beautiful and gentle, certainly, but also our bad-ass Queen of Heaven. The Magnificat, a sneak preview of what's to come in her son's life, is all the evidence you could need.

No comments:

Post a Comment