And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
( Luke 1:46-56 )
When I was living in Rwanda, the Presbyterian students of the seminary where I taught led a regular Sunday worship service for themselves and the local community. One of the leaders was a young woman who was a Presbyterian nun. (In Belgium there is an order of Presbyterian nuns; and Rwanda, being a former Belgium colony, also has a fairly strong order of Presbyterian nuns.) Soeur Droska was a very quiet diminutive person who rarely spoke unless spoken to, but she loved to play the drums. In Rwandan services there is often a keyboard if electricity is available, but there are always drums. Theirs are not drums like ours; rather, they are traditional drums, a wooden shell covered with stretched leather.
One day during the worship service Sr. Droska was playing the drums in a rather uninspired way, and she continued to play as the congregation was leaving the sanctuary. But then she suddenly let herself go. People stopped, heads turned, and smiles appeared on many faces as Sr. Droska treated us all to a spirited solo drum finale. I then realized that there was more going on inside of Sr. Droska than I had previously recognized.
When we think of Mary the Mother of Jesus, perhaps we think of her in the same way that I had thought of Sr. Droska – quiet, mild, docile, submissive. This is the woman to whom the angel Gabriel appeared, saying that she was going to give birth to a baby who would be called “Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom would never end.” Moreover, this would be a virgin birth, for the Holy Spirit would come down upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, so that her son would be called the Son of God. What was Mary’s response to all this? She said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” There’s the meek, submissive Mary that we all know.
But perhaps our view of Mary is too colored by the mythical Virgin Mary of medieval piety. In Luke’s narrative, Mary challenges the angel’s message on the level of realism: “What do you mean I’m going to give birth? I’m not married and I’m still a virgin. Get serious.” And in the entire account with the Angel Mary never falters. She’s resigned, but not wimpy.
In addition to having a peasant’s realism, she also seems to have had a peasant’s toughness. When you consider Jesus’ birth narrative in Luke’s Gospel, it seems pretty clear that Mary could handle whatever was thrown at her – she was a survivor. She endures all the withering looks of her family and neighbors when she is seen to be pregnant out of wedlock. When the pregnancy is about to come to term, the tax man suddenly strikes. At this worst possible moment, Mary takes off with Joseph on a fifty-mile journey, riding on a donkey over rough hilly country. When they arrive they are given a room, which Luke refers to as the kataluma – not a stable but a room for animals. In effect, she got the worst room in the house. And then when things could not seem to have been worse, her contractions begin. So Mary knew poverty, hardship, and the unpleasantness and stinginess of small-minded people.
She also seems to have had the peasant’s typical large family. Mark gives the names of Jesus’ four brothers – James, Joseph, Judas and Simon – and he mentions the existence of sisters (Mk 3:21). So Mary had at least seven children. Jesus later used the analogy of childbirth to make the point to his disciples that suffering often comes before joy. He said: “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world” (Jn16:21). Perhaps Jesus was drawing on his own experience of observing his mother giving birth many times over the years.
Thomas Cahill in The Desire of the Everlasting Hills writes that Mary was probably typical of “mothers of firstborn sons who go on to do great things.” She had high expectations of her son, as we see in reading the Magnificat. She could push her son before he was ready, as we see in the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. She could express her dissatisfaction on inappropriate occasions, as when she set off with her sons to bring Jesus home for some much needed rest when, as Mark puts it in his plain way, they thought that he had gone “out of his mind.” And Mary also stuck with Jesus to the end when everything was lost. She stood at the foot of the cross and saw her son striped naked, beaten bloody, and hanging from a crossbar. And she didn’t even demur from standing with some of her son’s more unconventional friends, like that hussy from Magdala.
Perhaps the most moving image we have of Mary is Michelangelo’s Pietà. This is his statue of Mary holding her dead son in her arms. But Michelangelo did three versions of it, and the best-known version shows Mary as a young woman when in fact she must have been at least in her mid-forties. Also, she is outsized, able to hold in her arms a full grown man. Michelangelo knew what he was doing. He was not historically accurate, but he was psychologically accurate. For the loving son, the mother will always be young and vibrant. And for the mother, the son will always be her little boy. And the statue is properly named Pietà – piety – for you cannot help but be moved to that emotion on viewing it.
Three months after Mary had her encounter with the angel Gabriel, she went to visit her relation Elizabeth. By that time she had had time to think about what was happening to her. And so, like Sr. Droska, she let loose with the magnificent, electrifying drum roll that is known as the Magnificat. The Magnificat is actually a poem. It gets its name from the fact that the first word of the poem in the Latin Vulgate Bible is Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In the more colloquial version of the NIV, she says, “My soul glorifies the Lord” – my soul gives glory to God. In Luke’s telling of the story, the poem is Mary’s spontaneous response to Elizabeth’s greeting – Elizabeth who was then six months pregnant with John the Baptist, who had leaped when Mary appeared.
I don’t know of anyone who can spontaneously produce a perfectly balanced and nuanced poem with allusions to the books of Genesis, Samuel, Job, the Psalms, Isaiah and Habakkuk. Perhaps Mary was reciting a then well-known messianic poem – this one does seem to be modeled after Hannah’s poem in First Samuel. Perhaps Mary responded with the sentiments expressed in the poem and later composed them into a poem. Or perhaps years later Mary told the story to Luke, who then put her ideas into poetic form.
The content of the poem is full of revolutionary fireworks, the pent up resentment of the poor and weak against the rich and powerful. Mary seems to have had a revolutionary soul, one akin to those of Robespierre and Che Guevara – less the violence. Why does Mary’s soul magnify the Lord? Because God has remembered his humble servant, Mary, to be sure, but also because “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” and “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” This was not a woman for whom religion was the opiate of the masses; this was a woman for whom religion supplied the ideology of class conflict and revolution. For her, Yahweh was the God who liberated his people from Egyptian slavery, who demanded justice for the widows and orphans and immigrants, who despised the self-satisfied hypocrites who gave their silver and gold but loved the humble widow who gave only a copper penny (the widow’s mite).
All of this suggests that Mary must have been profoundly disappointed as she watched her son’s career unfold. She had imagined that Jesus was going to pull down princes from their thrones. Instead Jesus talked about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and loving your enemy. As Cahill writes, “Mary, with her keen sense of retributive justice, had been counting on something with more testosterone in it” (p. 100-101). Still, humanly speaking, we should not wonder where Jesus got his piercing revolutionary insights into Jewish religion, society and politics. He got them from dear o’ mom.
In fact, the ideas that Mary presents in this poem are not unique to her. We see them throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophets. We also hear them echoed in the words of Jesus who said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” We hear them in the Apostle Paul who embraced the radical equality of all human beings, believing that in Christ there was no longer Jew or Greek, free or slave, male or female. We hear it in the social radicalness of the Apostle James, another son of Mary, who compared the rich to a flower: “The sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business” (James 1:11). We hear it in the prophet John who referred to Rome, the richest city of the day, as Babylon, “the great prostitute … drunk with the blood of the saints …” who made the merchants and sea captains wealthy but who in one hour will be brought to ruin.
When we think of Greco-Roman civilization, we may tend to romanticize it: “The glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome.” We would do well to remember that the civilization that Christianity was born into was a brutal one. Two-thirds of the population was slaves. Defeated enemies forfeited their lives and property; often the men were murdered and the women enslaved. Women generally had no rights at all. Physical labor was despised. Human beings who were not elites had no intrinsic value.
Over the long centuries Christianity not only reformed but slowly transformed Western civilization. Family and marriage were emphasized – the marriage contract even being elevated into a sacrament of the church. Respect for all people was enjoined, issuing ultimately in the rule of law in which no person is above the law. A new kind of leadership was advocated, servant leadership. No longer were leaders to assume an arrogant hostile attitude toward the ruled; now they were to be servants of the people. Compassion for the needy became the order of the day, with Christians providing for the poor and being the first ones to build hospitals. War was made less brutal by the development of Just War polices that forbade the torture of prisoners, enslavement of the vanquished, aggressive war, and disproportionate responses. The belief in the moral equality of all human beings ultimately produced democratic government, the abolition of slavery, the equality of the sexes, freedom of conscience, and a declaration of universal human rights.
More than two centuries ago Thomas Jefferson could write that “all men [people] are created equal,” and he could claim that this was a self-evident truth. But aside from Christian teaching, is it really self evident? Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian, but he was an heir of the Christian tradition, and he knew that he was writing for a Christian audience for whom the doctrine of human equality would be a self-evident truth. It is impossible to imagine the Enlightenment or American democratic society emerging from anything but a Christian culture. And no where has it emerged except by Christian influence. And today wherever the sacredness and dignity of human life are threatened, from the womb to the tomb, you can be sure that Christians are present to remind the world that all human life is sacred because it is made in the image of God.
The Post-Christian World
Though Christianity is now fading in the West, in America Christians continue to be a substantial and influential minority, and we continue to enjoy the lingering effects of our Christian heritage. But how much longer will those effects last? I ask again, Is there really any convincing rationale for human equality and respect for life aside from God? The 19th century philosopher of atheism Fredrick Nietzsche wrote that the death of God would be the end of all traditional values. If values no longer came from God, he believed, they would come from human beings. In his Darwinian view, the weak would be crushed and the strong would assert all the unfettered desires of their passions. They would assert, as he put it, the “will to power.” Dostoevsky put it more simply, “If God is not, everything is permitted” (D’souza, 221).
What might such a post-Christian world look like? Perhaps we can glimpse it in atheist Holland where drugs, prostitution and euthanasia are all legal. Perhaps we can see it in atheist Russia where abortions now exceed births by two to one, and the population is declining by more than 700 thousand a year. Perhaps we can see it in certain regions of China and India that continue to practice female infanticide, with a resulting disparity in the male/female ratio in the population of from 10 to 15 percent.
Western Christian civilization, for all of its glaring faults, has come nearer to the goal of protecting human rights than any other civilization that the world has ever seen. Without Christianity, the long-term prospects for the dignity of human life on this planet are not very good.
Two thousand years ago a peasant girl dreamed of a world in which poor and humble human beings would live in a society in which their rights and interests would be fully realized. She attributed this to God, and she praised him for it: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary’s dream is one important part of the hope of Christmas. It is the powerful, dramatic, revolutionary drum beat to which Christians at their best have marched in every age and will continue to march. It is at the heart of the gospel message of Jesus Christ. And now that it is threatened as never before, now that that drum beat is growing fainter in many parts of the world that were formerly Christian, perhaps we will cherish it more than ever this Christmas season.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Michael Parker at the United Parish of Bowie.
© 2008 Michael T. Parker