by James F. Kay
James F. Kay teaches homiletics and liturgies at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is coeditor (with Jane Dempsey Douglass) of Women, Gender, and Christian Community (Westminster John Knox).
This article appeared in the Christian Century, Dec. 10, 1997, p. 1157, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Mary’s song sticks in our throats. But perhaps it can become our song.
That Luke fashioned or preserved traditions regarding Mary was inspired, considering how infrequently she otherwise appears in the New Testament outside of John. Mark, of course, skips the birth of Jesus altogether, and Mark’s Jesus seems indifferent to his mother when she shows up with his brothers in chapter three. As for Matthew, his Mary is mute. Not a word leaves her lips. She is present, but silent as the night in a certain beloved carol. For his part, Paul thinks it worth remarking that God’s Son was "born of a woman," but he never bothers to mention her name. But Luke remembers her name, and his Mary does not keep silence in our churches -- at least, in this year’s Advent lection. Luke’s Mary has something, and Someone, to sing about.
In Mary’s song, the magnificent Magnificat, she tells of her Savior who has "looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant." Lowliness. The Greek behind our English word is not talking simply about humility, but about poverty. Mary is poor -- dirt poor. She is poor and pregnant and unmarried. She is in a mess. But she sings! Why? Because Luke knows -- from the vantage of the end -- that this lowly one, this wretched one, this woman, God raises up. Mary, despised and rejected, is favored by God and will bring the Messiah to birth. And so, she sings.
What is more, Mary sings not just a solo aria about her own destiny, but a freedom song on behalf of all the faithful poor in the land. She sings a song of freedom for all who, in their poverty and their wretchedness, still believe that God will make a way where there is no way. Like John the Baptist, Mary prophesies deliverance; she prophesies about a way that is coming in the wilderness of injustice. She sings of a God who "has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts"; who "has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly"; who "has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." She exults in the God of Abraham; she exalts the God of Jesus Christ. Here at the beginning, Mary rejoices in God’s destiny -- for her, and for a world turned upside down.
Can we sing Mary’s song? Could it break out this Advent along the Washington Beltway? On the Mainline? In Mann County? In Princeton, New Jersey? In the Silicon Valley? Or on La Quinta’s greens or Telluride’s slopes? Or will the Magnificat truly be sung only in the barrios and the ghettos, in Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta? Guess it depends on which choir you sing with.
For those of us sitting pretty at the top of the world’s economic pyramid, venturing out from the safety of gated communities, growling with basso profundo on our full stomachs to any in need who might get in our way, Mary’s song sticks in our throats. It sure sticks in mine. I am not in a very good position to sing with Mary.
By the world’s standards, I am so rich, so comfortable and so healthy, I can even fool myself into thinking I do not need God -- certainly not Mary’s God! I am just not that needy, or so I think. But Mary just keeps singing, ranging high on her scales of praise, soaring in her expectant and revolutionary libretto, because God has reached so unexpectedly down to where the least and the lowly still struggle for life.
Can Mary’s God truly be our Lord and our God -- the God who overturns the way the world works, who elects the least and the last to bring in the kingdom, whose judgment in every sense will save the poor, the wronged and the oppressed? Can the God who is going to knock the powerful off their peacock thrones, their stock exchange seats, their professional chairs, and their benches of judgment really be our God? Can we really praise this God -- Mary’s God?
In all honesty I am not sure. The Advent gospel is more pointed than our Christmas carols. So pointed it sticks in my throat. If I am going to sing with Mary, I will need her help. She will have to take the lead. But if Mary and her God can have one Sunday a year, her singing may be a sign that the Holy Spirit who visited Nazareth so long ago is not yet finished with us. Perhaps the Holy Spirit, given in the baptism we so trivialize, might yet convict even us, so high and so lifted up, so vain and so proud, and so shriveled in our humanity. How far we are from the kingdom!
And yet, here is hope -- even for the likes of us. If Mary sings this Advent, perhaps we will finally know that every song of the future apart from hers is simply off key. Every future projected apart from Mary’s God has no future --it is doomed, and it is damned. But if Mary’s song is the Advent song, then her God has a future, and her God will bring us the future. And this is the point of Advent -- indeed, this is the turning point -- not only for Mary, but for us all.
So sing it again, Mary. Sing to us of your God. Sing on, Mary, sing on, till your song at last becomes ours. Sing, till all the world hears you and makes your lines its own. And when your Son returns with his angels in power, may we join them and you and the whole company of heaven in singing, "Glory to God in the highest!" Glory to the God of Mary, the woman whose freeing Son, and whose freedom song, will yet be our own.