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Micah 5:2-5a * (Magnificat) Luke 1:46b-55 * Hebrews 10:5-10 * Luke 1:39-45
I’ve been rereading The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd – have you read it or seen the movie? There are a lot of connections with Mother Mary, but it’s a Black Madonna image in the 1960’s in the Deep South of all places! Bishop Anna’s recent two-minute sermon also focuses on seeing Mary as “most certainly not white” and on the powerful message of the Magnificat that we heard as our psalm/canticle today – with Mary singing about how God is scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty.
With today’s Advent theme of Love, we might wonder what to do with the radical or revolutionary language of the Magnificat. As one Facebook meme put it: “Every discussion of ‘biblical womanhood’ should include the fact that in Luke 1, two pregnant women celebrate their new motherhood by passionately discussing the coming overthrow of every earthly empire.” (Kaitlyn Schiess). This also resonates with a central idea from Bell Hooks, the great American author who died last week (and I quote): “Love is profoundly political. Our deepest revolution will come when we understand this truth.” What does that mean – that love is ‘profoundly political’?
If you find yourself feeling quite uncomfortable with that idea, don’t be surprised. As Bishop Anna says: it’s so counter-cultural. It’s so seemingly against the kind of ‘Christmas Love’ culture that’s been ingrained in us for centuries or millennia – during which time the Christian churches often taught that Mary was the perfect model of a meek, mild and submissive woman who simply accepted her scary and dangerous fate – as an unmarried pregnant teenager in first century Palestine – accepted it without complaint. It’s only a few decades ago that I remember a big fuss being made about the fact that Mary understood the angel’s message as an invitation, since she replied with what later became a famous Beatles line ‘Let it Be’ – who knows, they may have helped to bring about the shift in focus onto the fact that Mary had a choice! And she decided to say yes. In our NRSV version, she responds to Angel Gabriel with these words: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
In William Barclay’s gospel commentary on Luke – originally published in 1953 – he refers to the Magnificat as the most revolutionary document in the world and says that it speaks of three revolutions of God (p.19-20 WJK edition 2001). Firstly it’s a moral revolution as it scatters the proud in the plans of their hearts. Christianity is ideally the death of pride. Logically following that, the second is a social revolution – God casts down the mighty and exalts the humble. “Christianity puts an end to the world’s labels and prestige.” And thirdly Barclay speaks of an economic revolution promoted by Mary’s Magnificat: ‘He has filled those who are hungry – those who are rich he has sent away.’ Barclay also adds this clarification: “A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where people are out for as much as they can get. A Christian society is a society where no one dares to have too much while others have too little”. Imagine that!! I had not realized that Barclay himself could be so revolutionary, and I’m grateful to one of our excellent Bible Study folks for pointing this out to me. Here’s how Barclay ends his commentary on the Magnificat: “There is loveliness in the Magnificat, but in that loveliness there is dynamite. Christianity brings about a revolution in individuals and revolution in the world.” Preach it, Brother Barclay – well done indeed!
Our first reading today, from Micah chapter 5, is used as another looking backwards kind of prophecy for the coming of Christ – another example of Christians using the Hebrew Bible for their own intents and purposes. The biblical book of Micah was written about 500 years before Christ, but in the following chapter, chapter 6 v 8, we hear a message that also resonates with Mary’s Magnificat: “God has told you, o Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
When we celebrate the Incarnation – the coming of God to earth through Jesus – we acknowledge that Jesus came partly to remind people about the central aspects of God’s desires for us – to restore justice over injustice, to walk humbly with kindness or compassion – these are perfect examples of how Jesus’ humility, compassionate kindness and justice-seeking on earth harked back to what the ancient Hebrews already knew as a good path. It’s the path of that kind of profoundly political love that follows the golden rule of wanting as much good for others as we want for ourselves and for our own people. So, in that sense the message of the Magnificat is not revolutionary, but it’s been well observed throughout Christian history that approximately every 500 years many people in many religions and cultures – lose that focus on humility and compassion – and give in to ego-driven ways that flourish when materialism holds sway.
Bishop Anna’s last two-minute sermon ends with this wish and prayer: “And so this year like me I invite you to do your best to have a Magnificat Christmas, to see what you might be called to let go of, how you might need to be scattered in the thoughts of your hearts, so that God can break in.” Amen.