‘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; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ – Luke 1
It’s remarkable how easily we disguise the Christmas story with sentimentality. We even hear much talk about how Jesus ‘is the reason for the season,’ yet the reason for his coming is never precisely explained. When we allow ourselves to be vague and even sentimental about Jesus’ coming, we inadvertently allow Christmas to get abstracted away from Jesus’ life, teaching and death. What does Christmas then have to do with the rest of the Gospel? Or is it, as it seems to many, just an origins story designed to satisfy our curiosity or prove the fulfillment of prophecy?
How odd that we should be so uncertain about the reasons for his coming when his mother Mary immediately speaks quite explicitly about what Gabriel’s news means.
Actually she sings.
In the Torah God had mandated that every seventh year would be a sabbath year in the life of Israel. Fields would lie fallow, witnessing to Israel’s faith that God would provide their sustenance. Every 50 years would be a Jubilee year. Not only would fields lie fallow, debts would be forgiven. Land seized or transferred by creditors would be returned. Captives (to debt, indentured servants) would be freed. Wealth and resources would be redistributed so that everyone would be filled and fed. Though Jubilee is given by God to Moses as part of the covenant there is little evidence Israel ever observed the law. Too much stood to be lost by the wealthy, the elite, the comfortable, the powerful for Jubilee to be taken seriously.
Towards the first century Israel’s longing for a Messiah eventually became joined to the longing for someone who would institute the Jubilee.
Mary’s song is a song of Jubilee.
As confused as we can sound about the purpose behind Jesus’ coming Mary knows in an instant how to interpret Gabriel’s news. The one she will bear will be the one to bring Jubilee to her people. Even though we often reduce Jesus to being an object of our personal piety, Mary, who perhaps has more cause than anyone to reduce Jesus to personal terms, understands that her boy’s birth will have much larger implications.
A few lessons we can draw from Mary’s song of Jubilee:
That Mary magnificates- literally ‘bursts forth’- with these particular words should tell us something about Mary’s faith and the hope to which she clinged. No passive, pastel or one-dimensional character, Mary is someone who obviously longed for God to set things right in a broken world. Her faith was active and strong so that, when the moment presented itself, she already had the words within her to respond.
That Mary sings this song while Herod and Caesar are still very much on the throne tells us something of her courage. In the face of the world’s power, she boldly casts her lot with the newness God was about to wreak. We’re so accustomed to seeing Mary painted with stoic, beatific hues we forget how really she was a woman ready to shake her fist at the powers of the world and call upon God’s power.
That Mary sings this Jubilee song not in the future tense (God will cast down the mighty…) but in the past tense (God has cast down…) should tell us something even deeper about Mary’s faith. Despite the unlikelihood of a Messiah being born to a poor, unknown, teenage girl, despite the long odds that Jubilee would ever be accepted by the people- in spite of everything common sense might suggest, Mary is confident in God’s promises enough to sing as though God already accomplished them. Mary knows that any promise of God is as good as done.
That Jesus’ very first sermon in the synagogue is also from a Jubilee text is suggestive. Mary’s boy grows up to express the reason for his coming in exactly the same terms Mary sings about here. Not only is she a woman of obvious faith, which we seldom acknowledge, she also has a hand in forming the faith of Jesus, which we never acknowledge.
Interestingly, in the 1980‘s, the dictatorial regime of Rios Mott banned any public reading of Mary’s song in Guatemala. Mary was deemed politically subversive.
Maybe more than anything, this week I hope we will hear Mary’s song with Guatemala in mind and, in particular, I hope we will hear her words mindful of the people we serve this week. I hope this week will give us faces, names and places to picture the next time we hear Mary singing about God using her son to turn the tables on injustice and poverty.