'Magnificat', by Ben Wildflower (Ben Wildflower Art)
This is the rough text of a last-minute sermon, covering for a colleague who had Covid. I preached from bullet-point notes on my phone, so said more than I can remember here. But it went something like this. (The readings are from Wilda Gafney's 'Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church', Year W, Advent 3 - Judges 13:2-7, Luke 1:46-56 - with a focus on Mary's Magnificat.)
The words of Mary's Magnificat found their way into the liturgy for Evening Prayer used by countless churches across the world. You might come across them sung with perfectly enunciated syllables by professionally-trained choirs in grand cathedrals, and the chapels of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, among the rich and powerful and privileged.
The words of Mary's Magnificat were also banned from being sung in church during the British occupation of India; banned by the repressive government of Guatemala in the 1980s, when the words became a popular song among the country's poorest; and banned by the military regime in Argentina, when the words started appearing on posters around the country's capital, the work of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children had all been 'disappeared' during the country's 'Dirty War'.
Mary's song, too often domesticated by our churches and our religion, is a song of revolution, of a world turned upside-down. It is a song that should shock us, if we pay careful attention to what Mary sings.
* * *
'Here I am,' says Mary to Gabriel, 'the hand-maid of the Lord'. A word that sounds quaint and oldy-worldy; pointing us perhaps to a dignified humility. Until, that is, we encounter Margaret Atwood's novel 'The Handmaid's Tale', where the word describes the role assigned to women in a dystopian near-future, dehumanised and reduced to nothing more than biological reproductive machines. When Wilda Gafney translates the Greek word in Luke's gospel as 'womb-slave', the shock value is stirred again. And for those who have known slavery, in their own life-experience or in the experience of their ancestors, the resonances are inescapable. In saying Yes to God, Mary chooses for herself a solidarity with the enslaved and oppressed and humiliated of the world.
Mary knows humiliation, of course. She is part of a humiliated, oppressed people. And the role she has been given, and taken on, and its increasingly inescapable visibility and physicality (her filling womb, her swelling belly), and the unbelievable story that goes with it... these are the makings of social shame, of an outcast... and so when Mary sings she sings out to God her own humiliation and that of her people, their hunger and longing for freedom... and she sings out too - echoing the song of her foremother Hannah - of all the women who have gone before her, who have been demeaned and diminished, treated as property, rendered voiceless, labelled 'barren' or 'whore' or worse... Mary sings with all of them, out of the humiliation that they share...
And I'm pretty sure each of us knows something of that experience too, of being humiliated, shamed... something of what it feels like, in our bodies, minds and spirits... Mary sings with us too, out of our humiliations...
And yet, there is a boldness too in Mary's song, as she sings out her role, her calling, the world-changing vision and hope-made-real she has taken on bodily. If the Mary who sings here is a slave, then she is a slave of no one but God. God the compassionate, God in who carries in her womb the whole world (the Hebrew word for compassion and the Hebrew word for womb coming from the same root). God who is, herself, in the process of becoming human flesh and taking on the life-labour of the oppressed, the humiliated, the slave. This relationship between God and Mary, then, is nothing like any Master-slave relationship as we know it, but a partnership, a solidarity-in-fragile-flesh.
And Mary sings of a world that is about to turn, a world that is already turning. And those world-turnings are much more than a childless woman having a baby. They are the turnings of lives and a world...
- from shame to blessing
- from coercion to consent
- from exclusion to inclusion
- from powerlessness to agency
- from unheard voices to bold singing
- from hunger to being well-fed
- from oppression to freedom
- from nobodies to somebodies (the title, and this is no coincidence, of a book by our friend and teacher, the Black Theologian Professor Anthony Reddie - Mary's Magnificat is a song of racial justice too)
* * *
And pay attention to what justice looks like in Mary's song: she sings not just of the hungry fed and the lowly lifted up, but of the mighty brought down from their thrones and the rich sent away empty. This is true justice, God's justice - the kind of "levelling up" that our governing politicians are surely not remotely willing to embrace.
Is it a simple reversal, simply turning the whole power structure upside-down? With the rich and powerful humiliated, and the 'meek and lowly' exalted to positions of wealth, power and privilege? What does Jesus mean, in the Beatitudes, when he tells us the meek will inherit the earth?
If we had been following our usual lectionary today, we would have heard the prophetic challenge not of Mary but of John the Baptist: "you brood of vipers", he spat, calling out the hypocrisy, greed and selfishness of the powerful, and their indifference to the poor and marginalised. The turnings of Mary's Magnificat will indeed bring the powerful down to earth, and probably with a bump. But I'm not sure that means that they simply take the place of the previously-humiliated in an eternal gutter. And I think there are at least two clues that point us in a different direction...
First, let's remember where, and with whom, Mary sings her song. She has travelled into the hill country, to find sanctuary with Elizabeth, her cousin, her 'kinswoman'. She is in a place of safety, in a relationship of solidarity, of shared experience, of kinship. And the kinship and solidarity between these women, is the fertile womb of a kinship and solidarity between their children, John and Jesus, who will call their hearers to repent, to turn from their destructive ways, and to turn towards kinship, as children of God.
And our second clue is again in the roots of the words at play here: because both 'humiliation' and 'humble' are rooted in humus... the leaf-mould, the compost, where all that is hard is broken open and broken down, where all that is alive is being decomposed, where everything that is rejected as waste finds a home and brings its unique contribution, where richness comes with a powerful smell, where the creepy-crawlies that are so often despised are the ones who do the vital work, where new life comes not beyond the shit, but in the midst of it. 'Down to earth' is the only place that we and all others should be. This is where we are pushed to acknowledge that our kin include all kinds of creatures and things that we have been doing our very best to avoid and ignore. This is where Mary's Magnificat comes to life: in the middle of the compost heap, God calls us to hear her song, and to follow her lead towards kinship, solidarity and hope.