[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to email@example.com.]
For three weeks now, I have been listening to Mary’s Magnificat sung as a part of the mid-week evening prayer service in my congregation. Last week, I leaned over to my five-year-old and told her, “This is the story of Jesus’ Mommy when she was pregnant with him.” Rereading a paper that I wrote on this text in college, I critiqued an over spiritualization of these words that are “a vivid proclamation of God’s eternal justice and intention to uplift the weak and lowly in a ministry of love…a call to social action on behalf of humanity.” Now, as I sit with the text, I can only say that it is all of this and more.
When one engages in the art of Biblical Storytelling—translating the words on the page into an oral/aural experience as it would have been in its first presentations—one of the first tasks is to enter into the world of the story. It is the task of the storyteller to imagine how these words might have sounded on Mary’s own lips and, without altering the text, to bring that to the story. To this end, as a storyteller, I am immediately drawn to the pronouns in Mary’s speech.
My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary says, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant [me]. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me… (Luke 1:46-49)
And so, I would suggest, that the politics of this text, while they are many, both begin and end with the primary speaker—Mary (or, at least, Luke’s portrait of her).
How are we to understand this Mary? Is she weak—seeing no other alternatives, and so submitting to the will of the Almighty one? Or is she strong—willing to commit herself and her child to the pursuit of social and economic justice for Israel? Is she scared—overwhelmed by her pregnancy and working out her fear/awe toward the One who impregnated her? Or is she confident—boldly proclaiming her faith and trust in a merciful and steadfast God?
For many, how we answer these questions has profound impact. Are Mary’s words to be interpreted as “social gospel” – calling for immediate action on behalf of the “lowly” and “hungry”? Or do Mary’s words reflect a perfection that will only be realized in the Kingdom Come? Moreover, does Mary model strong feminine empowerment in the nascent church? Or is she a victim of [sexual?] violence that requires her to sacrifice her individual self and goals in order to apply herself to this service of the divine?
And, perhaps the most pressing question: What are we to make of this Divine when in the consumerist cultures in which large portions of the world population live are filled to overflowing with the poor and hungry, and the rich seem not to be sent away? But it is to this question that I believe Mary’s song gives a resounding response. As a mother myself, when I perform this story aloud, coming to the part where God has “filled the hungry with good things,” I cannot help but attend to my abdomen, imagining the Good that was growing inside of Mary’s womb as she greeted Elizabeth—hungry though she must surely have been.
There are lots of “big” political issues in this text—big problems and concerns that Mary had to grapple with and most of which we are grappling with still. It can seem overwhelming. But in the midst of all of the big systemic problems that Luke acknowledges, Mary and Elizabeth stand, with two tiny babies growing inside of them, and on [or for?] their account, find themselves miraculously empowered for the journey ahead.
The prophet writes:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
Who are one of the little clans of Judah,
From you shall come forth for me
One who is to rule in Israel,
Whose origin is from of old,
From ancient days (Micah 5:2)
The word is full of massive injustice—of powerful people subjecting the majority to their whims, or hungry children dying every day. There are people who question how anyone can believe in a God who would allow, or worse, cause injustice like this. There are people who question how anyone can ever do anything meaningful to combat such injustice when it is ingrained in the very structures in which we live. But then there is Mary—a self-described “lowly” servant, carrying a tiny as yet imperceptible to the naked eye baby, who is to be born in the little no-name town of Bethlehem. Mary—who praises God and chooses to do God’s will.
There are a lot of “big” problems that lowly as we are, we cannot dare to solve. But the message of the magnificat is that we don’t have to. We need only to follow our merciful and Mighty God who comes among us in the tiniest, most imperceptible of ways, favoring the small, the weak, the lowly, and promising faithfulness from generation to generation. We need only serve this Mighty One is whatever small and imperceptible ways that we can, and trust that Justice, as only our merciful God can conceive of it, is being worked out one baby, one generation, one moment at a time.
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.