1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,Luke 1:46b-55
1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
In Luke’s version of the gospel, Mary utters these words upon learning that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus, the Messiah. While many Christians, myself included, typically read the Magnificat through a perspective that knows the rest of the story, what sometimes occurs is that Mary becomes objectified as solely the means through which Jesus comes into the world. Because we often read this story in anticipation of Christmas, Jesus becomes the subject and Mary an afterthought. While we may still marvel at Mary’s humble acceptance of her chosenness or the effusive praise in her words, I am reminded that Mary’s contribution to the story is much more than that. She is not a mere accessory to a larger story, but her words and perspective reveal her own suffering and survival. With this (and current events) in mind, I cannot help but reimagine Mary’s position through a feminist, liberationist, and post-colonial hermeneutic that recenters her experiences. As a Jewish woman who cannot escape the devastation that is wrought by the Roman Empire, Mary’s perspective demonstrates the lasting legacies of grief and hope.
As I read through the Magnificat again, I notice how stylistic and thematically similar Mary’s words are to the sacred poems of her ancestors. The Psalms, as they would eventually become known, were composed by a number of authors, known and unknown, some by individuals and others in community. Psalms 132 and 137 are two examples that appeal to God’s power and justice in the midst of significant challenges, such as: the destruction of the Temple, being scattered in diaspora, and living under multiple foreign empires. The prevalence of these themes in both the Psalms and the Magnificat reveal how little had changed over the years.
My musings on the Magnificat change the way I read it. With this context in mind, my image of Mary changes. She is not just the woman who would give birth to Jesus, but is a young Judean woman living in Roman occupied territories. In addition, she is also the recipient of years of oral traditions containing stories and songs about God’s faithfulness and a communal yearning for God’s freedom. In my imagination, I picture Mary as a child at her mother’s feet, absorbing these words, anticipating the arrival of the Messiah who was to restore God’s kingdom and bring about peace. I think about how her heart must have raced while processing the angel Gabriel’s message, or learning shortly afterward of King Herod’s bounty on her son. What must it have been like for her to flee to Egypt to ensure his survival? And did she, years later, flash back to those days while watching Jesus’s arrest, torture, and death? The image of Michealangelo’s Pietá comes to mind and I cannot help but think that part of the anguish on her face is from the awful realization that she couldn’t protect her son. As much as she tried, Jesus ended up being yet another would-be messiah and revolutionary who was killed for threatening the Empire’s power.
As I write this reflection, it is December 2023. My image of Mary the triumphant and hopeful has changed into those of the young mothers in Gaza and Israel trying desperately to survive and keep their loved ones safe from harm amidst the outbreak of violence in the Middle East. This is only the latest iteration of the political conflict over land and power between the Israeli government and Palestinian extremist groups. On October 7th, 2023, the terrorist group Hamas orchestrated a surprise attack from within Israeli borders, killing around 1200 people and taking around 250 more hostage. Since then, the Israeli government, armed with support, money, and weapons from the U.S. government, has declared war against Hamas. Heavy bombing of Gaza has resulted in the death of a large number of people, 61% of whom were civilians. Despite many global protests and calls for an immediate ceasefire, the war continues.
These days, I read the Magnificat and sit with my sadness for Mary and the thousands of mothers in the region and across the diasporas. These women have lost their children, families and homes to the violence that my country is complicit in funding. In the face of such systemic injustices, it is difficult to hold space for a desire for peace and the knowledge that empires usually outlast the people who protest against them. While it may be tempting to shut down at feelings of powerlessness, the Magnificat gives us another option. We can be like Mary and the generations before her, singing and hoping and praying for change.