The Politics of Divine Disruption—Luke 1:46b-55 (Fritz Wendt)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The Magnificat is a song of divine disruption, the song of God’s revolution.

46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. 
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation. 
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy, 
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

MAGNIFICAT 

Pregnant, she climbed the hill, while setting aside
trusting in comfort, or counsel or hope;
yet as the tall, full matron t’ward her did stride,
solemn and dignified in scope,

knowing, untold, the whole story unfolding,
she simply leaned on her, feeling relief;
gently each woman the other was holding,
until the young one said, It’s my belief 

that I, Love, from now on will be forever.
God rains into the wealthy’s vanity,
nearly ignoring their gaudy endeavor;
searching with care for a woman, however,
and impregnates her with eternity.

Think that he found me, and gave his rule of law,
transmitting it, for me, from star to star.

Exalt the Lord, my soul, lift him with great awe,
Lift him up high, up far.

German by Rainer Maria Rilke [1908], English by Fritz Wendt [2017]

It was a cold December night when I found myself in the middle of an amazing experience. On the sidewalk right by the steps of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, an elderly woman walked up to a woman who also seemed elderly; the first woman seemed homeless from the way she looked, and the other clearly was well off in her fine fur coat and fancy shoes.

As the homeless woman asked the other one for money, she scowled at her irritably and shouted, “If you only worked, you wouldn’t be standing here begging”. Now the homeless woman looked angry and stared at the other woman’s clothes. Then she said, “Lady, I don’t know about you, but you and me, we belong together. Both of us are made of the same stuff, and both of us need the same stuff.” The other woman glared back and hissed, “We have NOTHING in common.”

My jaw dropped; this exchange was so raw and so real! I was not the only one who noticed what happened. The people around drew closer to make sure they wouldn’t miss a thing. As the homeless woman got a bit closer to the other one, she said: “I don’t have anything right now, and you have enough to help me. You are angry with me for begging, but perhaps next year you will be poor, and you won’t wear your fine coat any more. What will you do then? What if some day you will need me to feed you, what then?” She sounded very much like a prophet.

When the homeless woman finished talking, the other woman glared at her and looked like she was going to hit her, but then she walked away. As she left, she was talking to herself; I imagine she talked about the nerve of this poor woman to rudely interrupt her Christmas routines.

If any of the Biblical texts assigned for this week is able to “rudely interrupt” our Christmas routines, it is the Magnificat from Luke 1, assigned as psalm for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It sticks out because, instead of being sweet and gentle, it is impolite and “in your face”; instead of soothing us, it irritates, it annoys, it interrupts.

As Rilke carefully situates Mary’s song in the context of her visit with her cousin Elizabeth, his poem (translated above) hints at the text’s power to interrupt—“God rains into the wealthy’s vanity, nearly ignoring their gaudy endeavor; searching with care for a woman, however, and impregnates her with eternity”—and highlights Mary’s amazement that God chose her—“Think that he found me”—to change the world—“and gave his rule of law, transmitting it, for me, from star to star”.

The Magnificat interrupts the routines of our world: “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 1:52-53). Indeed, when the government of Guatemala was in the midst of a revolution in the 1980s, the Magnificat’s power to interrupt was seen as subversive and dangerous; thus its public reading was forbidden.

From verses 51 through 55, Mary speaks of future events that have been decisively determined by the conception in her womb in proleptic declarations characteristic of much Old Testament prophecy. English translations capture the perfective aspect of the aorist tense that Mary employs using our perfect tense: “he has brought down the powerful … and lifted up the lowly; he has filled up the hungry … and sent the rich away empty.” Mary speaks in such a way because her words are prophecy; she asserts that God has changed reality as soon as she made the announcement.

What makes Mary’s song so powerful isn’t just the fact that she sings against oppression: Mary herself is a member of the class for whom she has claimed God’s salvation, the anawim (pronounced ah-nah-weem) Anawim is a Hebrew word that means, “the poor who depend on the Lord for deliverance” and is used frequently in the Psalms—“But the meek [anawim] shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity” (Psalm 37:11).

Mary and her people lived in a world controlled by almighty Rome, the superpower that had just ordered a census, devised to document the undocumented for government control, as well as to ensure taxation of the most vulnerable ones. A female teen where male adults held all the power and influence, a rural Palestinian Jew in the Roman Empire, a revolutionary in a culture that crucified revolutionaries: Mary was the last person one might expect to sing this sort of song!

Disrupting the way the world is set up takes great courage, willpower and faith. When Mary sang that the Lord “has brought down rulers from their thrones”, anybody hearing it would have known that she meant Herod the Great, a ruthless king installed by Rome. Some people might have worried about her, an unwed pregnant girl, singing about the end of Herod’s reign; doing so might get her tried for treason, or worse. But as she proclaimed God’s new rule of law, Mary sang her heart out.

Mary’s message: Through God’s action, the social hierarchy of wealth and poverty, power and subjugation is to be turned upside down; a new social order of justice is at hand. Brigitte Kahl, New Testament Professor at Union Seminary, illuminates this further by showing how in Luke Chapter 1 messianic time disrupts the patriarchal chronologies of politics, biology and religion. She locates this disruption at Zechariah’s encounter in the temple, as the angel announces the birth of John the Baptist and imposes nine months of complete silence due to his unbelief:

The patriarchal house of Zechariah, as the nucleus of the social structure of domination, becomes a mothers’ and childrens’ house in which sisterliness and brotherliness reign in place of ‘paternal power’ … With Mary’s child, conceived without a father, hope takes form irreversibly: hope for justice and for a world without domination and submission, without shortage and surplus. Messianic time has begun. [Brigitte Kahl. “Reading Luke Against Luke,” in A Feminist Companion to Luke. Edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 80]

In this sense, Luke signals “a fundamental reversal of the entire structure of patriarchal domination on the level of narrative interaction” (ibid. 79).

Mary’s disruption is God’s threefold revolution: social (the proud are scattered and the outcasts are receiving God’s favor), political (the oppressors will be defeated and their victims freed) and economic (the hungry are fed and those who have withheld the food are being sent away). Brazilian theologians Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer write, “Mary’s song is a war chant, God’s battle song enmeshed in human history, the struggle to establish a world of egalitarian relationships” (Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer, Mary, Mother of God. Mother of the Poor [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989], 72).

When the writer of Luke/Acts wrote the words of the Magnificat, it was only under the shadow of the dominant culture that stories about God were told (or whispered). Now that Christianity participates in the dominant culture, we have allowed it to appropriate and tame the message of Christmas to such an extent that the disruption proclaimed in the Magnificat feels embarrassing to many.

It is time to uncover for ourselves that great disruption announced in Mary’s song. “She sang it not for herself,” wrote Martin Luther, “but for all of us, to sing it after her.” God’s powerful vision, as proclaimed by Mary, demands our action. We are summoned to build a just world by the God who regards the anawim with utmost mercy.

Fellow preacher, are you ready to shake up the world? Think of the worst moment you were ever rudely interrupted, and let that moment guide you as you go about rudely interrupting Christianity’s surrender to the dominant culture.

We will stand with God’s anawim. We will proclaim God’s revolution. We will sing God’s battle song. And as the many who have been oppressed embrace their freedom, their oppressors will tremble as their power over others is gone for good.

Amen.


Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.

9 thoughts on “The Politics of Divine Disruption—Luke 1:46b-55 (Fritz Wendt)

  1. Well said. We need to keep hearing these uncomfortable truths. It seems in today’s world that those who most loudly proclaim themselves Christian, are often LEAST likely to follow His request of us. I wish (especially at the holidays) that people would think on His exampl that what we do for the least of our neighbors, we do for Him.

    Thank you for helping it stay fresh in our minds that the wealth we so singularly crave, is not only temporary, but antithesis to the everlasting wealth of His love.

  2. One of the best sermons I have ever read in my 40 years following Jesus and 31 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor. Thank you for telling the truth. I just had an open forum discussion with both early and late service members this last Sunday, December 17th, where many of the well-to-do said that I am wrong for preaching politics (even though it’s Jesus’ politics!), that it is driving “good” members away from the church and they come to church to feel good, not to hear the politics!!!

    I have been preaching and teaching historical critical exegesis to this small church for 16 years! My own secretary says I don’t care about the people and am killing this church with “your (my) politics.”

    Karl Marx was right of course. These people crave opium religion. Unfortunately, the Lutheran institution is responsible for not teaching the truth about Jesus and God’s Kingdom. Most pastors have failed in sharing what they learned in seminary and have caved in to the “feel good” messaging. There are a lot of people to blame for the failure of teaching and proclaiming God’s Kingdom, the year of the Lord’s Favor, for the poor and outcast.

  3. I love this piece, Fritz! I wonder what it would do if your images reflected the children with whom you work in Harlem hospital. Remember that Boehoeffer attended Abyssinian Baptist Church, not far from where you work. What if you helped the world to see Mary as an African American Aunt assisting her niece. That would be great for my daughter and for me as well as all people created in God’s image.

    1. Wow. Thanks so much, Linda. You’re giving me ideas … I like it very much. There have been many times when I brought my ER patients into my sermons, of course. The next logical step might be to do bring them into a more scholarly article as well.

  4. Fritz! You have empowered me dear friend! I work at the intersection of family and LGBTQ+ faith. This piece is a powerful message to mothers of transgender youth. I’ll be using it at a catalyst to speak directly into the lives of those women who’s womb is blessed with a most intriguing child. It is not easy raising a trans youth, this I personally know, and we Mamas need a fierce message. Your piece gave me the encouragement i needed. Great work!

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