The Politics of the War on Christmas—Luke 1: 46b-55 (Robert Williamson)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In the incarnation of Jesus, all our systems of social stratification—all our means of exploiting, oppressing, and humiliating one another—are revealed to be lies. Mary expresses a ‘Christmas revolution’ in her Magnificat, a vision for a radically different way of living decisively ushered in by God’s becoming one of us in Christ.

46b ‘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.’

It is that most wonderful time of the year, when our fellow Christians raise alarm bells about the “War on Christmas.” This year’s controversy has focused on Starbucks, which dared to welcome the holiday season with a plain red cup, foregoing the tiny reindeer and frosty snowmen that many had apparently understood as evidence of the global corporation’s deep and abiding commitment to the Christ child born in a manger. But it is only with the greatest of ironies that Christians can wish for our Starbucks cups to be festooned with snowflakes and candy canes in honor of the birth of Christ, for the birth of the Christ child long ago instigated a revolution not only against Starbucks, but against the entire system of white, hetero-patriarchal, military consumerism it represents.

The first whispers of the Christmas revolution come from the unlikeliest of places. Mary, a young girl remembered by the tradition as “meek and mild,” sings a song of uprising. We are apt to miss it because of the beautiful choral settings in which we are accustomed to hearing it, but Mary’s song, known in the tradition as the Magnificat, anticipates the overthrow of the social structure and the overturning of systems of exploitation.

Mary’s song begins innocently enough, with Mary glorifying and rejoicing in God because “he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:48). But if we look more closely at her words, we see already the indications of the social stratification out of which her song emerges. The Greek word tapeinosis is rendered by the NRSV as a reference to Mary’s “lowliness” and by the NIV in regard to her “humble state.” It is tempting to hear in these words a description of her inner disposition—humble as opposed to prideful, lowly as opposed to haughty.

But for the author of Luke this term has a deeper resonance. In Acts 8:32-33, penned by the same author as Luke, we find this word on the lips of the Ethiopian eunuch as he reads one of Isaiah’s Servant Songs (Isa 53:7-8). There the word is translated as “humiliation,” a reference to the Servant’s unjust affliction and ultimate slaughter at the hands of an unjust court. In the same way, Mary’s use of the word should evoke not her dispositional state of lowliness but rather her social condition of “humiliation”—the degraded and exploited state she and her people have endured at the hands of the Empire. She speaks not as a saint from the abstract idealizations of the Church’s lore, but as a fierce young woman laying down the reality of the exploitations and humiliations of her own concrete social location.

In the verses that follow, Mary announces nothing less than a revolution, describing God, in an act of profound mercy, overturning the very foundations of society (1:50-53). “God has scattered the proud,” she says (1:51). “[God] has brought down the rulers from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (1:52). The word translated “lowly” by the NRSV is again from the root meaning “humiliated,” which Mary had used of herself in 1:48. Those who had been humiliated and exploited are lifted up, while those who had humiliated and exploited them are cast down. She continues, “[God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). By the end of her song, the world has been stood on its head.

Curiously, Mary’s song takes place in the past tense (Gk. aorist). She is not looking forward to a future time when God will set the world right. Rather, she claims that God has already cast down the mighty and lifted up the lowly, has already filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty. But in reality nothing has apparently changed. The rich are still rich and the poor are still poor. What, then, could she mean?

For Mary, there is something about the Christ child that has already won the revolution, even though as she sings her song the child has not yet even been born. There is something about God becoming incarnate in her womb that means the world can no longer be the same, even though to all appearances the world is still very much the same.

One way of understanding Mary’s claim is that once God has become incarnate among us, our conception of both God and our own reality is radically altered. As long as God is understood to be separate from us and ruling over us, it seems only natural that we, too, should find ways to separate ourselves from one another and rule over one another. In this way, the division of society into classes of ruling and ruled, wealthy and poor, dominant and dominated, and so on, comes to be seen as entirely natural and even as warranted by God himself (as it were).

But the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ reveals all of this social stratification to be based on a falsehood. God is not above us and beyond us, ruling over us from afar. God is there in Mary’s womb, as immanent to humanity as one can be. Being made in the image of this God can no longer mean separating ourselves from others in order to rule over them. It can only mean to become incarnate with others, lifting up others, restoring our common humanity.

This is the nature of Mary’s Christmas revolution. In the incarnation of Jesus, all our systems of social stratification—all our means of exploiting, oppressing, and humiliating one another—are revealed to be lies. Our systems that privilege men over women, white over Black, straight over gay, Christian over Muslim, violent over peaceful, rich over poor—all of these divisions that are presented to us as natural and even as divinely instituted—are falsehoods, borne of a misconception of God and of ourselves.

If Christians took Mary’s song seriously, we would not care whether Starbucks had appropriately Christmas themed cups this year. We would not demand that our Target cashiers wish us “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” We would not rush out to Black Friday sales to fill our Christmas stockings with goodies. Indeed, we would reject the whole enterprise of consumer Christmas, which coopts the Christ child into a system of ravenous self-gratification and economic exploitation, lining the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of the health, dignity, and well-being of the poorest of the poor. We would find ways to be among our neighbors, to cross the lines that divide us, to heal the divisions that separate us, to repair the damage we have done to others in our quest to be like gods.

Indeed, Christmas is a revolution. Whose side will we be on?

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