“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” starts the Magnificat, a beloved song of praise from the gospel of Luke. It is sung in response to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth calling her blessed. But if you think about it, Mary was in a difficult situation. She was pregnant and most people were not going to believe the story she told about the Angel Gabriel and being “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High. As Matthew tells the story, “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”( 1:19 )
Jason Porterfield, North American Coordinator of Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, has written, “[Joseph’s] discreetness was his attempt to protect Mary from public humiliation and social ostracism. According to Jewish law, Mary faced the very real threat of being stoned as an adulteress.”
Porterfield quotes the words of Rev. Carolyn Sharp, “Don’t envision Mary as the radiant woman peacefully composing the Magnificat.” Instead see her as “a girl who sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future.” When we do this, Rev. Sharp goes on to say, “Mary’s courageous song of praise [becomes] a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy amid the suffering and conflicts of real life.” (Porterfield, enemylove.com “The Subversive Magnificat”)
Mary’s theme in the song she sings is timeless: God’s intention to overturn the ways of power in the world, to disrupt the status quo. We see it in Joseph’s dream as well, where an angel appears to dissuade Joseph from doing “the proper thing.” God, from the very beginning of these Gospels, sides with the poor and downtrodden—the outcasts. Maybe that is why the “powers that be” have tried to quiet the song Mary gave to us.
In medieval Europe, a liturgical enactment of the Magnificat called the Feast of Fools was seen as a brief social revolution. “Power” was given to a few people representing the underclass. The mock leaders might wear bishops’ robes inside out, hold books upside down, and parade around with glasses made of orange peels. The event was often banned, along with the reading of the Magnificat. (seasons of Spirit)
In 1199 Bishop Eudes de Sully decreed verse 52 “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” could not be read more than 5 times, since it was felt to foment insurrection.
In the final days of the British occupation of India, the colonial viceroys forbade the Magnificat to be sung in churches(even though it was a regular part of the normal service). Rev. Rich Lusk reports, “In defiance of this order, Ghandi—by no means a Christian—requested that the Magnificat be read publicly at all those places where the British flag was being lowered on the final day of British rule. At least he had a sense of humor—and a good sense of what the Magnificat means for the oppressed.” (Lusk, 12/7/08, Trinity Presbyterian)
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached on the Magnificat on December 17, 1933. He says, “This song of Mary’s is the oldest Advent hymn. It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of [humans]. These are the tones of the prophetic women of the Old Testament: Deborah, Judith, Miriam, coming alive in the mouth of Mary. (translated by Edwin Robertson, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, Zondervan, 2005).
In the 1970s, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children had all been “disappeared,” placed the Magnificat’s words on posters through the capital plaza, and the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s Song.
Robert McAfee Brown tells of a Bible Study in South America at the same time. They couldn’t help but notice the difference between the images Mary they saw in church and the Mary who would lift up the Magnificat. “It sounds as though Mary would look just like me!” one woman said. “My feet are dirty, my hat is old, my hands are rough, and my clothes are torn.” (Donald Schmidt, In the Beginning)
As recently as the 1980s the government of Guatemala forbade public reading of it! The Guatemalan poor were being inspired to believe that God intended things to be different than they were.
Here is the Advent message of the church. Not a gentle comfort wrapping us in good feelings that everything will be alright. But a defiant shout of what is not yet but will be—an insistence that as God comes to be with us, our world must change. That message is as true today as it was the night that Jesus was born.
As I thought about Mary’s Song and Joseph’s Dream I realized that each of us has a part to play in the unfolding of God’s kingdom coming near.
There are those, like Mary, who are given a song, a shout, a passion—like prophets of old they call into the wilderness of our world, into the emptiness of our lives; calling us to wake up, to be a part of the movement of God, to act as if God’s kingdom has already come.
But there are also those, like Joseph, who have to listen to quiet murmurings—in the heart, in our dreams—to not stand in the way, to be of assistance, to be willing to stand at the side instead of at the center. Mary’s song has become an integral part of Christian worship, as it should be. But Joseph’s response, Joseph’s ability to listen to an angel in a dream, and then give some of his own power away, is extraordinary as well. Joseph doesn’t humiliate Mary. Joseph doesn’t insist on his husbandly rights (at least until after the baby is born). Joseph names the child “Jesus.” Joseph remains a shadowy figure—but one who determined the course of human history.
In this day and age of Amazing Survival games, in a culture that speaks first and thinks about the ramifications later, in a world where we are some of the most privileged, maybe Joseph’s Dream is a lesson for us. Certainly we can participate in the prophetic message of God’s favoritism for the poor. Certainly we are invited to change our world from the inside out. But sometimes, we need to listen to others’ voices before we barge in. Sometimes we need to be willing to be an assistant rather than taking charge.
A tall order. To know when to step up, and when to back down. When to enjoy the spotlight, and when to wait in the wings. When to praise with all your heart and soul and voice, and when to be quiet, listening for instructions from elsewhere.
Songs and Dreams.
Our human part in the journey with God
A journey that reaches back before anyone can remember,
A journey that reaches forward to a time we can’t even image,
A journey that includes a stop at a simple stable,
A baby born on the straw,
the reason for our songs
and the help to make our dreams come true.
May we be inspired to continue on the journey, singing and dreaming all the way.