Commentary on Luke 1:46b-55
Even if you do not preach on Mary’s Psalm, sing it this weekend during Sabbath worship.1
Mary’s Psalm: A radical Advent carol
The so-called “Magnificat” (somehow that name is too tame) is a radical protest song. The kind of song that the enslaved Israelites might have sung in Egypt. The kind of song you might have heard on the lips of the exiled Judeans in Babylon. The kind of song that has been sung by countless people of faith through the ages in resistance, in defiance of empires, slavers, terrorists, invaders, and the like.
Hear, feel, savor Mary’s cry of resistance:
[The Lord] has shown strength with his arm;
has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
Has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
Has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
Mary’s Psalm sounded the initial, clear, trumpet call that the event of the Christ’s advent was to be a world-transforming, universe-shaking event.
One example. Professor Lois Malcolm, my colleague at Luther Seminary, grew up the child of missionaries in the Philippine Islands. Growing up among that nation’s poor, Professor Malcolm has reported that when they heard Mary’s Psalm, it was the first time that anyone had told them the good news that God cares about them—the poor, the oppressed.
Think about it. You’re poor. You wonder, “Why? Why are we poor?” “Maybe that is just the way things are,” you think. Or maybe you hear, “The kings and queens rule by ‘divine right’—God wants them to be rich and powerful, and you to be poor.” Or maybe you hear, “The poor are poor because they did something bad in a previous life—they deserve to be poor in this life, and if they suffer their poverty bravely and gladly, they can be born into a better caste in the next life.” Or maybe you just think, “We are poor because we aren’t smart enough to be wealthy.”
Mary’s Psalm announces, “No, Christ has come to challenge the structures of sin, death, the devil, and oppression. Christ has come in the strength of the Lord to do what the Lord has always done: lift up the lowly, free the enslaved, feed the hungry, give justice to the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.”
A song in tune with the Lord’s songs throughout the ages
Mary’s song of resistance was not completely new. It was a song in harmony with the psalms that other faithful followers of the Lord had sung in past generations. Just three examples.
The once-enslaved Moses and Miriam sang this song of resistance when God delivered the oppressed from the house of bondage in Egypt:
[The Lord] has trumped gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;
you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. (Exodus 15:1bc, 13)
The once-barren Hannah, afflicted by Peninnah her rival, sang this song of resistance and deliverance:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves our for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich,
be brings low, he also exalts. (1 Samuel 2:4-5, 7)
And one more song, this one from the anonymous psalmist who composed Psalm 146:
The Lord sets prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
upholds the orphan and the widow. (146:7c-9b)
Throughout the ages, God’s people have faced oppression. And in the face of that oppression, God’s people have sung God’s songs of resistance.
But God’s people have also been oppressors. We have enslaved others—and each other. We have stolen from, oppressed, and slain others—and each other. And when we have done so, the oppressed, the enslaved, the persecuted have sung God’s songs of resistance against us.
So shall it ever be.
Singing resistance in Advent
So do two things as you plan for worship this Sabbath.
First, sing Mary’s Psalm of resistance. Don’t just read it, sing it.
You can chant it antiphonally. But pick an aggressive psalm tone.
You can sing the version known as “My Soul Proclaims Your Greatness,” set to a tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams (tune: Kingsfold; arr. Williams). See With One Voice (Augsburg Fortress, 1995). You can sing Grayson Warren Brown’s “My Soul Does Magnify the Lord” (tune: Gospel Magnificat).
You can find a version of “Evening Prayer”—almost all will include a version of Mary’s Psalm, which is the traditional canticle for evening prayer worship. Marty Haugen’s version in “Holden Evening Prayer” comes to mind, although the tune is rather tame.
You can find a metrical paraphrase and match it with a tune your congregation can sing.
Second, you can select those rare Advent songs and Christmas carols that follow in Mary’s tradition of resistance. A few come to mind. Most of the references to liberation and resistance in Christmas carols have been spiritualized. For example, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.”
But here are a couple.
“Hark, the Glad Sound” (Philip Doddridge):
He comes the pris’ners to release,
in Satan’s bondage held.
The gates of brass before him burst,
the iron fetters yield.
He comes the broken heart to bind,
the bleeding soul to cure.
“It Came upon the Midnight Clear” (Edmund Sears):
And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow;
look now, for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing;
oh, rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”:
Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in vict’ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
And, if the Spirit leads you, preach on this song of resistance. Seek the Lord and inquire how it is that we have closed our ears to Mary’s radical song of resistance, even though there is so much oppression and evil in the world. We have turned Christmas into a cattle-lowing, no-crying-he-makes Jesus, Silent Night.
Christ came to stand against sin, death, and the power of the Devil. We can sugarcoat that reality now. But at least one Christmas carol would remind us of the ends to which the son of Mary was willing to go in order to cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplift the lowly:
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The cross he borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!
- Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 21, 2014.