Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Dangerous and Subversive Song of Mary

In some parts of Medieval Europe there was a liturgical festival called the “Feast of Fools”. It was a brief social revolution in which power and status were reversed. Roles and positions of honour were exchanged, and the idea of the fool was celebrated. Paul spoke about being a “fool for Christ” (1 Cor 4:10). Christ announced the arrival of an upside down kingdom where the last would be first and the first would be last (Matt 19:30; 20:16). He spoke about thieving and corrupt tax-collectors and prostitutes entering this kingdom before the religious elite (Matt 21:31). There would be liturgical plays. One was called the “Feast of the Ass” which was about the holy family fleeing to Egypt on a donkey, but it also included other donkey stories from the Bible (like Balaam’s). A little girl would be led through the town and into the church riding on a donkey. The donkey would be led to rest beside the altar and the congregation would reply to the priest with donkey noises instead of the regular liturgical responses.    
          There is a profound truth found in the feats of fools. There is a kind of ‘topsy turvy’ nature to the arrival of Christ’s kingdom. We see this right from the beginning. When God announces this most important moment in history he brings the message to the world through two women.  According to the early Jewish historian Josephus, women at this time in this culture were not even considered reliable witnesses in a court of law. In the eyes of the world, they are very plain women. Elizabeth is too old to be pregnant. Mary is young and not married enough to be pregnant. However, the first to receive God’s message of the coming kingdom are these two pregnant women.
God doesn’t give the news to the Roman Emperor. God doesn’t give the news to a governor, or to one of the temple’s high priests. God doesn’t put up billborads, or go on CNN. The first to really grasp God’s Good News are two pregnant women. Elizabeth carries the messenger, and Mary carries the Message- These are two seemingly ordinary women that would have vanished into the mists of time except for being drawn into an extraordinary plan. It is a very backwards way of making an announcement that will change the world forever.
God’s plan is to shake the world right to its foundations. These are plans to turn the world upside-down. In Mary’s song we hear about the lifting up of the marginalized and the lowering of the powerful.
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
       he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
  He has brought down rulers from their thrones
       but has lifted up the humble.
  He has filled the hungry with good things
       but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)
      Mary sings about the God who saved a group of slaves from the powerful Egyptian nation and chose those slaves to bear his name. Mary sings of God who scatters the proud, who lowers powerful rulers, who raises up the lowly, who feeds the hungry, and turns away those who allow their fellow human beings to go hungry when they have plenty. This is a message that turns the world upside down. The high are brought low and the low are brought high, the first will be last and the last will be first.

Mary’s song foreshadows her son’s teachings. In the Gospel according to Luke (6:20-26) Jesus preaches these words:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat. Its power and implications were realized by the Guatemalan Government during the 1980’s when they banned speaking it in public. It was banned because it was seen as encouraging rebellion and a danger to the powerful and oppressive state. Isn’t that fascinating? The song of a young pregnant woman is a danger to the state? … . I think the Guatemalan Government of the 1980’s actually has a grasp of Mary’s song that we sometimes miss in the church. Guatemala is not the only place that this has become banned- It was banned in Argentina when mothers rose up to cry for justice for their missing children in the 1970’s. During the British rule of India, the Magnificat was supposedly banned from being sung in churches. And, in Nicaragua the Magnificat is often kept as an amulet by poor peasants.
The Magnificat is a threat to tyranny because tyrants want to feel powerful and in control, and they often treat the people like cattle whose lives are dispensable. Mary’s song says otherwise. Her song says that the oppression of the poor is not the will of God and that when God’s kingdom arrives fully the tyrants will have no power. The power of the Magnificat is the revealing of the truth that God picks sides and if you are a tyrant you will find yourself standing against God … and you will not win that fight.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who faced the Nazis and was executed by them, said the following about the Magnificat:
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” (A sermon in Advent 1933)
This song as a call for justice and resistance that trusts in God and the arrival of his kingdom through Jesus, even in the face of oppressive and unjust governments. Mary’s song is the song of a young pregnant woman living among a people oppressed by an occupying force.
          The arrival of the kingdom of God began humbly. The message was given to the poor and oppressed. When the Roman magistrate Pliny the Younger was looking for some Christians to question about their religion he looked among slave women. Pliny would have never guessed that the followers of a crucified criminal would within two hundred years overtake even the Roman Empire (Pliny d.112- Constantine d.337).

          Jesus followers have continued to change the world as God’s kingdom continues to break into the world. In David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions, he corrects the sloppy history of some of the New Atheists. Hart is under no illusions. He knows that the Christian message does not transform entire societies overnight, or instantly turn every cruel person gentle. It’s not that people who are a part of the Jesus revolution haven’t dropped the ball, or done horrible things. (The irony is that the teachings and spirit of Christianity condemns such actions). However, the world would be a drastically different place without the followers of the Christian God.
Hart argues that the world would not be a better place. The Jesus revolution transformed the ancient western world- Hart argues that Christianity gave freedom from fatalism, fear of the occult, it gave dignity to human beings who might not have otherwise had any (like slaves, women, and children) it gave rise to numerous moral communities of people, and elevated charity above the virtues (xi). The Jesus revolution has throughout history cared for widows and orphans, gave rise to almshouses, hospitals, orphanages, schools, homeless shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, the abolitionist movement that worked and works to end slavery, The civil rights movement (under people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and the list doesn’t stop there. Someone like Mother Theresa cannot really be understood apart from her love for Christ. To attempt to understand her biologically is to see her as wonderfully broken- she would have to be seen as having a kind of illness where the compassionate part of her brain has misfired- causing her to have compassion beyond reason.

Hart states, 
“the quality of charitable aid in the world today supplied and sustained by Christian churches continues to be almost unimaginably vast. A world from which the gospel had been banished would surely be one in which millions more of our fellows would go unfed, unnursed, unsheltered, and uneducated” (15). 
Hart argues that our modern notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providing for the poor, legal equality, and basic human dignity would have been largely unintelligible in a pre-Christian Europe. Hart says, 
“It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things- they would never have occurred to us- had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren” (33).     
A world transformed by God’s love and justice is what causes Mary’s heart to burst into song- "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”. When God’s kingdom arrives Mary saw God performing acts of justice and humbling the proud and oppressive. God gives dignity and worth to the humble, food to the hungry, and He removes dictators from their thrones. This is the world Mary sees ruled by the Messiah. But it is an upside down world.

       Obviously, it is a project that is not finished yet. There is more to do. We are still waiting for the time when the kingdom of Christ will fully envelop us. Hart says, 
“If the teachings of Christianity were genuinely to take root in human hearts- if indeed we all believed that God is love and that we ought to love our neighbours as ourselves- we should have no desire for war, should hate injustice worse than death, and should find indifference to the sufferings of others impossible” (17).
       The Christian Gospel looks upside down to the world- it looks like a feast of fools where a homeless beggar sits on the king’s throne, and the master of all is the servant of all. It is strange to the world. The first will be last and the last will be first. The low will be made high, and the high will be made low. God announces the arrival of his kingdom through two pregnant women, not the emperor, or the chief priest. It looks backwards and upside-down. But, perhaps it is the world that has really been upside down all along and God has arrived to put it right side up. Amen.  

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