Sermon Advent 1 Magnificat (Luke 1) Rev. Betsy Hogan
I learned something new about Mary and the Magnificat this week.
That’s the portion of the reading from Luke’s gospel that Daneen just read for us that’s Mary’s response to Elizabeth when Elizabeth greets her. The part that begins “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.”
Magnificat is just the first world of that sentence in the Latin translation that trickled into most classical church music via the traditional Latin mass of Medieval times. Magnificat is just “it magnifies”: Magnificat anima mea, my soul magnifies, Dominum, the Lord.
And so “the Magnificat” has become a kind of shorthand for Mary’s song of praise and thanksgiving – her response to Elizabeth’s greeting and her response to her own pregnancy as revealed to her by the Angel Gabriel.
It’s a soul and spirit response – it’s a whole body response, really. I always think of it as kind of a precursor to “fall on your knees”, that chorus in O Holy Night, when it’s like there’s physically no alternative. The feelings are just too big.
And for Mary in this moment, the feelings are just too big. It’s like the “Broadway Musical” version of a book only in this case when the heroine suddenly weirdly bursts into song, it was actually written that way.
This IS a song, the Magnificat. It has parallels back to the Song of Hannah in the Older Testament book of Samuel, and it IS actually a song, even if we just have to imagine the music for it.
But that’s not what I learned about it this week. Because what I learned about it this week is that there have been times, and there have been places, where it was banned.
This Bible passage from the gospel of Luke, the verses we call Mary’s Magnificat, that literally gets read at some point every single year during the season of Advent because it’s right smack dab in the middle of the preamble-to-Christmas stories –
There’ve been times and there’ve been places where it was banned. By Christian regimes in Christian contexts.
It was prohibited to read or sing the Magnificat in churches in India during the imperial rule of the British Raj, prior to Indian independence. It was banned from use in worship in Guatemala in the 1980s. And it was banned from use and from any visual representation in Argentina, from the 1970s through to the 1990s.
I don’t know of any other piece of Christian scripture that’s ever been banned like that by a Christian regime. It’s kind of mind-blowing. Though in a way it’s also a little bit depressing.
Because at least, if it’s banned, at least it means that the regime in question that’s doing the banning recognizes how dangerous it is.
Because it is. Mary’s Magnificat is gloriously dangerous. It’s gloriously subversive and gloriously revolutionary and gloriously dangerous to anyone attached to the way things are because it’s GOOD for them, the way things are.
Because it’s quite easy to hold Mary’s Magnificat within its context of Israel under brutal occupation by the Roman Empire. It’s easy to limit its import to that particular place and time – when God brings down the powerful from their thrones, it’s the terrible Roman emperors. When God lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things, it’s the beleaguered occupied Jewish community, and when God sends the rich away empty, it’s the oppressors, the rulers, the violent Roman soldiers.
It's them, them, them, the OTHER, when we limit the import of the Magnificat to the particularity of Mary’s own context.
But that was never how it was meant to be read. Because it emerges directly from the fullness of the prophetic tradition that LONG predates the Romans turning up and it’s an expression of joyful fierce conviction that God doesn’t let ANY injustice stand.
That oppression is oppression is oppression in ANY context – and those thrones don’t have to be real. They can be very very very metaphorical, and the powerful and the rich would do well to take that seriously. Because they will go down. God IS on the side of the hungry and the poor and the oppressed, and Mary’s joyful fierce conviction is meant to be transcendent.
It's not an expression of faith of God then. It’s an expression of faith in God always and everywhere.
So for anyone, at any time, attached to the way things are because for them it’s good the way things are… Mary’s Magnificat is dangerously subversive and revolutionary.
And I have to say, I sort of love it a little bit that the British Raj and the violent military regimes in Guatemala and Argentina in the late 20th century took that seriously. I mean, am I glad the Magnificat was banned? No, of course not.
But I do kind of love the fact that its manifest power and the fierceness of its conviction that God does not allow oppression to stand… was recognized. We don’t always understand, in non-European or post-colonial cultures, either the source of or the reason for the particular veneration of Mary – but for a great many people, the epic power of the Magnificat is at least part of the explanation why Mary is and has been so central to many people’s faithfulness.
And so for regimes wanting to suppress any possible uprising or claiming of space by a poor and hungry and oppressed underclass, her Magnificat had to be banned.
Little Mary, only young, pregnant and unmarried, no choice, occupied – she says the only words in the scriptures that made them afraid.
It’s spectacular. Of course… those regimes all missed exactly WHY the Magnificant should make them afraid –
They all presumably assumed it’d be an incitement to riot, a call to actual taking-up-arms revolution, a rallying cry for violent uprising…
And I suppose that could’ve been the case, it’s entirely possible, but the reality is that that was never what it was about Mary’s Magnificat that had so much power and it was never what it was about Mary’s Magnificat that should’ve shaken them in their boots.
Because the power, in fact, was just in the certainty. It was just in the absolute unwavering conviction that oppression and injustice never get the last word. That they ARE being overturned, that they WILL be overturned, but also that they already HAVE BEEN overturned.
If we look at the verb tenses in the Magnificat, it’s all in the aorist tense, in the past tense: “completed”. God has cast the powerful from their thrones, God has lifted up the lowly, God has sent the rich empty away. God’s in fact been at this overturning the whole time, and hasn’t ceased, and is STILL at it. So oppression and injustice can’t have the last word.
They simply can’t. It’s just a calm, undramatic but unwavering certainty that Mary has. It’s unshakeable.
It’s the same unwavering certainty that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid activist made reference to when he called himself a “prisoner of hope”.
Which again is a phrase from the Hebrew prophets, in this case Zechariah. A prisoner of hope. It’s remarkably evocative of the notion of not being able to not be hopeful. Because there really was for Archbishop Tutu, just as for Mary, this kind of calm and undramatic but absolutely unwavering certainty. That was inescapable. He was a prisoner of hope. He couldn’t not be hopeful.
There’s a famous story told about him, long before apartheid in South Africa finally ended, when the South African government refused to allow an anti-apartheid rally to happen, and so he made a church service instead, at the cathedral in Cape Town. And after it had begun, the government sent in armed police to line the walls encircling the congregation to intimidate them –
And as Tutu preached against the vicious racism and oppression of apartheid, he paused at one point and addressed the police directly. And he said to them, “You are powerful. You’re very powerful. But you are not gods. And I serve a God who cannot be mocked.
“So since you’ve already lost…” he said to them, “since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”
It was years after that, that apartheid finally ended. But that’s what it means to be a prisoner of hope. You can’t not hope. It’s simply there.
That’s what made Desmond Tutu powerful and dangerous. It’s what’s powerful and subversive and dangerous about the simple fierce conviction of Mary in the Magnificat. In this moment of owning this pregnancy she carries, no choice, occupied, she just can’t not hope. Because God is God so oppression and injustice WILL go down. They don’t get the last word. Ever.
Should we be shaking in our boots? Maybe we should be. I know I benefit from the way things are, and I know the way things are isn’t right, and I know I’m not the only one here who can honestly say both those things. So we COULD start shaking in our boots.
Or we could dare to ask ourselves, from deep inside our faithfulness, what it would take from us to make Mary’s Magnificat ring here with so much fierce conviction, prisoners of hope, that it’d be dangerous enough, subversive enough, revolutionary enough, powerful enough – to ban.
Not that I want this to be the kind of place where anyone actually bans the reading of a piece of scripture. But I do feel like maybe this would be a good Advent and Christmas season for a great many people to learn a little something new about Mary and her Magnificat.