Mary’s Song of Praise
46 And Mary[f] said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor 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 forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Unexpected News; Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes Edited by Robert McAfee Brown, “The first two chapters of Luke give us our fullest account of Jesus’ birth and childhood. There are interpretive rather than reportorial, and we read them to the backdrop of Christian pageants—children wearing bathrobes as they move from being shepherds standing on a hillside to shepherds kneeling in a barn before a creche, in which a 75-watt bulb communicates the presence of divinity. There’s a gentle harmony to it all. Into the harmony, however comes a discordant note…Mary is a lower-class working girl in Nazareth, engaged to a local carpenter. She has a troubling vision in the midst of the morning dusting: an angel appears, understandably frightening her out of her wits, since angels, in the biblical tradition, are messengers of G-d, and what is a messenger of G-d doing with the likes of her? Even more troubling than the angel’s presence, however, is the angel’s message: Mary is going to have a baby. And since Mary, on her own testimony, has not yet slept with Joseph, or anyone else for that matter, she is more than a little mystified as to how this could happen…we have a common theme: that which was lowly is being lifted up, that which was high being cast down. And it is all G-d’s doing. It is also very political. We have managed to hide this fact from ourselves, but it is a fact that has led our sisters and brothers in the third world to give the song a central place in their lives. And so the question to us goes: Can we move beyond the comfortably demure Mary of our tradition to the uncomfortably militant Mary of their tradition?
It strikes us as strange, to start with, that a political perspective could be found in a prayer. Politics and singing we can understand- after all, the great political themes of the 1960s were enunciated by the folksingers, and in every modern revolution it seems to be the musicians who articulated the hopes of the masses. The dictators knew this. When General Pinochet and his U.S. backed juanta seized power in the coupe in Chile…they chopped off the hands of Victor Jara, whose guitar playing had been a catalyst for the hopes of the poor and oppressed.
Politics and songs, yes. But politics and prayer? That goes against our desire to keep life compartmentalized: ‘religious’ activities here, ‘political’ activities here. But Mary’s song cuts through all that tidiness, just as the son she is carrying will do later on, challenging the Herods and the Caesars, doing ‘secular’ things on the Sabbath like picking corn and healing the sick, and getting arrested and killed as a threat to the political order. To start with G-d (as Mary’s song does) and end with G-d (as her song also does) means lots and lots of politics in between (as the intervening verses demonstrate).
Mary, then, begins with praise: her soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in G-d her Savior. Why? Because in her, G-d has turned things upside down. Another kind of G-d, if about to send a Son into the world, would surely have chosen a mother from royalty, or at least from the ranks of the upper class. But not this G-d to whom Mary is singing; no this G-d has stooped to regard the ‘low estate of G-d’s handmaiden’ (Luke 1:48; some translations have ‘slave; instead of ‘handmaiden,’ which makes the point even more vivid). This G-d pays special attention to the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved. You are looking for a Savior? Don’t look to the royal courts, look among the slaves. Don’t look to the capital city, Jerusalem, look to the boondocks, Nazareth. ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46), the later taunted, and the very tone of the question refuted in advance of the claims of anyone who came from there.
But G-d is not beholden to human estimates of worth. It is a peasant girl, one of no account, whom G-d raises up, so that henceforth all generations will call her blessed (Luke 1:48). Mary can hardly believe it: ‘G-d who is mighty has done great things for me; (Luke 1:49)- for me, Mary What’s-her-name from the wrong side of the tracks, the one with no education, structure of multinational corporation, the one who is the object of a lot of sly talk and gossip (“Impregnated by the Holy Ghost indeed! A likely story…”) If this is the way G-d operates, all bets are off. Our assessments of who is important must be put on hold…Mary’s song continues, as she moves from signing about herself to singing about all who worship G-d from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50)…
“The mighty” are not only political nations and empires but economic manipulators of other people’s destines, those who decide which plant will close and which stay open; or decide that Nicaragua must fall regardless of what the people of Nicaragua want; or decree that their corporation will destroy and independent company through a price war, since they can sustain a loss until the smaller competitor gives up.
“…and exalted those of low degree.” Mary is saying that “those of low degree,” meaning those without power- the oppressed, the no-account, the poor—are the ones G-d will lift up…”G-d has filled the hungry with good things…”Imagine the hope such a claim would engender in the two thirds of the human family who go to bed hungry every night…
There is a final claim, so strange that we seldom notice it: G-d has helped G-d’s servant Israel…” G-d helping a servant? Surely it is the other way around: servants help masters. But Mary informs us that “the other way around” has become the wrong way around. The One who needs nothing helps those who need everything. It’s all in reverse. And if servants are around to be “helped,” then they are no longer servants but something else. Friends, companions, equals?…
As Elsa Tamez puts it, Mary’s song does not speak of “Individuals undergoing moral change but of the restructuring of the order in which there are rich and poor, mighty and lowly” (Bible of the Oppressed, p. 68, italics added). And Gustavo Gutierrez, after noting how the first part of the song emphasizes joy in being loved by G-d (Luke 1:47-49), reminds us that thanksgiving and joy ‘are closely linked to the action of G-d who liberates the oppressed and humbles the powerful.’ His hopeful conclusion is that ‘the future of history belongs to the poor and exploited. True liberation will be the work of the oppressed themselves; in them, the Lord saves history” (Mary’s song is a call to revolutionary action….
In Latin America, there are a few biblical passages more widely used than Mary’s song. In the light of our textual study, it seems likely that Christians there have heard the words more accurately than we have, and that the best thing we can do is try to listen to what they hear…
“The Mass is ended.”
With these words, spoken in Spanish by the celebrant, several thousand worshippers get to their feet, preparing to leave the assembly hall. They have been at a “summer course” in Lima, Peru, offered for people who want to see how theology and Scripture and Catholic spirituality can be means for overcoming the poverty and oppression and injustice that characterized the villages to which they will return. As they leave the hall, they start singing. And what are they signing? Mary’s song.
My wife and I are there, strangers to the culture and partway strangers even to the language. The words they are singing are familiar; we share, after all, the same Scriptures. But on another level the words are brand-new never before heard by either of us. For on the lips of poor and oppressed people, the words are transformed from the whispers of a dutiful maiden into the promise of wide-scale victory soon to be achieved.
Those who have every reason to wonder whether G-d can no longer be called a G-d of justice and power are singing “G-d has shown strength with G-d’s arm.”
Those who have been threatened and imprisoned by leaders whose grip on power seems secure are singing, “G-d has put down the mighty from their thrones.”
Those who have seen their families ground down and destroyed, with no apparent hope of ever rising again, are singing “G-d has exalted those of low degree.”
Those who worry about food for themselves and their children are singing, “G-d has filled the hungry with good things.”
Those from whom the rich take more and more, whether legally or illegally, are singing, “And the rich G-d has sent empty away.”
They are singing of a new order, a new world in which all expectations have been turned around…
In a South American country where there has been great persecution of church leaders, a number of priests have cast their lot with the poor, living in the slum area of a large city…and conducting informal Sunday ‘liturgies’ as which the people comment on events of the week, and the priests relate those events to appropriate biblical passages. One such exchange went like this:
Priest: Today is September 12. Does that date mean anything special to you?
Response: Three years ago yesterday Allende was killed in Chile and the Chileans lost their leader. Now they are suffering repression. Allende’s death makes me think of the death of Martin Luther King.
Priest: Why do you think of the deaths of those two together?
Response: Because both of them were concerned about oppressed people.
Priest: Doesn’t the day mean anything but death to you?
Response: Well, today is also the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary. So this day also makes me think of her.
Priest: Is there any connection between Allende and Martin Luther King and Mary?
Response: I guess that would depend on whether Mary was concerned with oppressed people too.
Priest: Let me read part of Mary’s song, the Magnificent in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: ‘G-d has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich has sent empty away.”
Response: Bravo! But, Father, that doesn’t sound at all like the Mary we hear about in the cathedral. And the Mary in the “holy pictures” certainly doesn’t look like a person who would talk that way.
Priest: Tell me about the Mary in the holy pictures.
Response (displaying a picture): Here she is. She is standing on a crescent moon. She is wearing a crown. She has rings on her fingers. She has a blue robe embodied with gold.
Priest: That does sound like a different Mary from the Mary of the song! Do you think the picture has betrayed the Mary of the song?
Response: The Mary who said that G-d ‘has exalted those of low degree’ would not have left all of her friends so she could stand on the moon. Take her off the moon!
Priest: The Mary ho said that G-d “has put down the mighty from their thrones” would not be wearing a crown.
Response: Take off her crown!
Priest: The Mary who said that G-d ‘has sent the rich away empty’ would not be wearing rings on her fingers.
Response: Take off her rings!
Priest: The Mary who said that G-d has ‘filled the hungry with good things’ would not have left people who were still hungry to wear a silk robe embroidered with gold.
Response: Take off her robe! (Anguished response) But, Father, this is not right! We’re- we’re doing a striptease of the Virgin.
Priest: Very well. If you don’t like the way Mary looks in this picture, what do you think the Mary of the song would look like?
Response: The Mary of the song would not be standing on the moon. She would be standing in the dirt and dust where we stand. The Mary of the song would not be wearing a crown. She would have on an old hat like the rest of us, to keep the sun from causing her to faint. The Mary of the song would not be wearing jeweled rings on her fingers. She would have rough hands like ours. The Mary of the song would not be wearing a silk robe embroidered with gold. She would be wearing old clothes like the rest of us.
Father, it may be awful to say this, but it sounds as though Mary would look just like me! My feet are dirty, my hat is old, my hands are rough, and my clothes are torn.
Priest: No I don’t think it is awful to say that. I think the Mary you have al described is more like the Mary of the Bible than the Mary we hear about in the cathedral and see in all the holy pictures.
Response: I think she is more at home in the slums…than in the cathedral…I think her message is more hopeful for those in the slums. For she says that G-d puts down the mighty from their thrones and sends the rich away empty. She is with those who are the bottom of the heap and very hungry, but she tells us that G-d exalts those of low degree and fills the hungry with good things.
Priest: Now let’s see, how could we begin to help G-d bring those things to pass?
Adapted from Unexpected News; Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes Edited by Robert McAfee Brown,