46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favour 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.” (Luke 1:46-55)
“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 is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. 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 collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Mary of Nazareth, a poor first-century Jewish woman living in a land occupied by powerful and oppressive foreign forces, is the most celebrated female figure in the history of Christianity. God chose her, a poor and oppressed young woman, to bring forth the saviour of the world. This shows the powerful things God can do through those who seem most insignificant, indeed the ones who are truly “blessed”—something Mary recognizes in her Magnificat, her “Song of Praise,” which must, in some ways, unsettle us modern Christians.
Mary’s Magnificat spills out of her heart after her cousin Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist, acknowledges her as “blessed among women.” This is unexpected: a poor woman who is blessed? A lowly one who is lifted up? The Magnificat reflects the way God stirs up human society in favour of the poor and oppressed. It is because of this that Mary is incredibly joyful, a joy that overflows into her praising God. Mary says that God “has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant” (v. 48). Rather than choosing someone of prominence to carry God’s Son, God chose her—a lowly servant. Mary says that God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts… [and] he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (vv. 51b-53). In this, we see God’s kingdom turning human structures upside down. Mary gives us some very challenging words here…
The Magnificat is often recited in our churches at Christmastime, and I wonder if we have heard it so many times that we fail to recognize the powerful words within the passage. Do we take seriously what Mary said? If we do, I think the Magnificat must unsettle us a bit. For me, the most unsettling verse is 53. I live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world as a middle-class white woman. I wouldn’t consider myself “rich,” but I certainly am in comparison to other areas of the world, and especially in comparison to the ancient Israelites. In many ways, I think Mary’s Magnificat is a prelude to the Beatitudes—Jesus telling us who is truly “blessed.” Mary’s Magnificat (and indeed the entire gospel message) forces us to ask ourselves certain questions. How much of my life is devoted to the pursuit of security, riches, and power? How often do I hold to my material goods rather than sharing them with the poor? In what ways am I clinging to my privilege at the expense of others? In many ways, people like you and I are the “rich” ones that God has “sent away empty.”
But I don’t think the Magnificat’s purpose is to make us feel guilty for what we have—its purpose is to call us to conversion and inspire us to partake in the missio Dei. The Magnificat calls us to live a life like Mary’s. It calls us to be God’s servants in the world, serving others as a reflection of the coming kingdom, even at the expense of our own stability and privilege. Mary’s Magnificat should stir us up to partner in Christ’s mission of lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things.
Therefore, this Advent and Christmas, I challenge you to think of ways you can better live out the mission of God. If the poor, oppressed, and lowly are the ones who are truly blessed, how can you serve them better? In what ways do you need to surrender your own privileges, giving of yourself so that others may live?
This Advent, may we live as God’s servants. May we be truly humble in the service of others. May we let Mary’s Magnificat challenge us to be honest about our values, privileges, and desires. May we be honest with ourselves about the need to stir up existing social and economic structures so that the poor and oppressed may live—just as Christ himself did. Indeed, this Advent, may we use the privileges we have been given as a means of lifting up the lowly. May we let nothing again be casual or small. This is by no means an easy task, but the end result is worth it—the bringing about of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Kaitlyn Lightfoot is a student in the Master of Arts in Theology program at Acadia Divinity College. She also serves on the board of ASBE.