Some years ago, I was at an event where, as an ice-breaker, we were asked to tell each other what our favourite passage from the Bible was, and why. I wonder what your answer would be to that question? My answer was – and is – the passage which is part of today’s gospel reading: the Magnificat, the song of Mary.
For me, this is one of those pieces of scripture which has made its way deep into my bones. It has somehow become part of me, and it has shaped who I am and who I am becoming in all sorts of ways. It has done that partly through repetition. I have said or sung or heard it almost every day for most of my adult life as part of the liturgy of Evening Prayer. I first got into that habit when I was a student at Oxford. In my college chapel, Choral Evensong was a daily occurrence, and the words of the Magnificat, in the older translation of the Book of Common Prayer, would rise toward the vaulted stone ceiling: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour…”
It was, perhaps, an ironic setting in which to fall in love with the Magnificat: an Oxbridge college, the very epitome of entrenched privilege. For 500 years, that chapel has rung with the revolutionary words of Mary: “he hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away”. And yet, in that place as in so many places, the privilege of the rich and the mighty has always been obvious. For hundreds of years, the students who have sat in that chapel and heard that song, day after day, have been predominantly white, predominantly wealthy and, until very recently, all male, and have been schooled to perpetuate an inheritance of privilege, the extent of which most of us can barely begin to get our heads around. And yet, daily, that education is punctuated by Mary’s vision of a very different, God-shaped world. It’s a strange contrast.
At the other end of the sociological spectrum, the Magnificat is much loved by activists, especially those of a more catholic persuasion, myself among them. It is read by many who strive for a more just world as a mandate for action, a manifesto for what that world could look like: the powerful brought down, and the lowly lifted up; the poor fed, and the rich sent away hungry. That sounds like good news for people living in poverty, good news for people who feel powerless, forgotten or excluded. And it is, as the Good News, the Gospel, always should be. It is easy to see how the Magnificat has become the touchstone of liberation theology, which declares God’s preferential option for the poor: that God is on the side of those who are oppressed and excluded, in solidarity with all who seek justice.
But notice something about the text. Notice the tense of the verbs: “the mighty one has done great things”, “he has brought down the powerful”, “he has filled the hungry”. Past tense. God has done it. And yet… and yet we have only to look around us, or turn on the news, to see that the powerful remain powerful, and the hungry – too often, despite the best efforts of many – remain hungry. So what are we to make of that?
And notice something else about the verbs in this passage – notice who is doing them: God. God is the one who lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful. God is the one who overturns systems of privilege and brings justice. The Magnificat is not, primarily, a manifesto for human action. So where does that leave us?
To say that God has done these things is not, of course, to deny the persistent reality of injustice in the world. The kin-dom of God is an eternal reality, already established, but not yet fully realised. It is that now-and-not-yet which is the essence of this Advent season. We catch glimpses now of what has always been and will always be. And we are called to find ways to expand and magnify and – most importantly – share those glimpses of the kin-dom in ways which make them real and tangible.
To say that the verbs in the Magnificat belong to God is not to say that we should be passive, any more than Mary is passive, in response to what God has done and is doing. We are invited to participate in the life and work of God’s kin-dom. We, like Mary, are invited to say ‘yes’ to whatever part God is calling us to play. But the work is not ours to begin or ours to complete. Certainly it is not ours to control. We are not called to build the kin-dom. God has already created it. We are called to receive it, and to reveal it, which is precisely what Mary does in the Magnificat. And in receiving and revealing the kin-dom of justice which God has already established we, like Mary, praise and glorify God.
The Magnificat is more than a manifesto for justice. It is a statement of who God is. God is the one who disrupts privilege and overturns injustice. God is the one who is on the side of people who find themselves on the underside of the unjust systems in which we are all caught up. God is the one who has already – in Jesus whose coming and coming again we now await with eager longing – overcome all the powers of death and destruction which now distort our troubled world. God is the one who, by the life of the Holy Spirit in us, invites us to participate in a different way of living, to live in ways which reveal the kin-dom of God among us.
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour.” Rejoice in knowing that God has been, and is, and will be establishing a realm of perfect justice throughout the whole creation. Rejoice in knowing that God is tearing down every form of privilege and division and oppression which separates neighbour from neighbour. Rejoice in knowing that we are invited to participate in that work. Rejoice in knowing that even in the bastions of power and privilege a different song is already, even now, being sung. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ reflection series.