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August 9, 2022

A Christmas song of subversion

What sort of news would make you celebrate wildly? A clean bill of health? Escaping financial worries? Newfound safety? The true end of the pandemic? How might you respond? Would you run? Would you dance? Would you sing? Would you write a new song or perhaps sing an old song that brings to mind times of peace, joy, and hope?

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, Mary receives a message from an angel telling her that she will become pregnant and give birth to the Messiah (Messiah is the Hebrew word for “the anointed one” or the King). Mary’s context is important. She is a young Jewish woman living under the thumb of a military superpower, Rome. For 500 years, the Jewish story was one of political oppression under competing imperialist powers: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Egypt, Assyria, Greece again, a brief revolt and independence, and finally Rome. Rome conquered with an iron fist, proclaiming that their subjugation of the nations heralded, “peace on earth and good will to humankind.” 

An unmarried teenager, Mary decides it is best to leave home and go to her aunt in the hill country of Judah. Upon her arrival, Aunt Liz pronounces a blessing on Mary and her child.

Mary responds to the news of the angel and the blessing from her aunt with a resounding song. Whether Mary had been working on the lyrics during her travel or she burst out extemporaneously, her composition marries the praise of God and political subversion.

We know her song as The Magnificat (Latin for magnify/exalt/glorify, the first words of her song are, “Magnifies, my soul, the Lord”). When sung today, I fear we may associate Mary’s song with warm, sentimental feelings of the Christmas season, but upon closer examination, Mary has composed a song of socio-political subversion. She sings:

He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones 

and lifted up the lowly. 

He has filled the hungry with good things 

and sent the rich away empty-handed.

Can you hear her? “Caesar is going down! Caesar is going down!” It is the sort of song that will get you on a government watch list! Unseating the powerful? Empowering those on the underside of society? Redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor? Just as we learn in any revolution or demand for social change, those benefitting from the power structure and wealth distribution do not take kindly to challenges to systemic power and wealth structures.

For my fellow grammar nerds, notice something fascinating with Mary’s verbs—they are in the past tense. While the events have not yet taken place, the original Greek uses the aorist active tense; these promises of God are so sure, they can be spoken of as completed. African American gospel hymn and protest songs show the same confidence: 

We shall overcome. 

We shall walk hand in hand. 

We shall be free. 

While these verbs are in the future tense, they use the definitive “shall.” There is no question.

A popular carol sings of “Gentle Mary.” Was Mary gentle? Perhaps, but our first introduction to her is something quite different. Perhaps we need a new carol, not about quiet and gentle Mary, but Valorous Mary! Brave Mary! Bold Mary! Tenacious Mary! Scrappy Mary! 

And Scrappy Mary passed her revolutionary, subversive ideas to her son who would one day be executed by the state as an insurrectionist.

Mary’s song presents both a warning and a call. To the comfortable, to those with enough food, enough power, enough success: beware of which side of this song you stand on. And its call is to examine our own lives and ask, we will join Brave, Bold, Valorous, Scrappy Mary in the fight for justice and equity this Christmas season and beyond?

Rev. Robby Olson is a Presbyterian pastor in Watsonville. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.


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