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Anthem of the free

Author: Paul Woolley, 1 December 2016

Has the gentle nature of Christmas carols dulled the subversive quality of The Magnificat? Paul Woolley takes a fresh look at the original Christmas song and shows us how Mary, its author, ushers in a new world order. 

If you hear the word ‘subversive’, what or who do you think of? I’d wager you don’t think of the Magnificat or Mary. You probably think of Che Guevara.

Subversive activity is that which destroys or undermines an established or existing order, and, given that, Mary and her song (Luke 1:46-55) should almost certainly be included in this category.

The context of Mary’s song (called the Magnificat from the Latin of ‘magnifies’ in verse 46) is the appearance of the angel Gabriel announcing that she would conceive and give birth to a son, and Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth.

Subversive activity is that which destroys or undermines an established or existing order

When Mary entered the house and greeted her, John leaped inside Elizabeth’s womb. She was filled with the Spirit and declared that Mary was blessed. Mary’s response, like all authentic worship, deflects attention away from herself and towards God, creator and saviour: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,’ she said ‘and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.’ (vs 46-47)

As is usual with this kind of song, the initial expression of praise is followed by a statement giving grounds for it. So, what are the grounds for Mary’s praise and what’s subversive about them?

Me, myself and thy

Firstly, there are personal grounds for praise. In vs 46-49, the emphasis is on the first person pronoun, ‘my’ and ‘me’. Mary reflects on the fact that God has looked graciously on her humble status and attitude towards him. In some contexts, ‘humble status’ is a euphemism for barrenness, but here it refers to Mary’s relative poverty (see also Luke 2:24).

If we are ever tempted to think that our social or economic status affects God’s ability or willingness to do great things in us or through us, Mary’s experience challenges us to think again. Contrary to dominant cultural attitudes, ancient and modern, our value is emphatically not defined in social or economic terms, but by the fact that we are created in the image of God.

In a world where the wealthy appear to call the shots, Mary’s song reminds us that, in God’s kingdom, they don’t. In choosing Mary to bear the ‘Son of the Most High’ (1:32), God has overlooked rank and class, and overturned the social norms and conventions of the first century.

And I owe it all to you

In vs 50-55, the emphasis shifts from the first person to the third person.

‘His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.’

In this part of her song, Mary considers God’s action in the history of his people. Indeed, Mary sees her story as part of this wider story. God’s extraordinary power (vs. 49) is combined with extraordinary mercy (vs. 50, 54) towards those who fear him.

Mary sees her story as part of a wider story

Mary not only praises God because he is mighty, but because, through successive generations, he has acted out of compassion towards his people. God has acted to save his people.

In Mary’s song, we see allusions to God’s central saving act in the Old Testament, the exodus, the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. In the event of the exodus, and in the plagues leading up to it, God displayed unequivocally both his power and the powerlessness of those, like Pharaoh or Caesar, who thought they were divine and therefore in charge. They were wrong.

The claims of those in positions of authority are totally relativized and subverted by Mary’s claim that their authority is subject to God’s own authority. God’s kingdom is all encompassing. He has brought down rulers from their thrones. God is God, and they are not.   

New world order

In Mary’s song, as elsewhere in Luke’s gospel (e.g. Luke 6, 14, 22-24), the established order is challenged and fortunes are reversed. Some commentators talk about this in terms of the world being turned ‘upside down’. In reality, of course, God is the one who turns everything the right way up. When God’s kingdom breaks in we see how things are and how they should be, which, though right, can be unsettling.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a conversation takes place between Susan and Mr Beaver about Aslan. ‘“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion,” said Mr Beaver. “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”… “Safe?” said Mr Beaver … “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn't safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”’

‘Safe’ is not an adjective to be applied to the God of which Mary speaks.

God is the one who turns everything the right way up

The God of Mary’s song and the events she describes challenges the established order of things and change the way we expect life’s course to run. This might unsettle and even disturb us, but it is good. It is the way that things should be and really are. In the words of Revelation 11:15, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’

The remarkable thing about Mary is that she was probably only 12 or 13 years old when these events happened. In high Anglican and Catholic churches today this humble girl with a courageous heart is often seen as a symbol of the church or a model of what the church should be like. Well, may it be so, but let’s be ready for what this might mean. Jesus isn’t safe – our assumptions and established order will be challenged by him – but he is very good. He’s the King, I tell you.

Paul Woolley is Deputy Chief Executive at Bible Society. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulTWoolley

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