Find any nativity set, and we all know the familiar characters: Mary, Joseph, the little baby Jesus, and the various barnyard animals. Mary’s story is central to the Christmas narrative in the Gospel of Luke. Yet beyond the endearing Hallmark Christmas card representations of her and the paintings and statues that usually depict her with either a docile, youthful innocence or a regal kind of majesty, who was the woman of Nazareth who bore Jesus in her womb?
And how does her life have any relevance to us today, especially during the Advent season?
The Gospel of Luke is a good place to begin looking for insight into Mary because it offers us a very distinctive portrayal of the Messiah who she would give birth to.
Luke presents Jesus as a prophet who sides with the poor and oppressed, exemplified in the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The idea of reversal, that God came for the poor, is the essence of the book of Luke.
In the first chapter, we find the Magnificat, also known as Mary’s song, a hymn of praise sung by a young teen girl in response to hearing the news that she would be the parent of the long awaited Messiah:
Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.
— (Luke 1:46-55)
A Woman’s Untamed Praise
Mary, a socially and politically marginalized Jew in a region occupied by the Roman Empire, lived at the lowest strata of Ancient Near Eastern society, which was also deeply patriarchal. Women were not considered to be full citizens or even fully human. In this context of living at the margins with regard to social location, gender, and economic status, Mary announces that the unjust structures that have fashioned her and her people into a subaltern state of existence were being reversed. She breaks out in song, praising the God of the Israelites who had freed her people from the slavery of Egypt and Babylon.
The crux of salvation history, according to Jewish consciousness, was liberation from enslavement to Pharaoh and the oppressive rule they were made to endure for generations. In the Jewish understanding, salvation was understood to be synonymous with liberation. Political and social emancipation, intimately tied to psychological and spiritual autonomy, was salvific truth embodied together in community.
Mary’s words recapitulate the Jewish prophetic tradition of interrogating religio-political systems that oppress society’s outsiders and impoverished. Her song of praise, then, isn’t a submissive canticle of compliance to God’s will as is told from pulpits nationwide every December. Her canticle isn’t lyrically docile. It is praise at its most raw, untamed, and status-quo disrupting form.
Let there be no mistake — Marian doxology invites revolution.
Her words have been seen as a threat to dictators, power brokers, and autocrats for two millennia. They were banned from being read or sung in India during the British colonial administration and in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. Argentina outlawed them during the Dirty War years — the mothers of disappeared children put Mary’s song on public display and, in response, the government forbade the words in public places.
A song of salvation whose social, political, and economic dimensions cannot be underestimated, Mary’s words portending the end of oppression intimidate the leaders of the domination systems of this world — a threat even more potent coming from a woman.
Neither a peaceful dove nor a gentle mother as so many of our cultural hymns would have it, Mary’s feminine power was raw, wild, and courageous. Mary of Nazareth is Christianity’s original subversive woman. In tenor with her song, we can enter Advent with a posture of resistance, subversion, the hope of injustice being overturned, and a joyful faith that expects the reversal of inequity.
Subversive Praise in 2019 America
Though ever incendiary, Mary’s subversive worship of offers more than prophetic witness against. Her words also narrate hopeful anticipation for, especially on behalf of the economically poor and socially outcast, those who exist within the underbelly of the global village. “The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded: all are encompassed in the hope Mary proclaims.” (Elizabeth Johnson)
If Mary lived in our country today, she’d be a 14-year-old Black girl struggling to get by in Flint or an adolescent Latina eking out an existence with her immigrant parents in gentrifying El Paso. And her song of praise to the anti-racist and anti-nationalist, pro-poor, and pro-human rights God she worships might read something like this:
I can’t contain my excitement about this!
Out of all people, he noticed me, a poor, pregnant teenager!
Everyone will call me blessed from now on.
God’s love is so much greater than I can even imagine.
He showed his love for everyone, even those society despises,
the LGBTQIA community, immigrants, asylum seekers, the addicted and shamed.
God knows that Black Lives Matter; refugees and the poor are his beloved.
All people who are seen as less than human, he knows and loves.
He lifts up those who are preyed upon by corrupt politicians,
the hungry, the ones brutalized by the police and ICE, and families without healthcare.
He invites each of us to the table to speak and tell our story, to be heard and known.
The power-hungry perpetrators who care only about their agendas don’t have the last word!
I can sense his presence, holding me and all his children close, faithfully liberating us.
Just as he promised he would.
Mary’s subversive words are timeless. They crescendo across time and sociopolitical context to speak into the particular landscape in which we have found ourselves situated. Entering into Advent through Mary’s prophetic praise challenges us to imagine the new social order of which she spoke, to reject practices of individual, institutional, and governmental oppression and exploitation, and to refashion our shared life together around the politics of God’s kingdom of compassion.
This Advent may we reimagine Mary’s vision, not as something lost to the past, but as a vehicle for a newly ordered present.
A version of this piece was first published at Missio Alliance.