Today’s scripture readings:
I made it through the entire reading of that Gospel lesson without the police busting down the doors to arrest me or assassins taking me out, so we’re off to a good start. It hasn’t always been the case that someone could read this passage aloud in public without facing terrible consequences. During the British rule in India, the singing of Mary’s song in worship services—which has been a daily practice in some Christian traditions for centuries—was forbidden because it was deemed subversive. In Argentina, mothers made this song their own when their children were abducted during Argentina’s Dirty War. These women scribbled Mary’s words on posters and displayed them on street corners and in windows until, eventually, the song was banned. During El Salvador’s Civil War in the 1970s, Archbishop Oscar Romero dared to compare Mary to the poor and powerless peasants of his own community, and he ended up being assassinated at the altar as he celebrated the mass.
Mary’s song has always made people uncomfortable. It is said that when Luther translated the Bible into German, he opted to leave this passage in Latin, untranslated, because he figured the German politicians who protected him in his struggles against the Pope probably wouldn’t want the German people reading about the mighty being cast down from their thrones.
Mary’s song—often referred to as the Magnificat for its first word in the Latin translation—has been a subversive little song from the very beginning. In Mary’s day, life for the Jewish people was fraught with political strife and uncertainty. The Roman military had crushed many Jewish rebellions that had been conducted against the Roman Empire. The people were tired of being treated as second-class citizens and suffering repeated indignities. Besides economic oppression and the day-to-day cruelty they faced, what really upset the Jewish people was being required to worship the Roman emperor as a God. This went against everything they believed. It was religious abuse. Over and over again, in the face of overwhelming Roman military might, the Jewish people were forced to choose between collaboration with the empire on the one hand and seemingly futile resistance on the other.
One day, a teenage girl named Mary is hanging out with her fiancé Joseph in their backwater town in rural Israel, and an angel comes to speak with her. The angel says she’s going to have a child who will be the Son of the Most High. He’ll be Israel’s king and he’s going to rule forever. Mary says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me as you say.” And then this poor, young, unwed, pregnant peasant girl sings a song about a God who is always knocking powerful people off their thrones and lifting up those who are poor and insignificant. She sings about God sending rich people off empty-handed but preparing a feast for the hungry. If the choice was between collaboration and resistance, Mary chose to sing a song about resistance.
As Jesus grows up, we discover that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Mary’s sense of how God is at work in the world, orchestrating a great reversal that brings the powerful down and lifts up the lowly—what Mary knew to be true shapes Jesus’ own ministry later in his life. Think about that for a second: Jesus learns about justice from his mom. Who knows, maybe the Magnificat was the lullaby Mary sang to Jesus as a baby each night as he was falling asleep. Or maybe each year on his birthday, Mary would repeat the story of how the angel came to her to tell her about the child she would bring into the world and how she responded with this song about God looking favorably upon those who are humble and unimportant. One way or another, Jesus learned from his mother that God would not let oppression go unchecked; that, ultimately, those who endured exploitation or just felt overlooked or left behind would receive God’s blessing.
Each year on August 15 many Christians remember Mary, the mother of our Lord. That date seems to have been chosen somewhat randomly about 1,500 years ago. But when August 15 falls on a Sunday, the liturgical calendar gives us the option of celebrating Mary in our worship service, which is what we’ve chosen to do today. It’s a little like Christmas in July—just a month late. Some traditions teach that at the end of her life, Mary was assumed bodily into heaven, rather than dying and being buried. This teaching fit with the medieval understanding that death was punishment for sin, and since Mary had come to be considered sinless, she would not have died in the normal way. That isn’t so much how our Lutheran tradition thinks of Mary. We instead choose to focus on Mary’s courageous choice to say yes to God’s call. I also wonder if today could be a day to reflect on the ways Mary’s own sense of God’s justice shaped Jesus’ ministry—how Mary’s faith in a God who sided with the poor and oppressed created the conditions for Jesus’ ministry of love and justice to take root and flourish.
The 14th-century Domincan monk Meister Eckhart once wrote, “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.” Maybe this day when we celebrate Mary could be a day for each one of us to reflect on how we are giving birth to God in our own time—how we are creating the conditions for love and justice to be born in our world.
We are living in difficult times. The pandemic that we all thought just a few months ago was finally about to be behind us rages on, causing some of us to wonder, will rolling waves of lockdowns and mask mandates and booster shots become the new normal? So many people have become so mistrustful of authority that we can’t even agree as a society that COVID is a real thing, much less that the vaccines that have been developed are safe and effective ways to defeat it. Nations around the world, including our own, seem to be stumbling toward autocracy and abandoning democracy. Here in this wealthiest country on the planet, the gulf between rich and poor continues to grow wider and wider. Our planet keeps getting hotter and hotter and scientists say our window of opportunity to halt the worst effects of climate change is closing quickly. It all just feels so incredibly overwhelming.
Paul Vasile writes in a blog post that in the midst of such fear and uncertainty, “We pray that God will come again. We hold out hope for lasting peace, for justice that will reorder our world…. We want things to be better than they are. And sometimes that’s as far as we go. But it’s not enough to wait, to hope, to pray. The Love we long for is something that we give birth to, that we tend and nurture. The peace and justice that transform the world come from us, from our personal and collective intention…. Like Mary, we are given the gift of choice. We can say yes to a creative, generative, transformative calling or we can shrink in self doubt, discouragement, or fear.”
With Mary, we are given a responsibility—a responsibility that is also a privilege. We are called by God and given the opportunity to give birth to justice that reorders the world and makes things right. We are the ones who will make space for God’s work to be done in the world. What good is it to us if Mary gave birth to the Son of God and we do not also give birth to the Son of God here in our world today? God is always needing to be born. We are all called to be mothers of God.
John M. Buchanon, “Revolutionary words,” in the Christian Century, published December 12, 2012, accessed August 12, 2021, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-11/revolutionary-words.
Karoline Lewis, “A Merciful Advent,” on WorkingPreacher.org, published December 13, 2015, accessed August 14, 2021, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/a-merciful-advent.
Richard Rohr, “‘Mothering’ God,” Center for Action and Contemplation, published December 25, 2019, accessed August 10, 2021, https://cac.org/mothering-god-2019-12-25/.
Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988).
Kyndall Rae Rothaus, “Mary’s Magnificat,” published December 20, 2015, accessed August 12, 2021, https://lsbcwaco.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/20151220sermon.pdf.
Paul Vasile, “We are all meant to be mothers of God,” published December 23, 2015, accessed August 9, 2021, https://www.paulvasile.com/blog/2015/12/23/we-are-all-meant-to-be-mothers-of-god.