You have to listen closely to Mary’s song. You have to listen closely, because it would be easy to hear what we expect to hear. It would be easy to hear, “God has looked with favor on the mightiness of God’s servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed; God has lifted up the powerful in their thrones, and brought down the lowly; God has filled the rich with good things, and sent the hungry away.”
If you’re not paying very close attention, it might be easy for your mind to fill in the blanks with the answers that provide a constant backdrop to our lives. God looks with favor on mightiness. God lifts up the powerful, and blesses the wealthy with more and more and more. God discards the lowly and leaves the poor to fend for themselves. And perhaps when I put it that directly, it’s easy to say, “Well, that doesn’t sound right.”
The more insidious version, the one it’s easy for us to believe, the version that bombards us, is that the world is a dangerous, frightening place, and that the only way to insulate ourselves against it and feel safe and secure is by gathering up power, and success, and money, and things. Especially at this time of year, it’s easy to buy into that story, when everything is so much about how much we can buy, how comfortable we can be, how beautiful we can make everything on the surface. It’s hard not to buy into that story when, everywhere we look, power and money seem to be winning. They win even when they lie, cheat, abuse their authority. And meanwhile, everyone who doesn’t have money and power – and a lot of it – seems to be losing. The less you have, the more you suffer, and the harder it is to feel safe and secure.
So if we’re not listening closely, if we’re not paying attention to Mary’s song from long ago, it’s easy to hear the status quo, because we’re coached to hear it in everything: the strong survive, the weak do not. Winners win, and losers lose. Safety comes through power. Happiness comes through money. That’s the script, and if we’re not listening closely, we’ll miss it…
We’ll miss the truth of Mary’s song, there in plain sight but somehow, so hard to hear…
Because God has a secret, and in this moment, Mary is the only one who knows what it is. In this moment, the secret lives within her, and it’s a secret that changes everything.
The secret is that God isn’t far away; God is right here, in human flesh. And not appearing as king with wealth and power, but as the weakest of the weak, weak in every possible way: an infant, the child of an unmarried young woman who will be in disgrace, raised by a simple tradesman, a carpenter, in a tiny, unremarkable village. This child of Mary’s will be a member of a small religious and ethnic minority in a vast and powerful empire. And Mary knows that he will be the least of the least.
But she also knows God’s secret. She knows that it’s all false, this great mirage of wealth and power keeping the world spinning. She knows the least aren’t really the least. The last aren’t really the last. Weak is strong, lowly is blessed. The secret is, nothing is as it seems. Everything is upside down.
The child within her is God’s big secret: that it’s not wealth and power that makes human life livable, it is generous vulnerability. Power and wealth make promises about safety and happiness, but ultimately they can’t keep them. Money and influence crumble, but Christ is the keeping of God’s long promise. A promise of safety that transcends every threat, even death. A promise of joy that no material circumstance can replicate or destroy. And it comes through the vulnerability of God’s self, through the giving away of power, through becoming small and weak.
In the 1940s, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned priests that the Magnificat was too dangerous to preach – the most revolutionary statement ever published. Mary immediately ties the news of her pregnancy to the exile of the proud, thrones being torn down, the failure of money itself to provide the most basic of human needs. Her song is the very definition of subversion. It is the sub-version, the alternate view of reality. Her reality is in poetry, in the melodic openness of music, when the monetized class wants the certainty of prose. In this sub-version, there is no disparity of wealth, no economic classes. There is no purity system drawing a clear line between clean and unclean, righteous and unrighteous, because God has mixed with humanity. And there is no patriarchy; a young, unmarried woman, controlled by no man, can be the conduit of God and the recipient of God’s promise. Mary knows the secret, and the secret is, the dominant version is false. The sub-version is the truth.
It’s a whole new world, and you might begin to see how this might be dangerous. If this was taken seriously, you can see how the powerful might start to get uncomfortable. If the Marys of this time and place started to take this seriously, who knows what they might do? I think we’ve just begun to see the power of women telling truth and bringing secrets to light, and if the beginnings of what is happening in Hollywood and Washington are any indication, there is reason for the powerful to worry.
Now the fact is, we have to be careful with this passage, because most of us are not Marys, not fully. We may face our own layers of weakness or oppression, but we don’t know what it is to be at the very bottom of the totem pole. We are the monetized class, to varying degrees. We may not be the most powerful, but we are, by and large, the people who have benefited from our economic system. But God’s secret that is no longer secret, Mary’s sub-version, is a call to us as well, to live in the same generous vulnerability modeled for us by Christ. If we can set aside our dependence on wealth and power, and live instead in what Wendell Berry calls an “abundance of plentitude,” we would have a truly transformative way of being in the world.
This can seem overwhelming if we consider the scope of all the systems of the world that keep people like Mary in “their place.” But I think that’s when we need to remember that even Jesus existed in a particular location, and a pretty small one at that. He seemed uninterested in being outside the boundaries of his own homeland. And I don’t think that’s because he was actually uninterested in the fate of the rest of the world; it’s because particularity matters. Living generous vulnerability tends to spread. Walter Brueggemann led our preacher Bible study this week, and introduced us to a phrase I want to have put on a bumper sticker or a tattoo: “Act locally, terrify globally.” Because the scariest, most threatening acts to power and wealth are the small, everyday resistances to their dominance. The tiny acts that say in a million ways, “I am not beholden to you. I know the secret: you are false.”
It’s a strange message for Christmas, I know, in the midst of all the presents and family gatherings and movies and glitz. But that’s the dominant version. What we remember together here is the sub-version, the version of a young woman from long ago who understood that God was overturning everything. Here, we know the secret. And we live, as Mary did, so that it might not be a secret anymore.