I’m going to ask you to do something difficult. It will only be for a moment. I want you to imagine that you don’t know who Jesus is, that you’ve never heard the Christmas story, and that you don’t know anything about (as comic book and superhero fans would say) his origin story. It’s the year 2022, and you’ve lived your life as you’ve lived it, all things as they are; nothing else has changed; the world is as it is, except that you know nothing about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the angel, shepherd, wise men, Bethlehem, King Herod, or all the stuff that comes after it. You are you; your life is as it is, we are who we are, and you’ve never been exposed in one way or another to the material in this book. Specifically, in this hypothetical, to the information in the 1st and 2nd chapters of the 2nd book of the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke. Why Luke? This is where we find a complete account of Jesus’ birth that is etched in our brains, though most of the versions of the Christmas story (as told in pageants and the like) end up being a mishmash of Matthew and Luke. As much as possible, I want you to imagine you’ve never heard this story or are about to listen to parts of it for the first time. You have no idea who “God” is, what the incarnation means, what role Mary plays, that she is engaged, the trouble she might be in, who Joseph is, or how it all turns out. As much as possible, we are all blank slates. Let us begin.
I’m going to read you some words now. Remember, you’re a blank slate; you don’t know who said these, the context, history, or background, at least not yet. All we have are the words themselves to go on. Listen to them deeply. Allow them to sink in as if you’ve never heard them before. How do they strike you? Are they comforting and soothing? Or are they jarring and disconcerting? When you listen to them, do you feel like the speaker is speaking for you, with you, or to you? Think about each of these questions as I read:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Indeed, from now on, all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
What is your first impression of having never heard those words? Are they religious or political words? Perhaps they are both. Who speaks this way? Where would one expect to find such eloquence about the unequal distribution of power, wealth, and hunger? Given our nation’s current situation and biases, what would you determine to be the political persuasion of the person who made such a strong statement? If you turned on the television, didn’t know the network, and heard a voice (either male or female) emphasizing these words, “lowliness,” “servant,” “scattered,” “proud,” “brought down the powerful from their thrones,” “filled the hungry,” and sent the rich away empty,” would you think them to be conservative or liberal? Would you think you’d heard a democrat or a republican? Would you believe yourself to be listening to someone you considered a Christian or a godless secularist? Would you think someone had changed your channel from Fox News to MSNBC?
I know the answer. I know the answer because we live in a polarized world, and even the Bible can’t get a fair hearing in 2022. I know the answer because I listen to church conversations, radio, and television call-in programs, and stand in line at Bojangles. Ideas like the ones I’ve just read to you are regularly dismissed as evil, treasonous, dangerous, deadly, and un-American. Except for being evil, at points throughout history, Mary’s Magnificat has been regarded as all those things. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, speaks dangerous, world-up-ending words. Words that, if you didn’t know better, many people would swear were written by critical race theorists, Marxists, or socialists in sheep’s clothing. When we understand these words originate from the Bible, most of us back off, ignore them, or treat them as a young girl’s poetic aspirations for a better world. Then we move on. We ignore her. This is the wrong way to read the Magnificat. This is a manifesto. We read what God is doing in the present (through Mary) and will continue to do through Jesus.
People have been killed for reciting those words because repressive governments have feared what might happen if ordinary people, poor people, and the marginalized realize God is on their side. What happens when we know that in the days and weeks leading up to the birth of Christ, Jesus’ mother starts talking like a prophetically inspired socialist instead of an enraged parent bent on banning books? How does this change impact how we see the quaint nativity scenes and Mary’s son, who grows up to eat with prostitutes, and tax collectors and probably (given his mother’s bent on scattering the proud people who seem to have religion all figured out) would have eaten with drag queens too? It should make us rethink how we read everything that comes after Christmas and how to see the world through Christian eyes and less partisan lenses. If being a Christian makes you sound like a socialist, that’s the world’s fault. That’s your problem. Mary got there long before Karl Marx. I’m just following her and her son.