We often see Mary as an almost ethereal figure, immaculate amid the dirt and squalor of the stable, serene during a seventy mile donkey ride, peaceful during childbirth. In many ways, centuries of pious art have separated Mary from the world around her; this does her a disservice.
Because let’s face it, Mary was a teenage girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances able to deal with her situation because of her faith, a faith that doesn’t just make her her open to God’s will, but a faith that expresses some seriously radical qualities. She’s aware that this is the moment God is going to change the world and she wants to be a part of it, regardless of the cost to her relationships and reputation. We see a hint of this radical faith in the Magnificat, the poem she uses to express her feelings and her worship in Luke 1:46-55:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
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 many ways this echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 – Mary realises she’s part of a biblical tradition, a history of miraculous births. But both songs have political overtones – God is almighty and sovereign, and he raises up the poor while breaking the power of arrogant rulers.
Look at the language used in the second half of the poem: what dies “He has brought down rulers from their thrones” mean in a country ruled by a puppet king and occupied by a hostile empire? What does “filling the empty” mean when Mary and her friends and family faced crippling taxation, all of them born, living and dying in poverty? This isn’t just a hymn of praise because Mary loves the idea of a virgin birth, it’s awareness, an announcement, of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
This is something the church seems to be rediscovering over recent years and it’s an important theme of the New Testament – Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom, and while it isn’t totally fulfilled, it’s being raised up, often through the action of his followers. It’s a radical thing to say to Rome that an Empire will ultimately give way to a better Kingdom.
But here’s a terrifying implication of the Magnificat: the Church isn’t in Mary’s shoes, at least not in the West. No, in the UK bishops walk the corridors of power; in the US, the Church can swing elections. The Church is rich. The Church is powerful.
The Church can become an Empire.
We’re kidding ourselves if we think God will tolerate that, if we think God’s going to rubber stamp our politics and prejudices while his Kingdom mission to the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable and the outsider goes unfulfilled. Mary knew that God is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with corrupt power structures, and as we learn from her son, he’s not afraid to tackle them when they’re religious structures misrepresenting God’s Kingdom – just look at the conflict between Jesus and the Temple authorities throughout the Gospels.
But that’s the negative side of things. Mary’s song is also a celebration of what God can do through his people, how we’re honoured to be a part of the Kingdom. It’s a celebration of every time the Church is a blessing – a celebration of all the soup kitchens, all the youth clubs, all the cake sales raising money for the local hospice, all the Christmas presents sent to children on the streets, all the love shown to people on the margins, all the hope illuminating times of darkness and tragedy; all the joyful songs and all the tearful prayers.
2,000 years ago, a teenage girl expressed praise and awe for the majesty of God, the power of his Kingdom, and amazement that people like us are asked to take part in it. Maybe this advent is a time to discover our own place in building that kingdom in the year to come.