Look, the last thing the world needs is another white guy talking about Martin Luther King. I get that. But thoughts have got lodged in my head, and I keep going back to words spoken by Jesus in the last few days of his life. In a searing attack on the Pharisees, he yells “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous”, even though they’re complicit in the acts that put the prophets and the righteous in the tombs in the first place. And Jesus is rightly furious at this, because it’s hypocrisy of the highest order.
At the start of the advent story, in the dust of Nazareth, a teenage girl sings a protest song. It’s the sort of song that, in the wrong political climate, gets your name on a list somewhere. It’s the sort of song that shakes the world. It’s the sort of song that sings of a badass faith.
Mary sings, and in singing she prophesies that the child she’s suddenly carrying will be an agent of justice and mercy and peace. The proud will be brought low; the starving will be filled; the humble will be lifted up; the avaricious will find themselves lying in gutters. It’s subversive and counter-cultural, God siding with the weak against the powerful, standing with the marginalised in the corridors of power. We don’t always read it as such; it’s too easy to see Mary as an innocent sitting in the middle of a Nativity scene, as someone who’s sweet and middle-class and quiet and beatific. We forget she’s a young girl coming of age in poverty, among political oppression and poverty. When Mary sings out, she becomes a prophet.
And because of that, her song echoes like a heartbeat at the centre of history. Theologically, it’s a bridge between the Garden of Eden and the coming of the Messiah. That’s why modern representations of this draw upon the books of Genesis and Revelation, identifying a sense of sisterhood between Mary and Eve, and showing Mary going toe-to-toe with the Serpent of Eden and the Dragon of Revelation. And that’s healing – the piece by Sr Grace Remington, Mary consoling Eve, is healing, refusing the binaries that we erect to keep us apart. The virgin can embrace the fallen woman and we can be healed by the life that grows in her belly. There’s hope there, and a prophecy at their feet, the serpent ultimately defeated, humanity reconciled to each other and to God.
That’s because there’s something about Mary’s song that resonates with people on the margins, the oppressed and the downtrodden. Take a look at the icon/graffiti painted on Bethlehem’s Separation Wall, Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls. It’s a traditional looking icon of Mary, but along the Wall in the background there’s a crudely painted serpent-dragon, a spray-painted behemoth forever pursuing the Holy Family but never catching them, a monster and metaphor due to be crushed by the baby in the manger. We can turn to these stories at times of trial, turn to them and hear a Palestinian teenager speaking words of God, an inspired signal in the middle of the noise.
Listen for this, because at this time of year we’ll see Christmas be contested; we’ve already heard people using the relationship between Mary and Joseph being used to justify inappropriate relationships between teenagers and adults. The gospel can be weaponised; faith can be made toxic; Mary’s song can drown out these cacophonies; after all, the Lord called her to be a badass prophet of God and a young mother. Let’s not reduce her or infantilise her.
It’s December 1st, and so we also commemorate the day that Rosa Park was arrested for not giving up her seat. We’ve also seen the #ChurchToo hashtag trending across Twitter. The prophetic voice of women still needs to be heard; heirs to the Magnificat and Mary’s song, and the cry of the baby in a manger.
More posts for Advent 2017 can be found here.
Revelation is a strange book. Apocalyptic and poetic, full of cryptic signs and mysterious symbols, it presents a Prophetic Reality view of the world, a veil lifted on the nuts and bolts of human life to reveal dragons and monsters, many-headed behemoths and war in heaven. It’s difficult to comprehend, and perhaps that’s why so many debate whether it’s about the past or the future; whatever the truth of that, however, it remains that Revelation has something to say in the here and now.
Take Revelation 16:13-14. The great antagonists of the apocalypse, the False Prophet, the Antichrist and the Dragon, suddenly spew forth ‘unclean spirits’, spirits that perform miracles and bend kings to their will and bizarrely look like frogs.
They’re the media wing and propaganda arm of the apocalypse. And something about the image freaks me out. I mean, frogs? Is that because frogs are an unclean animal in Jewish thought? Is it because they capture their prey with their tongues (which is a pretty concise definition of propagandists)? A reference to Egyptian gods and the Plagues of Egypt? In ancient thought, frogs were associated with coarseness, or thought to be poisonous. Maybe their use in Revelation relates to all four.
But let’s take a step back from the language and symbology. The frogs are ultimately a message, a message of false religion, hateful politics and general fear and accusation. The message is antichrist in its most literal sense – against Christ.
So the frogs are media and memes, propaganda and psyops, static that drowns out the words of God. And those forces are on the move, just like they’ve always been: snaking through the Garden, tempting in the wilderness, leaping towards Armageddon.
So when someone calls you to hate your neighbour, don’t listen; if someone tells you to cast the first stone, put it down; if the voice doesn’t sound like Jesus, ask yourself why.
Because the world feels like it’s on the brink of…something. Strange metaphorical creatures are on the move, doves and chaos monsters, the frogs of war. In times like this, when forces herd us towards war (whether that’s with guns and bombs or Twitter accounts and dark words), when so many competing voices constantly teeter on the edge of conflict, all I can do is turn back to the Gospel, to reclaim the words in red and pray to hear the voice of Christ above a cacophony of croaking. The frogs of war are out there; we don’t have to follow them into the abyss.
Imagine a teenage girl. She’s kneeling on the floor, angelic light filling the room before her. She’s just learned of her calling – to become the Christbearer, the Mother of God. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all, all she can do is worship, worship amid the shock and the fear and the awe and the worry.
We tend to see her reaction as being passive, quiet, meek; she accepts her fate and becomes a mother, a wife, an eternal virgin, and she’s immortalised every Christmas by little girls in blue dresses clutching a doll that represents the Saviour.
But that’s not the case, is it? This imagery robs Mary of her power, her agency, her prophetic fire. We trap her in a Christmas card and stop her from singing.
This week, the theologian Cheryl Bridges Johns, writer at the Junia Project, tweeted that “we often forget Mary was a prophet. Before she gave birth to the King, she spoke of the subversive Kingdom.” This is true. She visits her relative Elizabeth, and as they talk Mary lets rip with a spontaneous eruption of praise and passion and prophecy.
But this isn’t a worship song born out of comfort and religious respectability. This is a song from below, a burst of praise to the God who lifts up the lowly while toppling the powerful, who feeds the hungry while plundering the rich, who sends the proud running for cover. Remember that Mary lives in an occupied land, she’s an unwed mother living in a patriarchal world. This is the sort of song that draws worried glances, this is the sort of song that could put Mary on a list of troublemakers somewhere, and maybe even as she sings, someone’s having a quiet word with Joseph to suggest that he keeps his betrothed in line.
But Mary sings anyway, because she’s a prophet, and she’s the Christbearer, and so it’s her calling to hear from God and act on what he says. She’s no coward, no fool, she’s someone who’s already experienced the weight of divine calling and the knives of local slut shaming, even while she’s just a teenager. Later on she’ll lose her husband at an early age (to violence or illness, who knows), and she’ll see her son brutalised and nailed to a cross. This is a woman with a strength of faith that’s incredible – how else would she survive all this and still believe?
The Irish singer Frank Harte once said that “Those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs.” Mary’s song is rooted in the knowledge of suffering and occupation, but also in a vision of liberation and hope and transformation. Her history isn’t written by the powerful; that history is undermined by God working in the lives of the poor, the hungry, the people on the margins. Mary sings a subversive song and joins the chorus of Miriam and Hannah, a legacy of women who hear from God and sing of what they heare, and when we speak of Christ being born of a virgin, let’s never forget that he was also born of a prophet.