Advent: Turning Everything on Its Head

The Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1:46-55, is a Gospel passage that we often overlook during this season when we celebrate the birth of the Christ child. Although reminiscent of the ancient Israelite Psalms in its form and themes, this song of Mary does not get the attention today that the Psalms often do. Three themes of the Magnificat (all of which echo themes of the Psalms) are particularly challenging for us to hear in our present cultural situation in the United States.

The first of these themes that we encounter as we read the Magnificat is praise and thanksgiving (v.46-49). In our present culture of self-sufficiency, it is hard for us to recognize God as the true provider of all good things. Rather it is easy amidst the affluence of our society to see ourselves as entitled people. Mary recognizes that she did not earn the honor of being the Mother of the Lord (v. 43), but rather that this calling was a gift of God. Even in the times when we do recognize God’s provision for us (announcing it on social media with hashtags like #blessed or #grateful), we — unlike Mary — do so without acknowledging our lowliness and vulnerability as humans, and our utter dependence upon God’s providence.

A second challenging theme of the Magnificat is Mary’s assertion that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” and “sent the rich away empty.” These proclamations of God’s justice are hard for us to hear because we today are too often enamored with the rich and the powerful. From “reality TV” to social media influencers to our obsession with politics, we gaze longingly upon the rich and powerful of our day, whose lives give form to our imagination for what a good and fulfilling life looks like. Although it has crumbled a good bit over the last century, the Christendom fantasy that we can build the Kingdom of God with our riches, power, and influence, still entices us. Mary sings of a God who challenges us to let go of such fantasies.

A third, and final, challenging theme of the Magnificat is the depiction of a God who is faithful to the promises they have made. In contrast to the overwhelming lack of fidelity in our present society — not just broken marriages, though those abound, but broken friendships, and broken relationships with church and place — Mary depicts God as ever-faithful, from the covenant made with Abraham to the descendants of Abraham forever. The faithfulness of Jesus, the son Mary would bear, becomes for us a paradigm of the sort of tenacious fidelity (even in the face of betrayal and crucifixion) that reflects the character of God and the abundant life that God intends for humanity.

Mary’s song is, in every verse, a striking reminder that the way of God (that Jesus would embody) stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing desires and narratives of the world’s empires — be they Rome, America, global capitalism, or otherwise.

C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and part of the leadership team for the Cultivating Communities project.