LIFTING UP THE LOWLY

[God] has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty

[Luke 1:51-53 NRSV]

One of the most impactful essays I’ve ever read on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) was by Robert McAfee Brown, entitled, “Mary’s Song: Whom Do We Hear?”[1]

I have borrowed liberally from it through the years since I first picked up Brown’s book, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, more than two decades ago.

Magnificat (Jesus Mafa – Cameroon, Africa)

Like most people in the pews, there was a time in my life that I heard the Magnificat as nothing more than pretty poetry. This talk about “scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” and “bringing down the powerful from their thrones,” was the stuff of fairy tales, comic books, and action movies. It just doesn’t happen in the real world.

Brown’s essay began the shift in my thought process. Those things do happen. Not all at once, and not everywhere, every time. However, as Brown states, “Political power is never secure, always vulnerable.” (p. 79)

Scripture always takes seriously the human condition and the reality of sin, suffering and death. 

That is where Mary, and more specifically, the Magnificat come into view.

Traditionally, this Sunday’s theme is Love. 

But how do we proclaim the message of God’s love to a world that is caught up in violence, natural disasters, poverty, pandemic, and political polarization?

How do we share the story of Jesus’ birth with a culture that worship and adores…Santa Claus?

And how do we live out this Good News in a society that seems all doom and gloom?

Mary offers an example and an invitation for speaking boldly about God’s activity.

The Visitation – Mary and Elizabeth meet – Luke 1:39-45 (Jesus Mafa – Cameroon, Africa)

The Magnificat is a revolutionary song. So revolutionary that it was banned in several countries in Latin America in the late 20th Century.

And perhaps some of us can understand why. Mary’s words sound outrageous.  Mary’s declaration appears defiant.  Mary’s claim doesn’t seem grounded in reality.

And, truth be told, it isn’t. As Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary puts it, “Mary’s song presents a radical, earth-shattering vision of the world made different. Mary insists that this powerful, merciful God isn’t merely an abstraction. This God is active in her current circumstances.”

No wonder tyrannical regimes would go to great lengths to suppress the song and prevent peasants and workers from singing such subversive words.

Mary interprets her present moment in light of who she understands God to be, in terms of God’s past history, God’s intentions, and God’s promises for the future.

In this way, she shows us how to speak about God in the here and now. She recalls established convictions about God’s character. And she imagines the possibility of God bringing a new future into being – not in a distant time, but beginning now, all around her, in her experience,

We are in a liturgical season of waiting – Advent. We are waiting for rescue.  We are waiting for light in darkness.  We are awaiting Christmas.  We are waiting for Christ.  But we do not lose hope. To the contrary, once again we raise our voices in hope and expectation, waiting once more for the presence and comfort of the Lord.

I recently came across an address by Pope John XXIII, given at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. As I read the speech, I was struck by the hopefulness of the following words:

“We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs.”

Pope John XXIII

The Pontiff echoes the words we hear this coming Sunday in the Magnificat. And in both Mary’s song and the Pope’s words, there is a message for us, both as individuals and as faith communities.

When we magnify the Lord, we embrace the vision of the whole world remade in the image of God.

When our spirit rejoices in God, the world and everything we hold dear is turned upside down and shaken and reshaped to fit a world of justice where people shall live secure, where peace and hope and joy and love will be the models which we follow.

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[1] Brown, Robert McAfee: Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984)

Published by pastorallende

Retired Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Social justice and immigration reform advocate. Micah 6:8. Fluent in English and Spanish. I enjoy music and sports.

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