The renewing significance of Mary’s Magnificat

Introduction to "Signs of the Times," 9 December 2016, #99

by Ken Sehested

       At first glance, through modernity’s eyes, Mary’s encounter with the angel’s natal announcement—and her annunciating response—appears to be a form of self-subjugation.

       Is Luke’s story a case of a colonized mind? Did she actively concede to her own binding and bonding? Should we insist on a more assertive, individuated figure to front the Christmas story?

       I, for one, think not.

       Does the manger’s straw have a ghost of a chance against sharpened steel? Can there be any lingering question about the dominance of shock and awe’s rule?

       I, for one, think so.

       In fact—and I’m going out on a limb here—I think the proper lesson feminism recovers is that grasping leads to gasping. That power with is ultimately the only sustaining kind; power over, only leading to death.

       Only yielding—to the Commonwealth—leads to healing. Only those with “wombs of welcome”  can heal the earth.

       Indeed, our deepest social need involves restoring a spiritual vision powerful enough to dispel the deception that we are on our own, that might makes right, that independence (freedom) involves no interdependence.

       In some Native American traditions, one of the harshest criticisms one can make about another is to say, “You behave as if you have no relatives.” In the midst of this bewildering and frightful electoral season (politics is so much more than elections and legislation) we need the reviving power of a common vision that we belong not just to each other but to our environment as well. Among the many ways to speak of the Blessed One is that God is the Presence that both entices us to remember our relatedness and inflicts us when we forget.

       Every indicative (what we say about God) contains, at least implicitly, an imperative (what we do with each other). Any theology that does anything but this is but a parlor game (though, often, a vicious one).

       To highlight Mary’s subversive song of faith in Luke 1, the major theme of this issue of “Signs of the Times” records many small acts of resistance and rebuilding in public life, miniature parables of what is possible on the major stage. And to support Luke’s tale we’ve enlisted another text (outside Advent’s lectionary guidance), from Matthew 11:28, where Jesus urged, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest”—rest being anything but passivity. Here, Jesus was only saying what his Mama taught him, that only relational living is sturdy enough to withstand the rage of history's idolatrous storms.

        To put it another way, Jesus’ offer of comfort is not the enabling of an addiction but the harnessing of hope—not the passive withdrawal from history’s disputed drama but empowering sustenance in its midst. We can live without anything but this.

       There is an amazing array of songs that utilize the “Come Unto Me” refrain, some using the same lyrics and melody, some different, in virtually every imaginable genre. All of this issue’s musical recommendations come from that collection.

       In no way was Mary “meek and mild,” as Christmas hymnody would have us believe. What we urgently need to remember is that all the characteristics Gospel writers assigned to Jesus—savior, prince of peace, incarnate god, ruler of the world—were titles ascribed to Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus.

       The struggle over legitimate claim to that throne continues still.

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