Casting Down the Mighty and Lifting Up the Lowly

The Gospel for today’s Mass is the beautiful and poetic Magnificat of Mary contained in St.Luke’s Gospel. As I once heard a priest say in a homily, however, don’t be fooled by the poetry or the sweet melodic music to which the verses are often set.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian-martyr executed by the Nazis, described the Magnificat this way in a sermon during Advent 1933:

The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.

Mary lived in a world of tremendous income inequality. A world in which a significant percentage of the population lived in a a cycle of exploitation and poverty. A world in which the people longed for justice and fairness.

Mary’s Magnificat offered a message of hope then, expressing solidarity with the marginalized. It also offers a message of hope today…a message we need to hear in our world today: the message that God is still at work, even in the midst of poverty, war, suffering and heartache. The Magnificat is a revolutionary song of salvation; a song that promises that changes can and will happen through the grace of God.

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The Promise He Made to Our Fathers

There is a Leonard Cohen song titled Everybody Knows, that paints a bleak picture of human existence and human relationship. Everybody knows, we are told, that the dice are loaded, that the deck is stacked, that the fight is fixed, that the good guys lost, that the war is over, that the rich stay rich, etc. “That’s [just] how it goes. Everybody knows.” That’s just the way it is. The song is one of defeat, of hopelessness.

We hear a diametrically opposite song in today’s Gospel – Mary’s Magnificat. In the Magnificat, Mary sings of the future when peaceful justice will take root in the land among all people.

Mary isn’t blind to the suffering and injustice of the world in which she lived. She saw the way things were. But she knew that the ways things were was not the way things had to be, was not the way they would always be. Mary was confident in God. Confident that God is still at work, even in the midst of all of the difficulties. Confident that God would fulfill the “promise he made to our fathers,” that God would lift up the lowly and set free the oppressed.

Mary’s Magnificat is a rousing message of hope. And that message is one the world needs, because it is so easy to fall into the defeat and hopelessness expressed in the Cohen song (which I sometimes refer to as the anti-Magnificat). The message that God is still at work, even in the midst of all of the suffering, is one we ourselves need to believe. And it is the message that we, as Christians, need to convey to the world.

The Magnificat

The Gospel reading for today’s feast of the Assumption is Luke’s account of the Visitation, which ends with the words of Mary we know as the Magnificat or the Song of Mary.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good thing and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, to remember his promise of mercy, The promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children for ever.”

Father Robert Maloney, C.M., wrote this about Mary’s words: “The historical Mary experienced poverty, oppression, violence and execution of her son. Her faith is deeply rooted in that context. Before the omnipotent God, she recognizes her own ‘lowly estate.’ She is not among the world’s powerful. She is simply God’s ‘maidservant.’ But she believes that nothing is impossible for God. In the Magnificat she sings confidently that God rescues life from death, joy from sorrow, light from darkness.”

In a similar vein, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis, spoke these words in a sermon during Advent 1933: “The Song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

What does Mary’s Magnificant mean for us today? Look at our world. Read the newspaper and what do you see? War. Poverty. Starvation. Violence.

Mary’s Magnificat is a message of hope, a message the world so desperately needs: the message that God is still at work, even in the midst of all of this. The Magnificat promises that changes can and will happen with God at the heart of those longing and working for a more just world.

But this hope is not just a sit back and wait hope. In a world where we can easily become numb to the endless violence, poverty and war that fill the daily news, Mary’s song reminds us that we can never ignore the suffering of others if we are to be true disciples of Jesus. In the increasingly individualistic world in which we live, where there sometimes seems to be less and less willingness to reach out to others, Mary’s proclamation stands as a testimony to solidarity with the marginalized and the powerless. It calls us not to passive hope, but to action.