In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.
The dramatis personae don’t lead us to expect anything revolutionary. They are an old woman and a young girl. Both are to give birth, true, and the birth of a child is always a potential revolution; but the old woman is really beyond the age of child-bearing (Luke 1:7) and the young girl wasn’t expected to be there yet (Matthew 1:18).
However, the revolutionary language of Mary’s Magnificat takes us by surprise. “He scatters the proud-hearted… he casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly… he fills the starving with good things, sends the rich away empty….” If we really heard these words (which means hearing them addressed to oneself) we would be part of the revolution. But when we imagine them addressed only to others, we turn them into an ideology and we turn ourselves into an establishment.
Addressed to oneself. Who is ‘oneself’ in the Church? Our deepest identity is not our personal ego but our identity within the Body of Christ. “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another" (Romans 12:5). The Magnificat is not only a call to the individual to turn his or her life around; it is a call to the Church to live by the Gospel.
The ‘Liberation Theology’ movement began in Latin America as a struggle for justice for the poor and oppressed of those countries. It has been criticised for relying on political methods to achieve its goals. It is true that the Gospel is not just a political ideology, and one is always in danger of coming to resemble one’s opponents. But the oppressive regimes in many instances claim to be Christian and even enjoy the patronage of major Church leaders. It is therefore not a question of ‘us’ versus ‘them’; it is not politics, but a call to conversion within the Church. In the context of the struggle for justice, Mary’s Magnificat is a prophetic call to the Church to hear the cry of the poor. Its significance includes but goes beyond personal piety.
We all find ways of extracting the teeth of the Gospel so as to live in comfort with it. We are even capable of transforming it entirely into a source of comfort. The jibe about “pie in the sky when you die” doesn’t really touch the nerve; many of us want pie here on earth. We catch ourselves using the imagery of the faith as an assurance that nothing changes. We have sentimentalised Mary, misinterpreting her compliance with the will of God as compliance with everything that we are accustomed to.
At Christmas we will sing about joy and peace and goodwill. Let’s pray that we will not cheapen and corrupt these priceless realities. As the great ‘liberation theologian’ Gustavo Gutierrez said, “Christian joy comes from knowing God and from trying to follow God’s will. Joy means rejoicing in God. But we can see from the Magnificat that, when Mary rejoices in God, she is also celebrating the liberating action of God in history. Mary rejoices in a God who is faithful to the poor. Our service of others must be wrapped in this joy.”
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