Mary, the Magnificat, and an Unsentimental Advent
by Rachel Held Evans
It’s an unconventional birth announcement.
We like to paint Mary in the softer hues—her robes clean, hair combed and covered, body poised in prayerful surrender—but this young woman was a fierce one, full of strength and fury. When she accepts the dangerous charge before her, (every birth was risky in those days, this one especially so), rather than reciting a maternal blessing, Mary offers a prophecy:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He 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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
When sung in a warm, candlelit church at Advent, it can be easy to blunt these words, to imagine them as symbolic, non-specific, comforting.
But I’m not feeling sentimental this Advent. I’m feeling angry, restless.
And so in this season, I hear Mary’s Magnificat shouted, not sung:
In the halls of the Capitol Building….
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
In the corridors of the West Wing…
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
In the streets of Charlottesville…
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”
Among women who have survived assault, harassment, and rape…
“He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
Among the poor, the refugees, the victims of gun violence, and the faithful ministers of the gospel who at great cost are speaking out against the false religions of nationalism and white supremacy…
“His mercy is for those who fear him, from generation to generation.”
With the Magnificat, Mary not only announces a birth, she announces the inauguration of a new kingdom, one that stands in stark contrast to every other kingdom—past, present, and future—that relies on violence and exploitation to achieve “greatness.” With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides.
And it’s not with the powerful, but the humble.
It’s not with the rich, but with the poor.
It’s not with the occupying force, but with people on the margins.
It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.
This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside. And in her defiant prayer, Mary—a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality.
“God is with us. And if God is with us, who can stand against us?”
I hear a lot of professed Christians right now suggesting that it’s okay if powerful men resort to a little lying, bigotry, abuse, and misogyny as long as Americans “get to say Merry Christmas again.” Besides the fact that virtually no one in this country has ever been prohibited from saying “Merry Christmas” in the first place, such a sentiment stands in blasphemous contradiction to the very doctrine of incarnation we are meant to embrace this time of year.
God did not wrap himself up in flesh, humbling himself to the point of birth in a stable and death on a cross, eating, laughing, weeping, and suffering as one of us, so that I can complain to management when a barista at Starbucks wishes me “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The incarnation isn’t about desperately grasping at the threads of power and privilege. It’s not about making some civic holiday “bigger and better.” It’s about surrendering power, setting aside privilege, and finding God in the smallness and vulnerability of a baby in a womb.
To claim that the lighting of a national Christmas tree each year makes this country “a Christian nation,” while its powerful systematically oppress the poor, turn away refugees, incite violence against religious and ethnic minorities, molest and harass women and girls and call them liars when they dare to speak up, is, in the words of the prophet Amos, sickening to God.
“I hate, I despise your festivals,” God says in Amos 5, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
We cannot claim to embrace the Holy Family while withholding justice from those who would most identify with them. We cannot talk of “making Christmas great again” while taking the side of powerful and violent over the vulnerable.
The season of Advent is meant to be a time of waiting.
In years past, I lit candles, sang “O Come Emmanuel,” and pondered in stillness the joy of Christ’s first coming and the hope of his second.
But this year I cannot be still. This year, hope is hard, belief is hard.
And so I’m waiting with the angst of the prophets, with the restlessness of the psalmist who cried “How long, oh Lord, will You hide your face forever?” and with the stubborn, unsentimental hope of a woman so convinced the baby inside her would change everything, she proclaimed in present tense that the great reversal has already arrived—
The powerful have already been humbled.
The vulnerable have already been lifted up.
For God has made a home among the people.
God has made a home with us.