Many of you know that I lived in Australia for a year when my wife Tammy won a fellowship to study issues of inequality in access to education there. We spent the first six months of that year living in Sydney, which included the Christmas holidays. Australian culture had a lot in common with our own in the United States, but it never felt more different than it did at Christmas. For starters, the great Australian tradition for Christmas was to have a barbeque, preferably at the beach. To be fair, the great Australian tradition for almost anything was to have a barbeque, preferably at the beach, but they were particularly serious about it at Christmas, which of course comes at the height of summer in the southern hemisphere.
One of the teachers that Tammy worked with was kind enough to invite us over for a Christmas “barbie,” knowing that we were far from home with few friends. And so I had the very disorienting experience of a traditional Australian Christmas: getting my first Christmas sunburn while standing out in the 95-degree blazing sun by the grill, cooking a Christmas feast of fish steaks and octopus with a beer in hand.
But even that wasn’t as surreal as just going through the stores in the weeks before the holiday. Like in the U.S., Christmas is the biggest time of year for stores, so they pull out all the stops: special sales, holiday music playing constantly, and mannequins dressed with Santa hats. And that’s where things get really weird. Not just because the mannequins are all wearing bikinis and board shorts along with their Santa hats, which is a little bizarre, but because the same holiday music that we have is still playing in the stores. So, you come in from the 95-degree heat, shop for your bathing suit gifts, all while the music is crooning about “walking in a winter wonderland,” or imploring, “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” I remember thinking, am I the only one who thinks this is weird? Because this makes no sense whatsoever here. Isn’t anybody listening to the lyrics?
Well, the truth is that people often do not really listen to the lyrics of songs; they may even know the lyrics well enough to sing along with them, but they must not be really listening, because the conclusions they draw about the meaning of the song make no sense whatsoever. In the 1980s, the rock group the Police had a huge hit with a song called, “Every Breath You Take.” It’s a slow song, almost a ballad, and many people interpreted it as a love song. But, as the band themselves pointed out many times, you could only conclude that if you didn’t really listen to the lyrics. Because when you do, you realize that the narrator in the song is more of a stalker than a lover: “every breath you take / every move you make / every step you take / I’ll be watching you,” he warns; “Oh, can’t you see? You belong to me.” That’s not a healthy person singing that song. Anybody who dedicates that song to you is either not listening to the lyrics or not somebody you want to be alone with. Or there’s Bruce Springsteen’s classic anthem, “Born in the USA,” which has been frequently used by politicians at rallies to stoke patriotic feelings in the crowd because of its soaring chorus: “I was born in the USA!” But the point of the chorus is an ironic contrast to the verses, which are all about the narrator’s bitterness at being drafted by the government to fight in the Vietnam War, only to return and find every door of opportunity and support shut to him, leaving him with nothing but memories of friends who didn’t come back at all. People assume it’s a patriotic song because what they remember is the chorus, but anybody who thinks that’s what the song really means is definitely not listening to the lyrics.
Our New Testament lesson today contains one of the most famous songs in the entire Bible; it has been set to music countless times over the millennia, and is sung literally on a daily basis in many traditions of the church, particularly the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ones. It is commonly known as the Magnificat, from the Latin translation of Mary’s opening line, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” meaning that her innermost being is filled with praise for God. And the first few verses are what we generally remember about both the song and Mary herself: they are about her humility and sense of blessing at being chosen by God to bear Jesus and give birth to him: “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.” That matches with the story that goes directly before this one, which is the Annunciation, in which the Angel Gabriel comes to tell Mary that she will bear God’s Son and name him Jesus, and she responds by saying, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” That’s how we expect this song to go; that’s what we expect to hear, because that’s what we have heard so often in the Advent and Christmas seasons, especially.
But she continues, and as she goes on, you realize that she’s saying much more than what we expect to hear. Listen again: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” she says; “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.” Wait a minute: how could people sing a song like that and come up with a concept of Mary as meek and mild? Isn’t anybody listening to the lyrics? Because Mary sounds more like a radical revolutionary than a submissive handmaiden in this song. She’s describing God turning the world upside down, reversing the status and experience of the poor and the rich, the marginalized and the powerful.
Not only that, she’s describing it as a done deal: “God 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.” Now, you don’t have to look around very long to realize that this has not, in fact, already happened. The powerful are still very much on their thrones and the rich continue to fill themselves with good things, while the lowly are still lowly and the hungry are still empty. So what is Mary talking about? Well, basically, she’s saying that, because it is the will of God, it’s so certain that it’s going to happen it’s as if it has already happened. It’s kind of like the way you see a lightning bolt strike the earth but the sound of the thunder takes much longer to reach your ear; the lightning has already happened, but the effect of it takes longer to arrive. But nothing can stop that sound from happening, because the lightning has already struck. In this case, the lightning is nothing less than the will of God: she’s saying that God has already sided with the poor and hungry and lowly, and against the rich and powerful, which means that the world is inevitably going to be turned upside down. And given the child that is already growing in her womb, she’s saying that lightning has already struck; that with the birth of Jesus, God has already taken the definitive action that will upend the powers of this world, and the only thing in question is how long it will take before the thunder reaches us.
Given all that, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that many have tried to make sure that nobody has a chance to hear the lyrics, just in case they actually pay attention to it. It’s telling that the singing of the Magnificat has been banned by authoritarian regimes throughout the world, from the British colonial powers in India in the first half of the 20th century, to the military juntas that controlled Argentina and Guatemala in the 1980s. It was considered dangerously subversive by all of them, giving both hope and inspiration to the poor and oppressed that they sought to control. In the church itself, as noted by an op-ed in the Washington Post just this week, most evangelical churches these days don’t read the Magnificat in worship at all, and the praise songs that are based on it stop after the first few verses, safely in the territory of Mary’s humility and gratitude for being chosen by God. And before we get self-righteous, mainline Protestant churches are guilty of the exact same thing. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the three-year schedule of Sunday Scripture readings that many Protestant pastors follow, the assigned reading from Luke this week stops with the end of Elizabeth’s song; Mary’s entire song is put in parentheses, included only as an optional extra, as if it is a deleted movie scene in the digital home edition of the film that explains backstory but was ultimately cut in the interest of time. So it seems like nobody really wants to hear Mary’s song in its full voice and intensity.
Well, nobody who counts, anyway. Because, of course, Mary’s song is very good news to those people who are poor, or hungry, or powerless. And Mary most certainly doesn’t count, by any social, political, or economic measure imaginable. She is a girl, most likely in her early teens, in a world where women are very much second-class. She is pregnant but not married in a world where economic security comes from your husband. She is part of a people whose lives and lands are controlled by a foreign occupying power, arguably the most powerful empire in the world at the time. And yet this is who God chose to bear Jesus into the world, God’s only Son, the one who would define his own mission thirty years later in his first sermon by reading the words of the prophet Isaiah: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It’s very clear, not simply from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry but from before he was even born, that God sings a constant love song to those for whom the world has no love and little regard: you are mine; nothing can keep me from loving you; and my love will triumph over everything that tries to oppose it.
So what about those of us who are not lowly, or hungry, or poor? If Mary’s song is good news to them, is it bad news for us? Well, that depends on what we hear in the lyrics, and how we hear the song relating to us. Because Mary’s song and the birth of Christ itself are bad news to anyone who is committed to keeping things the way they are in this world, who believe that it is acceptable or even tolerable for so many people to go without their basic needs being met and without their basic human dignity as someone bearing the image of God being respected. That is what she, and the Holy Spirit through her, is saying will be turned over and shaken up, along with anyone who wants to keep it that way, who wants to be sitting on the thrones of this world and ruling from them. But the song is good news to everyone who loves God with their whole being and their neighbor as themselves, as Jesus will later summarize the point of all the Law and Prophets. And when a lawyer later asks Jesus what that really means: “who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells one of his most famous stories, the Good Samaritan, to say that it means anybody in need of mercy, anyone who needs someone to stop when their neighbor is left for dead in the street rather than passing by on the other side, someone to invest their own time and resources in doing whatever healing and restoration is needed, even at risk to themselves, until Christ comes again to fully and finally establish God’s reign on earth, filling all those who are hungry with good things.
That is what it means to live an Advent life of love and faith: waiting expectantly for God to finish making things right through Christ, and waiting actively in preparing the way for the Lord by loving our neighbors however they need us, with whatever we have, wherever we find ourselves. That is what you and I are called to do, sent to do, empowered to do, not just on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, but through our entire lives and ministry. And when we do so, we will find ourselves humming along with Mary, hearing it not as a threat but as God’s love song to all of creation, the first and greatest Christmas carol of them all.