Every year around this time churches sing a gorgeous four-part song titled Magnificat. In the a capella Churches of Christ, in which I dwell, this is one composition which shows the magnificence of blended voices. Its a building blend of alto, bass, tenor, and soprano. When it is done well there aren’t many songs, a capella or otherwise, quite so stirring.
Yet as I reflect more on the song this year I am growing more convinced from the words Mary would have at times wanted a more raucous than pretty tune. Might Mary shy away from the pop spin, beautiful as it may be, and go for something more rebellious in tune? It seems she would enjoy punk tone.
Punk music arose as a soundtrack to protest against abusive power, cultural excess, and some other really bad music. While its debatable whether punk’s attempt to fill the musical void with exciting and well composed music was successful, it called its listeners to consider the powers that be and critique when necessary. My sixteen to twenty three year old self often heard the voices of the genre as a sermon against culture gone awry and said “amen”.
While teenage Mary likely did not grow up with a guitar in a garage she did grow up in the shadow of Pax Romana. In a very real way Mary, her mom and dad, her friends on her cobbled street, and all citizens in her neighborhood knew the Roman peace was held together by blood and burden. The pressure of young monotheistic Jews to assimilate into a pagan force was undeniable and stifling. Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots all met the pressure with varying degrees of compliance, rebellion, assimilation, or separation.
When Gabriel the angel came to Mary and told her her son “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end,” it would be difficult to not hear within Gabriel’s words a tone of political and cultural rebellion.
The rendition of the Magnificat I have tended to sing has usually included repetitive focus on comforting and praiseful lyrics such as “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior” and “He has been mindful of His servant, He has been mindful of me. I will be blessed forever, forever, I will be blessed by the Lord.”
But read the lines Mary belts in true punk form about the baby in her womb and the defiance he will bring:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And 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 mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Drawing on similar themes from a song by Hannah who shared Mary’s punk sensibilities in the Old Testament, Mary struck a political power cord here. She rejoices over the salvation God will bring the humble through this child but, with hopeful defiance in heart, groans an acknowledgement of God’s intentions for the haughty, arrogant, exploitative, and extravagant.
Mary may not have realized the implications and reality of the song over the space of nations or span of centuries. Most musical composers don’t. However, as Mary’s themes play themselves out in Luke’s gospel and early Christian history, corrupt or complacent power structures begin to be chafed and challenged. Priests see their influence wane to the power of the Spirit Mary’s son promises will come. A magician named Simon learns the place of power in the scope of God’s mission and not personal benefit. Wealthy, deceptive land selling Christians are ousted for secretly withholding a portion of funds while attempting to look pious in their community. Roman officials are made to apologize to Paul for mistreatment of a Roman citizen who also is a citizen of the kingdom of God.
And her lyrics still resonate and resound in a modern world where God’s will on Earth falls painfully short of His will in heaven.
Mary’s song goes out to the teenage misfit struggling with her self worth in algebra class. It says one day the cyber bully will bow low.
Mary’s song echoes onto city streets in our country where specific racial demographics are more burdened with suspicion and systemically offered less grace. One day those serving in corrupt ways will have a reckoning.
Mary’s song rises to the lofty towers of our political system and challenges it to remember power is given by a Creator who expects righteous pursuits by civic leaders. One day those who act only for special interests and not the interests of others will be dealt justice.
Mary’s baby boy who relinquished power has been given authority to judge and he will do so in righteousness with the keen insight of one who grew up in an unjust system.
May her song draw our hearts to a place of considering where our loyalties lie. May her lyrics call us to bow low to her baby boy who came from greatness to meekness. May her words challenge us to ask, during a time when we are ironically focused a great deal on what we will receive, what mercy can I give and by what posture will I receive the blessings of God’s rich mercy this season.