Mary: Revolutionary for Our Time

The Black Madonna

It is advent, a critical moment in the church calendar.

It is post-election, a critical moment in the life of the United States.

Advent is marked as a time of quiet, expectant waiting. There is hope in birth narratives of Jesus, but it is hope tempered by loss, defeat, and suffering that comes from living under a brutal imperial regime. There is no fanfare in his coming, it is noticed only by poor shepherds and Pagan Stargazers. The priests, pundits, and powerful elite were unaware.

This US election is marked by something vastly different. It unmasked the anger, pain, division, and in many cases, hatred of those ‘others’ operating as scapegoats for the US Empire. Fanfare is on order for the triumphant party, running victory laps, rallying one side over and against another. Whipping people up into a frenzy for a great return. The priest, pundits and powerful elite rejoice.

On the face of it, many Christians will be tempted to read the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus this advent the way we have read the text for generations, as “evacuation theology.” Wait and hope, and pray. God will come through and get us out of any trouble we face. God will help us escape. As things fall apart, we will evacuate. Not only is this a disempowering theology in the sense that it trivializes concrete actions and practices “in the name of Jesus,” but it is a way of reading that privileges white, middle and upper-class, male perspectives and experiences. If you do not like the way things are then you need then the problem resides with you.

It is true that if you are not being brutalized, watching your schools defunded, having your land threatened by destruction and desecration, and your water polluted, then you can afford to wait. Many of us have the luxury to sit back and pray with our words and not our feet. Our lives are not being threatened. If you have had the weight of history on your side you have “hope” in something to return to, because, again history was on your side. But if you were born under oppression or occupation, born without fanfare, appropriate housing, or the protection of city or state government, as was Mary’s infant, then your orientation would be quite different. Your prayers would sound far more like Mary’s than Jerry Falwell. In other words, in our Americanized reading of the birth narrative, Mary and Jesus are far closer to the White House and Wall Street, than they are to Standing Rock, Flint Michigan, Ferguson Missouri or the AME Church in Charleston, SC.

But this reading, while common, is deeply misguided. It would be to not only destroy the courage and profound faith we find in the story about Mary’s Day of Visitation and how she responded to Gabriel:

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

Mary, a young Jewish woman living on occupied land, yet without child, a refugee and therefore even more vulnerable, was in a very real sense powerless — at least in terms of how “the world” measures such things. This is the person who offers “space for the uncontained space for God” that Denise Levertov speaks of. This womb of God born outside of class, racial, or educational privilege, born without rights, and hunted down by the government, would eventually be imprisoned, brutalized by Rome’s police and executed by the state. His birth is a concrete witness of God’s preferential option for the poor and disenfranchised in this world. His birth, life and death show which side of history God is on.

Advent begins a deep counter-narrative to Wall Street and the White House be damned: this baby comes on the edges of empire, in public housing and hidden from government authorities.

Thus Mary’s Magnificat ought to be a key starting point for the church’s relationship to all worldly powers, regardless of affiliation. She knew what she was saying, her song/prayer was followed up by the footsteps of the rest of her life.

“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” (Luke 1).

Speaking to the powerfully subversive nature of Mary’s song Nancy Rockwell states:

Her recitation of the Magnificat is a political manifesto, delivered fairly publicly, in the home of an official temple priest, who is married to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, with John the Baptist. In Mary’s manifesto there is evidence of deep thought, strong conviction, and a good deal of political savvy. None of this gibes with the idea that she is a young teenage girl. The Greek word Luke uses for virgin is an unusual one, a very specific word that means she has not yet born a child. Its precise meaning does not indicate sexual innocence. So let’s be clear: the focus is on her uterus. The state of her hymen is not at issue here.

Mary is a model revolutionary of our time. She is a religious woman, persecuted and imprisoned by the Roman empire, and she is a political visionary. She does not separate the two, for her prayer is not abdication, it is movement, it is real and radical change, and she knows that only with God’s help can things be turned around now.

This year I am grateful for Advent because it reminds me that Mary’s work is not yet done; Mary’s work is still our work. While the moral arc bends towards justice, it requires hands and feet and moral imaginations to do the refracting. It also reminds me that we are not alone in these struggles, that we have a sister who, long ago and far away, took a step in courage and in faithfulness, and it turned out to be something far more revolutionary than she could have ever dreamed. It turned out to be a love that lifts up the lowly and tears down the mighty.

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

Queries for Reflection:

  • What does Mary’s way into this struggle for a world of love and justice teach us?
  • In what ways do I continue to read the birth narratives more inline with Wall Street than I do with Flint, Ferguson, and Charleston?
  • How have I missed the revolutionary narrative of the Christmas narrative in the past?