Perhaps we can become too comfortable with the Magnificat and miss its powerful radical message. Cathedral-style evensong with Anglican chants can, for example, be very beautiful. Yet it can also blunt the transformative force of Mary’s song. For this reason, I quite like the first couple of lines of Eugene Peterson’s vivid contemporary paraphrase of thee Magnificat in The Message. ‘I’m bursting with God-news’, Mary proclaims, ‘I’m dancing the song of my Saviour God.’ Is that how we feel this morning? Are we bursting with God-news? Are we dancing the song of God?
Mary occupies an interesting place in western Christian life and tradition – or, I should say, series of different places. Broadly speaking, on the one hand, the Catholic Church has given immense attention to Mary, but lost sight of her as an actual woman. Instead, she has been idealised: sometimes as a model of submissive piety, sometimes as close to a divine figure in herself. Indeed she has been a highly expressive outlet for the divine feminine in an usually patrirachal church In contrast, and in reaction, Protestant and Reformed traditions have typically marginalised Mary. Deeply suspicious of Catholic Marian reflections, they have often swept her away into a subordinate theological bit part and imposed upon her their own model of what a woman should be. Thus, whilst women have found greater expression for ministry and leadership, Mary has still been promoted as an idealised example of what a woman should be, as a female and mother, in an essentially man’s world: again, classically sweet, graceful and receptive, like a pale pink rose. Neither of such pathways are sufficent, so perhaps we are best to return to the biblical record and its reeolutonary dyanmic.
Looking afresh, as those words from The Message seek to do, the first things which should strike us in the Magnificat are the sheer exuberant energy of Mary and the ringing affirmation of a God who turns things upside down. How far, indeed, from many portrayals of Mary in Christian Tradition, including many limp or formalised Anglican ones. Instead, the Magnificat points us, through Mary, to two key spiritual pillars of joy and justice.
It is frequently alleged today that the words of the Magrnificat have been banned as provocations to subversion in the past: for example by the British in India, and Guatemala in the 1980s. Such claims are not always backed up by established facts. Yet we can understand why they have been made. Certainly, in the time of Argentinian dictatorship, the mothers of ‘the disappeared’ met opposition to their use of the Magnificat in their protests in the Plaza de Mayo. The great German theologican and opponent of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer put this subversive challenge well: ‘“The song of Mary’, he said, ‘is Advent’s oldest hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung..’ This song," Bonhoeffer affirmed, "has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary's mouth.
In the Anglican tradition in which I was nurtured, the Magnificat has similarly always found a central place in what became known as Christian Socialism. We don’t hear very much about that in Australia, as our church history and foundations have been a little different and a little more conservative. Yet, in many ways, it was associated with the kind of dynamic spirituality of Anglican Catholic revival which sits well with the context and certain aspects of this parish. This was a sacramental spirituality, profoundly open both to divine mystery and the world around, concerned for God in the poor and the marginalised, and exuberant with the cultivation of colour, beauty and life. When it came to Mary, this was also not about any one colour of roses, let alone pale pink ones. It was about all the roses.
One of the most prominent figures in that radical Anglican Catholic movement was the late nineteeenth and early twentieth century priest Stewart Headlam. There is so much which could be said about him (see further the work of John Orens - from which some of this is drawn), including his remarkable support for Oscar Wilde, for whom he stood bail during his trial for homosexuality. It is enough today to speak of the impact of the Magnificat upon him. For, to Headlam, Mary’s song, picking up on an another radical Anglican Thomas Hancock’s words, was ‘the hymn of the universal social revolution’ and ‘the Marseillaise of humanity.’ Not for nothing did it then inspire he and others to engagement in social and political questions, not least those of women. Indeed, Headlam saw such reawakening to Mary’s importance as no coincidence at at a time of women’s demands for the right to work, for equal education and the vote. In a world of great divisions and domestic violence, might not the Magnificat offer similar inspiration to justice for women, and men, today?
Recent development of our Advent lectionary is interesting, for it has made the Magnificat but an option in our Advent reflections. This runs alongside a tendency to dwell on the male prophetic tradition, and in particular John the Baptist, rather than the female. That is not only somewhat unbalanced but it thereby risks us losing a vital quality which Mary brings: namely irrepressible joy. For, whilst the prophets, like Isaiah in our first reading today, are also strong about God’s justice, they, not least John the Baptist, leave us weak on God’s joy. Headlam put this strikingly. ‘The dark Calvinism’, he said, ‘which… has cast its slime over the English religion of the last… centuries is directly due to men having… refused to let the Mother of God hold an appreciable place in their life and imagination.’ For Mary reveals God, he said, ‘as the source of joy and beauty, (and) the sanctifier of human affection.’ In other words, if we ignore Mary, we easily ignore the God who comes in a body, with all our senses and fleshly materiality, our eartthly needs and longings, our hopes, desires and capacity for beauty and compassion. For Headlam, who was a promoter of dance and the arts, the Mass, like the song of Mary, was thus a celebration of God in all of this. For as another great woman (Rose Schneiderman) once put it, we all need bread, but roses too: joy and justice.
So may we, like Mary, be God bearers: justice-makers and joy-givers; bursting with such God-news; dancing the song of God; and may our roses be all colours of the rainbow and more. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Jo Inkpin, for Advent 3, Sunday 17 December 2017, at Holy Trinity Fortitude Valley