Today, I had marvelous conversation with an African-American woman who had grown up in Mississippi, moved to Indianapolis, whose family had relocated to other rust-belt cities like Chicago and Detroit in the 1960′s and 70′s. She could talk about picking cotton, participating in civil rights marches, employers who were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and what it was like to take part in the great migration of southerners to the north to look for good jobs and a more prosperous life. Her family had also experienced many of the sad events associated with the black American experience. Families had broken up and were separated, young men like her son had been victims of crime and violence, those who at one time found employment in manufacturing industries later found themselves out of work, their descendants plunged yet again into poverty.
Yet this woman was full of joy. Despite the hardships she, her family, and the members of her community had suffered, she smiled and said she felt blessed. She knew that God was with her, and that God would continue to make a way because that’s just who he is.
In his book, The Real Mary, Scot McKnight likens Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) to African-American protest songs like “We Shall Overcome.” It is an theological-social anthem expressing confidence that ultimate justice will come — indeed, God’s justice has come — because of the events that he has put in motion, starting with two humble Jewish maidens, Elizabeth and Mary.
You see, Israel was an oppressed people in those days. Yes, they had returned from exile in Babylon and were back in the Promised Land. However, a series of nations had overrun Palestine and in Mary’s day, the Romans were its rulers. They used local “kings” like Herod, a brutal dictator, to administrate the region. Israel found itself under the thumb of its enemies on its own home turf. They had returned from exile, yet found themselves still captive. And like my friend from Mississippi, who could describe what it was like to be knocked down by the blast of a fire hose and to lose her job because she showed up at a civil rights rally, Mary and the common citizens of Israel faced daily insults and indignities as they lived in a Roman police state, were fleeced by tax collectors, and were treated like second-class citizens in their own homeland.
Many years before, another humble Hebrew woman lived in a similar setting of injustice. It was the days of the Judges in Israel. Judges were local rulers who governed and protected regions of the nation, but none of them had proven able to bring all Israel together to serve God and live justly. Because there was no king in Israel, the nation lived in a constant state of tension that often spiraled out of control into chaos. The Book of Judges portrays a people that was living crisis to crisis.
In those days this woman Hannah, like Mary, was told by a divine messenger that she was going to have a baby, though she was in no position to expect that such a thing was possible. She suffered from infertility. And yet one year, when she went to Shiloh to worship, the priest blessed her, and in due time she conceived and bore a son. She returned to Shiloh, dedicated her son to the Lord, and in anticipation of Mary, lifted up her voice in a song of praise.
Hannah prayed and said,
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.
‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.’ (1Samuel 2, NRSV)
This is the Biblical context of Mary’s later song in Luke 2. Note the similarities: (1) Both begin with personal praise for God’s surprising, powerful intervention in a woman’s life; (2) Both speak of a “great reversal” to come in which the proud and the powerful will be brought low and the humble poor exalted; (3) Both speak of God coming to rule among his people and over all the earth.
Note how Hannah’s song ends: “He will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed [Messiah].” Hannah’s son will introduce God’s chosen king to Israel — King David. David will subdue Israel’s enemies, extend her territory to the boundaries promised to Abraham, establish Jerusalem as her holy city, and prepare for the construction of a temple in which God will take his glorious throne. God will promise David an everlasting Kingdom through an heir — a “son of David” — who will rule forever. David’s Seed will fulfill the promises God gave Abraham in Gen. 12:1-3, and God’s blessing will be restored to all the earth.
Now, note how Mary concludes her Magnificat: “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 for ever.” Mary is announcing the arrival of the Son of David — the promises to Abraham are being fulfilled!
The Magnificat is Mary’s glad song of gratitude that she has been given a key role in God’s story, and her proclamation that this story is reaching its climax in her own day. God’s promises are coming to pass. His King will be enthroned. God’s enemies will fall. His people will be gathered. God will put things right. All is being made new.
Tom Wright calls her song, “the gospel before the gospel, a fierce bright shout of triumph thirty weeks before Bethlehem, thirty years before Calvary and Easter. …It’s all about God and it’s all about revolution, and it’s all because of Jesus.” (Luke for Everyone, p.14)