Today’s Advent Reading:
USCCB — December 22nd
And Mary said,
“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 1:46-55, NRSV)
The Magnificat is many things. It is a song of praise to God. It is a song of personal thanksgiving to God, in honor of all that God has done for Mary and Elizabeth. It is a song that invokes the promise of God, of the eternal covenant between God and Abraham’s people. It is a song that makes a connection between Mary and a much older biblical character, Hannah, who prays similar words in 1 Samuel, Chapter 2.
But, in the context of the Gospel of Luke, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the Magnificat is the song of a world turned upside down. It articulates a vision of God’s kingdom on Earth, a kingdom whose inception subverts all the power structures we know and understand. God looks with favor not on the haughty or the proud but the lowly. God “scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Powerful rulers tumble down from their thrones. The rich are rendered empty, while the hungry are filled and the lowest of the low are uplifted by the goodness and mercy of God.
For me, the Magnificat is really the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. It’s the threshold we cross over to enter into the theological headspace of the gospel, the introduction to core themes that appear in Luke over and over again. Jesus’ ministry in Luke is particularly concerned with the kind of social justice that Mary articulates in the Magnificat.
Jesus begins his work by visiting the synagogue in Nazareth and describing the ethos of His ministry with borrowed words from 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” (Luke 4:18-19, Isaiah 61:1, 58:6, 61:2, emphasis added).
Furthermore, while Matthew’s beatitudes begin with the more ambiguously spiritual statement “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke’s begin simply with “Blessed are you who are poor” (Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20).
Jesus spends the Gospel subverting paradigms and power structures; he does what is societally unimaginable. He hangs out with the marginalized, with outcasts and sinners. He touches people who, by first-century Jewish standards, are deeply unclean: lepers, dead bodies, bleeding women, etc. And He does all of this much to the chagrin of the upper echelon of Palestinian Jewish society, the Pharisees, whom he deems hypocritical and dangerously legalistic.
Jesus is also perfectly happy to disrupt the economic wellbeing of people He interacts with. Remember the story when He lets a legion of demons enter a herd of pigs, leading to their demise in a river? That was surely not convenient for the swineherds. Those pigs were their livelihood (Luke 8:26-34).
In short, while Jesus is a subversive figure in every Gospel, in Luke, He strikes me as particularly revolutionary, particularly out to mess up our temporal status quo. This focus on turning our system upside down has broad implications and has been a formative aspect of my spirituality and worldview. It has changed the way I think about people I would feel more comfortable ostracizing. It has encouraged me to keep the poor and marginalized in mind as I participate in civil society and in financial and cultural decisions. It has also shifted my political beliefs further and further to the left (though, of course, this is controversial, and my enamoredness with Christian socialism is a discussion for another day).
But, most importantly for this blog post, and on a much more personal level, this focus on subverting our system has totally changed my perspective on strength and worldly success by reminding me that strength and worldly success do not matter on God’s spiritual scale. Culturally, this can be hard to accept because we are taught to work for everything, to construct our own worthiness through our words and deeds, to climb to the top of the top and attain our happiness by deserving it. Through the revolutionary work of Jesus, God reminds us that these metrics we rely on in our day-to-day lives, whether at school or at work or while socializing, are so small compared to His Love and that ultimately the reality of God’s Kingdom will render all of our frivolous temporal successes for naught.
In some of my worst moments, I find myself thinking as if I were a Pharisee manifest in the modern world, concerned heavily with my own ability to succeed: If only I write an amazing Ichthus blog post, if only I prepare an awesome presentation, if only I kill this music performance, if only I ace this application, if only I’m super engaging on this date, if only I can make all of my friends laugh, if only I can teach people something, then I’ll be worthy, then I’ll have earned love and respect…and perhaps even salvation. The result of such thought is that when I fail at any of this, when I am made humble by even the smallest screw-up, I spiral into self-loathing and despair. I feel like I have fallen farther from God’s love, like I have become unable to present myself to God, to live in union with Him or His love. Perhaps this would be a truer self-assessment if the third verse of the Magnificat had a slight word-change. Perhaps my self-criticism would be warranted if it said, “for He has looked with favor on the strength of his servant,” or “on the ability of his servant” or “on the perfection of his servant” or “on the quality of his servant’s essays.” But it doesn’t say any of that. Rather, it says that God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
God will always look with infinite love on my own lowliness. He will meet me in my hunger for peace and happiness and fill me with good things. He will embrace me in all my uncleanliness. He will accept me in all my sinfulness. He will affirm me whether the worldly systems that surround me have affirmed me or not. This is the truth at the heart of the Magnificat that is available to me and you. It is the message at the core of the Gospel, the message of an abundant, un-earned love that is given to everyone, no matter what, a love that meets the world in its brokenness and says, “I’m here, and I’m going to turn this place upside down.”
Aidan Stoddart ’21 is a freshman in Weld Hall.