Theology

Mary’s Radical Song of Mercy

For all the stories we tell about Mary, we usually miss one of her most important contributions to the Christmas story: her song in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel.

Mary’s song (or her “Magnificat”) was the first theological reflection on Christ in the New Testament. But we barely hear about it. I have only ever heard one Christmas or Advent sermon about it.

Maybe that’s because evangelicals get nervous about Mary. They recognize her unique and exalted place in Scripture, but they start shifting in their seats when they smell anything that could be construed as “Mary-worship.” If evangelicals can avoid the subject, they will.

Also, nowhere in the song does Mary mention individual salvation. She writes about the many great things God has done, how He has been “mindful,” how “His mercy extends to those who fear him,” how “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm,” and so on. Since most churches view Christmas as an opportunity to convict once-a-year church-goers, it’s not surprising that Mary’s song doesn’t fit the bill.

Or maybe it’s because Mary’s song focuses on the radical and often unsettling mercy of God. How He extends mercy “to those who fear Him” and to those He has promised it to. Is God’s mercy extended to the rich, or to the rulers on their thrones? Hardly. Instead, God shows mercy to the humble. He lifts them up and he fills their hunger “with good things.”

This doesn’t reflect well on our North American experience of Christmas. Do we fill the hungry with good things rather than disposable gifts? Not often enough, anyway.

If the sole purpose of the Magnificat was to encourage us to extend mercy and good things to others, that should be reason enough to speak about it more at Christmas.

But Mary’s song goes even deeper.

Dec_00_Magnificat

Her words are deeply rooted in the story of Israel. For the ancient Israelites, God was a jealous God, but He was never distant. Even when Israel was being judged and exiled for its stubbornness, God always gave them an opportunity to repent. And when they didn’t, God still remembered them and continued to extend them mercy. Which, as Mary makes clear, culminates in the incarnation of Jesus.

Jesus’ incarnation also has great social and political implications: the power structure of the world has been radically reversed. As Mary sings: “[God] has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

This message was so revolutionary that in the last days of British rule in India, William Temple, then Archbishop of Canterbury, told British missionaries in India never to read the Magnificat in public. It would upset the ruling authority — the British — too much.

The proud, the mighty, and the rich don’t like mercy because it’s the great leveler. It brings down rulers from their thrones and lifts the humble from their knees. When mercy breaks in, the rulers will be last, and the humble will be first (Matthew 20:16).

God has never extended mercy to rulers because they yield authority. He extends mercy with those who fear Him and to those who humble themselves before Him.

So Christmas is about more than gifts and carols and candles and angels and shepherds and mangers — it’s about the mercy that God has extended to the world through the incarnation of Jesus. It’s about the mercy Mary sang about over 2,000 years ago.

It’s about how this mercy has forever changed the world.


 

Kona