A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 23, 2018 (Advent IV, Year C)
Who do you think wrote the best protest song of all time? There’s no right answer, of course. Bob Dylan, maybe. Woody Guthrie. At least that’s the generation we usually identify with the modern protest song — the 60’s. For many of us, protest songs conjure images of sit-ins on college campuses or rain-soaked hippies dancing in the mud at Woodstock. Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” or Jimi Hendrix wailing away on his left-handed Stratocaster playing the Star Spangled Banner or Pete Seeger singing “This Land is My Land.”
But to qualify as a genuine protest song, you really need just two things: a righteous
cause and an identified injustice. Protest songs have addressed various issues over the years, and have spanned every generation and every musical genre, but the most prevalent themes have been war, civil rights, and economic injustice.
Some of these songs have been overt and others more subtle. John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” was an obvious anti-war song. There’s nothing understated about singing, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” But many of the old negro spirituals worked on two levels, with a relatively harmless or even spiritual lyrical veneer, along with a deeper cry for freedom and protest against oppression. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” for instance, was full of code pertaining to stops along the Underground Railroad, references lost on slave owners, but signals of hope for their oppressed slaves.
In our passage from Luke’s gospel, we have just heard Mary sing a protest song. I’m not saying that this song of Mary’s is in exactly the same vein as Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin’” or Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” or even the classic negro spirituals, but there is a subversive quality to the Magnificat that often gets overlooked. The Magnificat is not just a harmless manifestation of spirituality, it is a radical statement of a bold and hope-filled faith.
But in order to fully comprehend the impact of Mary’s words, you first need to examine the context out of which they were born; to look at the political situation of early first century Palestine. The days immediately preceding Jesus birth were fraught with political strife and uncertainty. The pressure on and the oppression of the Jewish community was at a fevered pitch. The imperial power of Rome had ruthlessly crushed the minor Jewish rebellions that had bubbled up against the Roman Empire. Between the draconian taxes and the treatment as second-class citizens and the human rights violations, life was not easy for the Jews of ancient Palestine. One of the major complaints, besides the economic oppression and day-to-day cruelty, was the holding up of the Roman emperor as a divine being. This went against everything the Jews stood for as monotheists, believing in the sole authority of a single God. To be coerced into proclaiming the emperor as divine was, essentially, religious abuse.
At one level, the choice for the Jewish people was simple: collaborate or resist; accept the yoke of oppression in order to survive, or fight back and court death. But the moral murkiness and hardships did much to drive out hope. And it’s a dark place to live without hope. Without any sense that things would ever change; to feel emotionally and physically trapped and imprisoned by circumstances beyond your control.
One of the most ruthless displays of imperial might led to the burning of a town near Nazareth named Sepphoris. Tradition holds that this was the hometown of Mary’s parents, and may have been where the future mother of Jesus was born. This town was sacked and held up as an example of what happens when you rise up against the Empire. Its citizens were brutally killed, raped, and enslaved in a very public display of Roman power. Mary, and her cousin Elizabeth, most likely saw first-hand the violent destruction of Sepphoris; they were well-acquainted with the price of resistance.
But these events, rather than serving as a catalyst for despair, honed Mary’s understanding of hope, a concept forged not in theory but in the brutal reality that God alone had the power to emancipate her people. Painful real-life experience caused Mary to thrust all hope of deliverance upon God, rather than upon man.
Mary stands in for a people hoping that God will side with the righteous in scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty. As the God-bearer, Mary is playing her part in bringing salvation to the world. Not as a passive observer but as an active participant in God’s unfolding plan of salvation. And part of that plan involves a full-on reversal. The political impact is part of it, but it’s more about what is valued in the coming Kingdom of Heaven. Mary is helping to usher in a reign where might doesn’t make right, where the vulnerable are lifted up, where justice rolls down like waters, where peacemakers are more valued than warriors, where the only question that matters is how your soul magnifies the Lord.
Now for those on the margins, from the people of Israel living under Roman rule to those who are marginalized and ignored in our own day, the Magnificat offers powerful words of hope. For those who struggle, for the exploited, for the abused and the abandoned, for asylum seekers, and for those whose dignity has been trampled down again and again, this is good news. This is the great reversal.
But if you still don’t see the Magnificat as a protest song, consider these three examples of times in the past century when the powerful have sought to ban the public recitation of Mary’s words. During the British rule in India, the singing of the Magnificat in church was forbidden because it was deemed subversive. To highlight this, on the very last day of British rule in 1947, Gandhi — who was obviously not a Christian — requested these words be read wherever the British flag was publicly lowered. In Argentina, the military junta outlawed Mary’s song in the late 1970s after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza to call for non-violent resistance. And the government of Guatemala, in the 1980s, found Mary’s proclamation of God’s special concern for the poor to be so revolutionary and such a threat to authority, that they banned any public recitation of the Magnificat. These are radical words, my friends. Words that have the potential to topple governments and bring down the powerful from their thrones.
Now, I know that these actions and these situations can feel distant or remote to people not being persecuted for their faith or belittled for who they are or subjected to acts of violent oppression. But if there’s anything Jesus teaches us, it’s that when one group is being ill-treated, when one part of the body of Christ is being injured, we all suffer. And so we stand in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized in our midst and in our world whenever we sing Magnificat.
In a very real sense, the Magnificat is the “We Shall Overcome” of the Biblical world. It is the promise that ultimate justice will enter the world in the form of this child Mary carries in her womb. That the arrival of Jesus will give birth to hope and salvation, a process set in motion by the unlikeliest of actors. Mary, this humble, Jewish maiden says yes to God and the world is both transformed and turned radically upside down. She sings a protest song, and the world awaits a savior.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018