The Subversive’s Seldom Sung Song


note1Without cheating by scrolling down name this song let’s see how quickly you can identify this famous piece of poetry by only using this list of clues:

  • The song was written by a famous female
  • She is not commonly thought of as a songwriter or poet
  • 17th Century Japanese Christians quietly sang the words of the song as fellow Christians were being burnt at the stake.
  • During the British colonial rule of India, it was forbidden to sing this song in churches.
  • In the 1930s Franco banned it throughout Mexico.
  • The junta in Argentina forbade the song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza.
  • Gandhi requested that this song be read in all the places where the British flag was being lowered on the final day of imperial rule in India.
  • During the 1980s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador prohibited any public recitation of the song.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaimed it as “the most passionate, the wildest, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung.”
  • Now I’m giving it away when I reveal that it is the longest recorded set of words spoken by any woman in the New Testament. (Guessed it yet?)
  • Oh, did I mention that the songwriter was pregnant when she wrote it (at a very young age I might add)? (If that didn’t do it, the last clue will!)
  • This was the first Christmas carol ever composed!

Ding, ding, ding! You win!

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

For the Mighty One has done great things for me.

Holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,

From generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

He 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.

He has helped his servant Israel,

Remembering to be merciful to Abraham

And his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.’” Mary’s famed Magnificat!

Have you ever thought how weird it is that pregnant gentle Mother Mary wrote these lyrics? Collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, not to mention the rich being sent away empty while the poor are fed, not really your typical expecting mother/Christmas carol!

We call it the “Magnificat” from the Latin of the first line: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” It’s been part of the church’s liturgy since the beginning and has been sung and recited for centuries. Funny, but I don’t hear much of it these days. I wonder if it’s subversive message concerning the deceptive nature of power and wealth that we’re not excited about? It’s not a theme in many songs of worship in our churches.

Last Christmas as I was rereading the nativity story I composed a simple chorus using Mary’s words. When I got to the line: “He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty,” I balked, knowing that if I ever shared the song with anyone (I’ve kept most of the songs I’ve written close to my chest) those particular lyrics would go over like a lead balloon! I even tried changing the words from “sends the rich away” to “sends the full away.” When I tried it out on a friend he thought I was singing, “he sends the fool away.” I went back to “rich.” Still we agreed that the song probably wouldn’t make the Top Ten Worship Song list with either rendering. Melody aside, the lyrics, even though taken straight from Scripture, would rule it out it from most worship leaders’ Sunday set.

Let’s muse a little about Mary’s composition. What in the world did she have on her mind the day she exclaimed these words? I mean, here’s a teenage pregnant girl, impregnated not by the usual means by the way, and she bursts out in a poetic prophecy about the baby in her womb. It’s funny that she doesn’t actually refer to the child, but everything she says relates to him. She was rehearsing the way that God had always rolled in the past and how she expects him to keep rolling in the future. He brings down rulers and thrones and lifts up the humble!

Think about Mary’s horrid and confusing circumstances. As a pregnant unwed teenage peasant girl, her prospects for a rosy future were not exactly apparent. Yet, in light of what she knew about God, she had a faith inspired imagination of what this child would for her and people like her. Could it be that this was God’s intention in inserting his Son into a womb in such bleak circumstances?

Could this be the reason so many power mongers and oppressive governments have objected so vehemently to the song and banned its public recitation? Were they as afraid as was Herod of the message of this dangerously subversive Jesus? Craig Greenfield says, “Now, I’ll admit, mothers can sometimes overstate the talents and wonders of their sons. But this is just the beginning of a very disturbing trend. From the moment he emerged from the desert, full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was stirring up trouble.” Jesus, Son of God, Savior, Prince of Peace – Troublemaker! Sounds about right.

The people of power I listed above who banned the song considered Mary’s words about God’s apparent preferential love for the poor to be too dangerous and revolutionary for public consumption. Guatemala’s impoverished masses, for instance, attached themselves to Mary’s message and her song inspired them to believe that social change was possible. Thus their government put the kibosh on it! Can you imagine? You can’t sing or recite that dangerous song anywhere at anytime in our country!

Similarly, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War—placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song. Wow! They realized that if the poor started believing the song’s message their power over the powerless could be not long for this world.

So, back to Mary, what sorts of things did she anticipate her baby would accomplish on earth? She envisioned that he would topple rulers, scatter the proud, send the rich running, exalt and fill the humble. Her Son was destined to upset the status quo and turn everything upside down. What humans value most will implode and be replaced by the things God values.

It’s likely that Mary expected her Messiah Son would accomplish this revolution by forcefully removing rulers from their positions of power and put their wealth of the wicked in the hands of the righteous. Remember, she and her people suffered under the unkind domination of foreign occupiers. After all, not long after reciting her prophetic poem those occupiers required her to walk seventy miles while pregnant to the small rural town of Bethlehem. Don’t forget that nearly two years later she and Joseph were forced to flee with Jesus and become refugees in Egypt while Herod ordered half of Jesus’ playmates in Bethlehem to be killed! And we complain when we have to pay unjust taxes and work with a churlish employer.

If she did imagine a mighty Messiah who would overcome the Romans with force she would have been in good company with the prophet-to-be in the womb of her cousin Elizabeth to whom she sang her song. John himself eventually struggled with the method Jesus used to bring about the kingdom he had predicted. “Are you the one or are we to look for another?” By what means does he subvert the powers that be and fill the hungry stomachs of the poor (in this age, that is)?

It wouldn’t be outrageous to conclude that Mary did not want her Messiah Son to offer mercy and salvation to the ruthless Romans. She might well have preferred that he demolish their power with his superior power and raise the downtrodden from their plight. (Which, by the way, he will do someday when, with fire in his eyes, he rides in on a white horse! But that’s another day in another way than the way he subverts today’s powers.) For years she “pondered” everything she’d heard in her heart and wept as she saw him breathe his last. In time she and the eleven were able to piece together what he taught them about the nature of this stage of his kingship. Of course, his resurrection offered no small contribution to their understanding. It took them a while, but they eventually connected the dots about how he planned to subvert the powers and support the poor.

How Jesus goes about subverting the present order of things is the theme of the series of posts from which I took this brief parenthetical detour in this one. I encourage you to read those along with some of Jesus’ own words and the equally revolutionary words of his half-brother, James.  I think you’ll find them clearly parallel to Mary’s seldom-sung song.

Maybe if enough of us begin singing the song of the subversive it’ll make a comeback!


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