|Nativity Icon, by Julie Lonneman
Can we change the world if we’re not powerful, rich, or famous? Can the world be changed by ordinary people like us? Mary the mother of Jesus answers with a song we need to hear.
And it’s a song we’ve needed to hear for millennia. You see, Mary’s song is not entirely original. A thousand years earlier Hannah, a woman distraught by her own barrenness, sang a very similar song after God answered her prayer and she miraculously gave birth to a son—Samuel. Samuel would become a powerful prophet, a national figure leading the disunified and weakened people of Israel toward new hope under God’s leadership. Mary’s song and Jesus’ story echo Hannah’s song and the story of Samuel.
Today, Hannah’s song continues to be read at the celebration of Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year. It is read because they consider it the prime model of prayer. It expresses their enduring faith in God’s restorative work of overturning the disoriented and self-focused powers of the world. As a Jewish girl living in 1st century Palestine, Mary would have known Hannah’s song as familiarly as most of us know the lyrics to Jingle Bells.
The similarities between the two motherly songs are undeniable. Both praise God for the unexpected birth of their child. Both declare that the poor are lifted up and the powerful are brought down. Both state that God’s strength alone is able to reverse what is wrong. Both rejoice that hungry stomachs will be filled. Both assert that it is not by our own strength that we prevail but only through God’s power, which is displayed in the most unexpected ways.
I can imagine Mary thinking, in her least anxious moments, as she nursed infant Jesus and considered all the enemies conspiring to defeat him, “They don’t know what’s coming.” Very few, as John’s gospel points out, realized what God was up to. “He was in the world...the world did not recognize him….his own did not receive him.” Even today, very few believe that God desires to work through the people of humble and lowly position to reverse the powerful political, economic, and global forces of the world.
But as it turns out, God’s modus operandi—his most consistent way of doing things—is to engage the most unlikely people in the most unexpected ways to overthrow corrupt and unjust powers. The Apostle Paul, a leader in the early church, described it this way: “God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong.”
Other mothers and women of the Bible cheer us on along with Hannah and Mary. You see, Mary added her voice to a distinct and rare line of faith-filled female voices in scripture who celebrated God’s might through the unexpected “weak ones.” There is the judge Deborah, the ‘mother of Israel’, who sings a song of victory celebrating the defeat of their enemy by the heroine Jael who she calls the “most blessed of women”. There is the prophetess Miriam who led a song of victory after Israel crossed the Red Sea celebrating how the pursuing Egyptian army were drowned in the sea. Added to these songwriters are the actions of other women in the Bible like the Jewish midwives who thwarted Pharaoh's command to kill all the baby boys they delivered and Moses' mother who crafted a floating cradle so that her son might be rescued by an Egyptian princess.
In these biblical examples, we see God’s kingdom break out forcefully through those who let God work his power through them. This encourages me profoundly. Let me put it in Food for the Hungry terms. We have a humanitarian desire to help those suffering in poverty. There is also the real hope that our generous gifts, small or large, awaken the possibility of Jesus not only transforming a community from stuck-in-poverty to thriving, but that such a community could also lead the world out of its own stuckness. Perhaps the glory of God shining through their “weakness” will light up our realities to reveal where we are stuck, where we might need to repent, and give us the courage to also change.
This is the message of good news we need to hear at Christmas! Two thousand years ago, God’s power to change the world rested in the arms of an unknown mother in the town of Bethlehem. Today, God’s mission to reverse the world’s trouble is in the hands of people like you and me who welcome God’s Spirit and his ways into our humble circumstances. Or, if powerful, to lay down our power and capacity at Jesus’ feet. Through concrete actions of humble and generous service, we believe Jesus will reveal his greatest works.
Sojourner Truth, a black abolitionist and women’s rights activist in the 1850s, captures Mary’s vision and spirit of transformation. She was the first woman who, after escaping slavery, won a court battle with a white slave owner to regain custody of her son. Soon thereafter, she followed God’s call to be active against slavery and to champion women’s rights. She became famous for a speech in 1851 at the Women’s Rights Conference in Akron, Ohio with these words:
“Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”
I love that! She demonstrates the power of one unexpected person who believed in the power of God to lift up the lowly.
So, I ask again, can we change the world if we are not rich and powerful? It depends. Are you willing to humbly bring your best to what God does best? It matters little how much you have. What matters is your willingness to partner with God who Mary praises for being mindful of the humble, filling the hungry with good things, and remembering to be merciful.
Our world is filled with the proud who mind little for the humble or choose the way of mercy by lifting up the lowly. As Andrew Pratt expressed in a hymn inspired by the Magnificat, “Mary sings, when will we hear her?”
Bankers, Politicians and the Magnificat
(inspired by Luke 1: 46-55)
by Andrew Pratt
Upturned world, the bankers humbled,
politicians brought to book,
children show new ways of living,
heads will spin and turn to look.
Mary sang, exultant virgin,
birth would change her life and ours,
generations watch with wonder,
shaken like wealth’s shining towers.
wakes the earth to truth and light,
hypocrites meet naked justice,
find no place in fear for flight.
Mary sings, when will we hear her:
revolution born of love,
heralding new dispensation,
cage the hawk and free the dove?
When the prison gates are broken,
when the poor can feast and dine,
then Magnificat is bringing
age of justice and new wine.
Wine of joy and celebration,
end of hunger, God is near,
time of endless new beginnings,
birth of Jesus, end of fear.
— Copyright © Andrew Pratt 19/11/2011, and posted on his blog Hymns and Books
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Jim Heuving is FH Canada's National Church Engagement Lead. He and his wife Monica live in Langley, BC with one son, Iain, in Grade 10 and another son, Eric, studying close by at Trinity Western University. Jim pastored for 30 good years and enjoys paddling and racing outrigger canoes and stand up boards where there is lots of water and a long horizon.