It’s that time of year, the one where we celebrate the holidays. “Holidays” is now a suspect word in our culture, trading as it does on the anti-Christian sentiment expressed in “the war on Christmas”—well, at least that’s what some folks on my Facebook seem most exercised by.
But even if our society settled on Christmas as the official holiday of this season, there still is not a consensus on what it means as a cultural observance. On the one hand, you have the cultural scolds who’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas one too many times. These folks bang the drum, decrying the commercialization of Christmas. You know, Christmas-as-one-more-excuse-for-sticking-our-nose-in-the-consumer-trough. Too much Toys-‘r-Us, and not enough “old fashioned Christmas”—roasted chestnuts, Wassail, visions of sugar plums, and so on.
On the other hand, there are the soft Christian sentimentalists, the ones who also view Christmas— though they’d be reluctant to say it this way—as the height of civil religious observance. These soft Christian sentimentalists are often the most vituperative when it comes to sniffing out the cabal responsible for “the war on Christmas”—lots of Away in a Manger, poor but properly handsome shepherds, and angels singing backup for the lowing cattle.
But I think both of these popular takes on Christmas miss the point of the scandal of God pitching a tent among us in the person of Jesus. Interestingly, I think the most Christmas-y the Bible gets is in the Magnificat—the song Mary sings in the Gospel of Luke upon hearing she’s about to give birth.
The Magnificat is popularly viewed as the charming and poetic response of a young peasant girl’s simple faith in God. This is supposed to be a nice song, isn’t it? But sing this one and see if doesn’t get stuck in your throat:
“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 for ever.”
— Luke 1:46b–55
See what I’m saying? We tend to focus on the first part, the nice part, while skipping over the second part, the revolutionary part. The second half of the Magnificat isn’t an upbeat thought you post on your Facebook page during the holidays.
This isn’t material for a Successories poster.
It sounds more like Mao or Che. In fact, some scholars think that Mary’s song is but an echo of the revolutionary chant of the Jewish zealots—that band of Jewish guerrillas bent on overthrowing the Roman occupation by force.
Moreover, some scholars believe that this song positions Mary among that shadow group of Palestinian Jews, known as the anawim—which is Hebrew for the poor and oppressed—or “the shit of the earth,” as Terry Eagleton colorfully puts it in his book Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics.
This is a song that speaks of reversal: Those in the front get a divine escort to the back of the line, and those in the back finally get to sit in the owner’s box. With the advent of Jesus, those who’ve gotten used to warmth and comfort are going to be forced to do some serious prioritizing, just in order to get a baloney sandwich and stay out of the cold. Mary’s song is the real song of Christmas—which is troubling. And that’s just the thing. I don’t deal in Molotov cocktails or hand-grenades. I’m a fairly normal, middle-class guy; I’ve got two cars and a mortgage. I don’t need this. In fact, I read this and I’m not so sure Mary isn’t talking about me. I’ll tell you one thing: it sure doesn’t leave me humming, “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas,” sucking on a candy cane to get the eggnog and garlic puffs off my breath. The problem that Mary articulates has to do with God’s relationship to power.
And given our current political climate, we know all about what power looks like in our world. Some folks in our political life believe power is the answer to everything.
But Mary, she’s at the other end of the economic spectrum. She’s from Nazareth, for crying out loud, which is the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of being from out in the backwater. And with the annunciation—the news that she’s soon going to be a single mother—Mary’s position in the community takes a swan-dive off of the socio-economic cliff. As far as the powers and principalities, it’s almost impossible to go too much lower than Mary, the pregnant teen-aged mother from the wrong side of the tracks. Any leverage she’d had vanished when God showed up and told her to start pricing car seats and strollers, any power she might have had took the red-eye to Tupelo.
And power, leverage is still the coin of the realm. Those who don’t have it want it, and those who have it—if politics in Washington and Wall Street are any indication—want to keep those who don’t have it from getting it.
Mary is singing about reversal. Mary’s singing the song about where God is—which is, apparently, where the poor and the powerless are being raised up, and the rich and the powerful are being sent empty away.
God isn’t interested in co-opting the corridors of power, of gaining credibility with those in charge. God doesn’t need U.S. Senators to dispense justice, doesn’t need Wall Street to establish God’s reign; all God needs are the hungry and the poor—and those who are willing to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Because, to be honest with you, Eagleton has noted elsewhere that “the poor and exploited are a sign of failure of the governing powers, since they illustrate what misery those powers must wreak in order to secure their sway.”
Is the Magnificat good news? Well, if you’re trying to hang onto your position in this world, maybe not so much. If you’ve got something to lose when God turns the world on its head, this could be a tough word to hear.
On the other hand, if you’ve lived your life among the disposable, if Mary seems like somebody from your neighborhood, if you’re used to bringing up the rear because of where you were born, or what job your dad didn’t have, or whom you love, or what color of skin you were born with, then Mary’s song sounds like the Hallelujah Chorus. And really, how can you get much more Christmas-y than that?
Photo credit: Flickr/Long Thien