Mary was a girl, a young woman, from a working class family in a small Jewish town in the backwater of the Roman Empire. As an unmarried girl in a country under military occupation, she was the most vulnerable of people, but she was no shrinking violet.
When the Angel Gabriel tells her she will have a child – the Messiah and promised leader of his people, she asks questions first: “How exactly is that going to work?” When she says yes, her assent is not merely submissive obedience. She is a full participant, agreeing to put her body and life on the line for the freedom of her people.
Mary has never known a world at peace. Revolution has been brewing longer than she can remember as the Jews grow increasingly discontent under the power of Rome and her representatives. And Mary knows she has been asked to be the mother of their deliverer.
Like many a young unwed mother, Mary travels to spend time with relatives out of town. Maybe she was trying to get away from gossiping neighbors, or her family’s disappointment and struggles to believe her story – “So an angel told you God was going to make you pregnant????” Whatever she faced at home, it couldn’t have been easy.
But when she arrives at her cousin Elizabeth’s, she doesn’t even have to tell them her story. The miracle baby Elizabeth herself is carrying after decades of barrenness leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth knows: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”
And Mary responded with a song of relief and rejoicing. Her song of praise – her “Magnificat” – expresses far more than her sense of honor at being chosen by God:
“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” she sings,
“and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary is singing a song of revolution, a song of reversals, of God turning the way things are on their head!
The powerful will be cast down, and those without power raised up. The hungry will be satisfied, and the wealthy will go hungry. As John, “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” will proclaim, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain made low.” The prophet Isaiah provided those words, and these:
God will “provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
In Mary’s song and John’s prophetic work, God’s kingdom is proclaimed as a kingdom that turns the way things are upside down!
Mary knew, and we know, that doesn’t happen peacefully. The powerful are rather attached to their thrones and not inclined to give them up without a fight. And the rich protect their wealth and security. We don’t want to give up the power, influence, and resources we have. We fight to protect them. But…
The valleys will be lifted up and the mountains laid low.
The powerful will be cast down and the powerless raised up.
The poor will be filled and the rich will go hungry.
When you hear those things, does your heart flinch a little in fear? Mine does. As much as I want to think I’m on Jesus and Mary’s side in this, I’m afraid of all I have to lose when the world turns upside down.
The Holy Spirit’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I heard that a lot growing up in church. The thing is, I don’t think anybody neatly fits into either category most of the time.
I was talking to a friend recently who, after being well-off most of his life, really struggles to make ends meet these days. He works at Trader Joe’s, and told me recently about a young couple who came through his check-out line. They were clearly wealthy – he recognized designer clothes and tastefully expensive jewelry. But they were quietly arguing and she was trying to hide tears. “Sure, they have money,” he said, “but they’re suffering in ways I know nothing about, and I’ve never known anyone who isn’t.”
I think he’s right. Most of the time, each of us are comfortable in ways and truly afflicted in other ways. We have a good job, but our marriage is struggling. Our kids are doing great, but our parents are suffering. And if we have a season when everything is going well, an illness comes, or an unexpected death, and suddenly our lives are turned upside down.
We’re all going to need comforting – and Jesus came for that. He brings good news to the oppressed, binds up the brokenhearted, gives the oil of gladness instead of mourning.
But that flinch of fear in my heart, that clinch in my stomach, when I hear that God is in the business of turning the way things are on their head. That feeling? That tells us where we’re comfortable. Where we feel threatened by God’s work in the world.
Don’t shuffle that feeling off to the side. Don’t try to silence it with justifications. Sit with it this Advent and Christmas. Listen to it. Let it make us uncomfortable. Let it show us how we can best join in God’s business of turning the way the world works on its head.
Recognize the power you have and use it on behalf of those who don’t have; or better yet, share it with them. Share the wealth and resources you have with those who don’t have much. Choose to let the heart of God turn your world upside down.
In agreeing to be the mother of Jesus, Mary put her heart and body on the front lines of her people’s fight to overthrow the power of the Roman Empire and turn their world upside down, and God had even more in mind for her son than she knew. Mary had a choice – she could’ve turned away. She could have protected her reputation and the possibility of a normal, uneventful life.
But Mary said yes to God and his plan to turn the way the world is on its head, whatever it cost her. What will we say?