Updated: Jun 2, 2021
Zephaniah 3:14-18a | Psalm 113 | Colossians 3:12-17 | Luke 1:39-57 You have been praying for my friend Richard Davenport who, by the way, is coming for a four-day visit this Friday. Richard, if he remembers, will be bringing with him a birthday gift of which I have seen a picture, but have not yet received. It is a block print in black and white of Mary. Mary of the Magnificat. Mary as we have not often, if ever, seen her depicted.
Do you know the famous painting by Delacroix of Liberty, represented as a woman, climbing over the victims of the French Revolution, carrying in one hand the tattered tricolor banner that would be come the French national flag. Her right hand is raised defiantly holding the flag, in the other hand is a rifle with a bayonet.
Well, the print of Our Lady which Richard may – or may not – be bringing with him is reminiscent of that painting. Mary is standing with one foot on a human skull, representing victory over death and, as it is presented, both feet on the serpent of evil. She stands not on a pile of the dead, but presses beneath her feet the very evils that lead to war and its injustices. Around her are written the words “Cast down the mighty. Send the rich away. Fill the Hungry. Lift the lowly” – the words of The Magnificat. Her right hand is raised, echoing Delacroix’s Lady Liberté; but Mary is not holding the French tricolor; rather her fist clenched in what has come to be a universal symbol of defiance. Her left hand carries not a rifle and bayonet, but just a young girl’s tiny fist, reminding us the God’s ultimate victory will not be achieved by violence, but by true humility and surrender to God. I suppose we might call this representation of Mary not only “Our Lady of the Magnificat,” but also “Our Lady of Righteous Defiance.”
Consider this from a 2018 article by D. L. Mayfield in The Washington Post:
When I was 15, I was cajoled into playing the role of Mary in our church’s Christmas nativity scene. I was embarrassed, stuffing a pillow under a robe to signify pregnancy, but I felt I had no choice: I was the pastor’s daughter, and there was no one else who could play the role. My cheeks burning in shame, I remember feeling little connection to Mary, the mother of God. I was silent in the play. Mary, in our tradition, was a vehicle for Jesus: a holy womb, a good and compliant and obedient girl.
The first verses were always familiar to me: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Same for the next few lines about Mary being overwhelmed at the goodness of God looking upon a humble girl, that God is mighty and has done great things, that he is holy and will bless those who fear him. But then comes this:
“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.”
In all my long years of being in church, of knowing the Christmas story backward and forward, I never heard these verses emphasized. Here, Mary comes across less like a scared and obedient 15-year-old and more like a rebel intent on reorienting unjust systems. I loved this Mary. Where had she been all my life? ... Throughout history, I would learn, poor and oppressed people had often identified with this song — the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament (and a poor, young, unmarried pregnant woman at that!).
Oscar Romero, priest and martyr, drew a comparison between Mary and the poor and powerless people in his own community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”
Revolutionaries, the poor and the oppressed, all loved Mary and they emphasized her glorious song. But the Magnificat has been viewed as dangerous by people in power. Some countries — such as India, Guatemala, and Argentina — have outright banned the Magnificat from being recited in liturgy or in public. And evangelicals — in particular, white evangelicals — have devalued the role of Mary, and her song, to the point that she has almost been forgotten as anything other than a silent figure in a nativity scene.
Much later in life, I was shocked to discover that Mary wasn’t quiet, nor was she what I would call meek and mild.
This Mary stands in defiance of all who would use power and the power of riches to do anything less than use that power to serve all and any in all and any kinds of need.
To conclude as does Ms. Mayfield:
[The Magnificat] might not feel like good news to me, exactly, as someone who is neither hungry nor poor. But Mary and her song are good news for my neighbors, both locally and globally, who continue to be crushed under a world that thrives on exploitation and injustice. And as someone who is trying to take the Bible seriously, I know that loving my neighbor is the No. 1 way I can love God in our world.2
So, blessed are you, my sisters, who are poor. Continue to do – as Our Lady has already inspired you – 0to lift up your fists and challenge a world that needs the Good News of the Gospel that is also, at first, bad news to those who abuse their riches and their power.
Hail, Mary, full of defiance and grace. The Lord is with thee.