This post is dedicated to everyone who is sitting in Sunday School today wishing that the Christmas lesson was not on the Family Proclamation.
In denominations that use the Revised Common Lectionary, today is Advent IV and the gospel reading is from Luke 1:39-55, where Mary and Elizabeth meet while pregnant. Fetal John the Baptist recognizes Fetal Jesus from the womb. Mary then makes the prophetic declaration known as the Magnificat.
When I was a teenager and adult, the lesson manuals that covered this story emphasized this as a kind of miracle and Mary’s obedience in fulfilling her motherly role. In my mind, I have always seen this scene in pageant form (yes, I know that the Annunciation is a separate event from the Visitation), as though the gospel text played out just like it does in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983) film adaptation, where the blond mean girl plays the role of Mary and is suddenly transformed and humbled by the experience.
I read and discussed this passage yesterday morning with an intergenerational group from my church and the Magnificat seemed like a text we need right now. As we read the text yesterday, I did not see the familiar mean girl in my mind’s eye. Two women, related but holding very different social locations, meet each other while pregnant. Elizabeth is an older woman who experienced infertility for years and was past the point of hoping for a child. Elizabeth is a woman of status, though childless, through her connection to her husband and the temple. Elizabeth’s relative is Mary, a pregnant teenager and who draws suspicion. Both lived in a land colonized by an empire that would, just 70 years later, destroy their marginalized faith’s holiest site. Maybe Mary is obedient, though I do feel that obedience is a poor reading of this passage. Instead, Mary rejoices (perhaps with some complex feelings) in a God who is willing to destroy the powerful and relieve the suffering of the oppressed.
And if you feel like your Sunday School lesson on keeping the oppressed fully oppressed isn’t the good news of the gospel you wanted to hear today, remember that like Mary, we believe in a God (if you believe in God) who “has shown strength with her arm; She has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. She has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; She has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1: 41-53, pronouns changed). Mary drops the mic and prophetically reminds us of who God is and who she is: not a 1980s mean girl with a tear slowly rolling down her pale cheek, but a young Jewish girl from a fallen family who has probably suffered at the hands of society for a pregnancy she didn’t ask for. For good or ill, this son will define her life, though she will later watch her community lynch this son. Generations of Christians diminished Mary’s story by turning her into a symbol of sexual purity instead of holding this prophetic call for justice as central to her story and identity. Perhaps her speech is an angry prayer reminding God that God is a God of justice who keeps her promises. So instead of worshipping the cis-het-white-patriarchal family today, keep Mary’s Magnificat in mind. Pray for justice and seek for peace and let us never again remember Mary as a whitewashed poster child for purity.