Mary: Prophet of the Poor
© by the Reverend Dr. Byron E. Shafer
A sermon preached at Rutgers Presbyterian Churchon December 21, 2003;
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year CScripture Lessons: Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-56
Mary the Prophet! It’s not very often that we hear the title “prophet” being ascribed to the mother of Jesus, Christianity’s most celebrated woman. In fact, it was only as recently as three years ago that I for the very first time noticed this title being used for Mary.
Now over the centuries, this remarkable woman has been called many things: “Blessed Virgin,” “Highly Favored One,” “Handmaid of God,” “Mother Mild,” “Friend of God,” “First Disciple,” “Queen of Galilee,” “Mother of God,” even “Co-Creator.”
And, as noted by the Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, Mary’s image through the centuries has proven to be really quite pliable, “allowing the Christian imagination to create widely different … symbols and theologies in relation to [our varying] spiritual and social needs.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., “Mary of Nazareth: Friend of God and Prophet,” in The Living Pulpit, October-December 2001, p. 12; reprinted from America, 6/17-24/2000.) Indeed, a 1996 book by Fr. George Tavard is entitled The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary.
So now it’s our turn to lift up an image—we, the multicultural, multi-denominational Church of the Twenty-first Century. It’s our turn to interpret and honor Mary in a way that is “theologically sound, ecumenically fruitful, spiritually empowering, ethically challenging, and socially liberating.” (Ibid., and Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary,” U.S. Catholic, December, 2003, p. 12 [?]. I had access only to a printout of the website version of this article, so the page references for the magazine version are only approximate.)
Well, as the title of my sermon indicates, I am proposing this morning that for our era an interpretation of Mary that needs to be lifted up and emphasized is Mary as “Prophet of the Poor.” (I first encountered this title, in lower case, in Richard S. Ascough’s commentary on Lk. 1:39–55, New Proclamation: Year C, 2000–2001 [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000], p. 33.)
You see, I believe that Mary is, in this regard, very much like the woman whose namesake she is. For the name “Mary” is the English form of the Hebrew name “Miryam,” “Miriam.” And in the Old Testament, Miriam is not only the sister of the prophet Moses and of the priest Aaron but she is also one who bears the title “prophet” in her own right. And as a prophet she sings a song that celebrates her oppressed people’s deliverance from their bondage to the pharaoh of Egypt (Song of the Sea; Exodus 15:20–21 [and 1–17!]). So the Mary of Nazareth whom we find in today’s Second Lesson singing a song that celebrates the deliverance of her people from oppression and servitude—so Mary of Nazareth is not the first Jewish woman named Miriam to speak such prophetic words as she does.
Luke quite deliberately portrays this Miriam, Miriam of Nazareth, as a Jewish woman—that is, as a descendant of the people of Israel who has “inherited the faith in one living god [that] stem[s] from Abraham and Sarah…, a God who[, as in the days of Moses and the first Miriam,] hears the cries of the poor and frees the enslaved” so that they can enter into a new covenant relationship with God. (Johnson, The Living Pulpit, October–December 2001, p. 16)
And Luke also quite deliberately portrays this second Miriam, Miriam of Nazareth, as one who, like the first Miriam, is desperately poor and living under the brutal regime of a foreign despot—in Mary’s time, the Roman emperor rather than the Egyptian pharaoh. (Ibid.)
So when, at an earlier point in Luke’s first chapter, he narrates the scene now known as “the Annunciation,” in which the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will soon bear a son who is to be the Messiah, Luke describes this Annunciation in such a way as to present it as “nothing less than a prophetic vocation story on the model of the call to Moses at the burning bush.” (Ibid., pp. 16–17)
Thus, Luke describes Mary as having been called, like Moses (and like Miriam), to a prophetic partnership with God in God’s work of liberation. And Luke portrays Mary as beginning to fulfill her prophetic vocation of liberation by proclaiming the words that conclude today’s Second Lesson, the speech that many now call “The Magnificat,” after the first word used in the early church’s translation of this hymn into Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum, “My soul glorifies the Lord.” (And this seems a good point to remind you that it is this very song of Mary’s, set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, that will be the featured work sung by our choir at this afternoon’s Candlelight Carol Service.)
Anyway, back to Luke 1! Mary, who is herself pregnant with Jesus, has journeyed quite a considerable distance to visit her much older cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. This scene, known as “the Visitation,” is the longest account in all the New Testament in which women hold center stage. And at this scene’s conclusion, Mary utters her Magnificat, the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the entire New Testament.
And Mary, like the prophets Miriam, Moses, and Deborah before her (Exod 15; Judg 4:4; 5), sings a hymn of triumphant praise: “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” who has looked with favor on my lowliness. (Luke 1:47–48) Now the Greek word for “lowliness” is not referring here to Mary’s spiritual humility, although she undoubtedly possessed such humility. No, the “lowliness” that has attracted to Mary God’s favor is that of her political and social humiliation, the lowliness she has been enduring both as an impoverished peasant subject to constant exploitation by a brutal occupying army and as a young woman subject to constant exploitation by a harsh and unrelenting patriarchal system.
But God’s favor and doing of great things for Mary is just the beginning of a process that will come to assume far larger scope. For, as Mary the prophet herself proclaims in the next part of her song, God’s favor and doing of great things will come to be shown to all those who, like Mary, are “lowly.” Yes, God will indeed scatter the proud. God will bring down the powerful and exalt all the humiliated. God will fill the hungry and send the rich away empty. (vss. 51–53)
This great prophetic proclamation by Mary is her “revolutionary song of salvation,” and it “places Mary in solidarity with the project of the coming reign of God whose intent is to heal, redeem, and liberate.” (Johnson, The Living Pulpit, p. 17)
Mary makes it known that “[t]he approaching reign of God will disturb the order of the world run by the hard of heart, the oppressor. Through God’s action, the social hierarchy of wealth and poverty, power and subjugation, is to be turned upside down. All will be well because God’s mercy, pledged in covenant love, is faithful through every generation.” Thus, in Luke, Mary becomes “the spokeswoman for God’s redemptive justice.… Mary stands as a prophet of the coming age.” And every person in need is able to hear in Mary’s song a blessing: “[t]he battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded—all who are subjected to social contempt are encompassed in the hope Mary proclaims.” (Johnson, U.S. Catholic, pp. 14–15[?])
It was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stated, before he was killed by the Nazis, “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.… This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth.” So spoke Bonhoeffer (as quoted in Johnson, U.S. Catholic, p. 13[?]).
And more recently, many Latin American theologians have also called to our attention the hope for God’s favor and deliverance that this song, from the lips of a Galilean Jewish peasant prophet, stirs in the hearts of many of today’s poor and lowly. Indeed, during one period of time in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala found the stirrings raised by Mary’s proclamation of God’s preferential love for the poor to be so dangerous and revolutionary that that government actually banned any public recitation of Mary’s words! (Johnson, U.S. Catholic, p. 15[?])
Yes, here in the Magnificat, it is a defiant Mary, bearing the Messiah, who proclaims God’s outrage over the humiliation of the poor and who sings of the historical reversal that her pregnancy embodies—the reversal that it is to be from the womb of one whom the rich and the powerful have made “lowly” that the Sovereign Lord of the Universe will be born.
With prophetic authority, Mary sings this hymn of liberating praise and hope on behalf of all those in the world who are downtrodden. “Pregnant with new life, she cries out for [the] transformation of the old order…” (Johnson, U.S. Catholic, p. 17[?])
Well, we here in America have not yet banned the reading of Mary’s Magnificat. Nonetheless we have pretty effectively neutralized her words’ revolutionary impact. Oh, we of course hear them, but since they are coming from the mouth of one we presume to have been “such a sweet young thing,” we easily conclude that Mary must not really have meant what she was saying! In this way, we are able to shrug off the judgment her words proclaim against persons so rich and powerful as the likes of most of us.
I was reminded quite forcefully about this “tin ear” of ours just last Friday as I was reading Bob Herbert’s column on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times (12/19/03, p. A39). Herbert says, “Americans are the best-informed people in the history of the world. But we are experts at distancing ourselves from any real unpleasantness. Most of us behave as though we bear no personal responsibility for the deep human suffering all around us, and no obligation to try and alleviate it.” “A surge in the Dow is big news. Surges in hunger and homelessness are not.” Yet the truth is that New York City has more homeless persons right now than at any time since the Great Depression. And on the national scale, reliable data for the year 2001, the most recent year for which a full set of data is available—reliable data for 2001 show a worsening in all of the following eight measures of our country’s social health: children in poverty, child abuse, average weekly earnings, affordable housing, health insurance coverage, food stamp coverage, the gap between rich and poor, and out-of-pocket health costs for those over 65. And does any of us really doubt that each and every one of these eight measures of our country’s social health has worsened even more since December, 2001?
Well, Mary’s prophetic song is meant to remind all who would follow the Messiah that to us, as we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, there comes, besides the tidings of great joy, additional news of awesome responsibility, of the responsibility to accomplish on earth the justice that Jesus did not complete during his all-too-brief life, the justice that we his followers are therefore called upon to do.
Mary the Prophet proclaims that through the one to be born from her womb God sets in motion the process of delivering the world’s poor from systemic injustice, the process which, each Christmas, we followers of the Messiah are commanded to renew and fulfill.
So this morning, and then again this afternoon when we will hear Mary’s Magnificat set to the sublime beauty of Bach’s music, let us not shrug off this awesome truth—that Mary’s prophetic words are proclaiming things that should cause the likes of most of us to tremble—if not in fear then in exhaustion! For Mary the Prophet is summoning us to join with God in giving birth to radical reversals and revolutionary change.
Let us pray:
O God, like Mary, our souls do magnify and glorify You, and, with Mary, we pray that You will transform us and change the ways of our lives through the power of the hope that is renewed in us each Christmas. This we pray in the name of Mary’s child, Jesus, the one whose revolutionary justice is waiting to be born anew through us. Amen.