The Magnificat: God’s Heart for the Poor

I love the focus on storytelling and remembrance in the Judaic tradition.  Throughout the Old Testament we read countless passages instructing the people of Israel to remember the mighty works of God, to tell the stories and history of Israel to their children, and to write them on their hearts.  The repetition of these stories helps imprint them in the collective consciousness of the people, giving them a source of strength in times of difficulty.  

My family has a tradition of re-enacting the Nativity story each Christmas Eve.  The kids dress up as the various characters while the adults read from the Bible.  I did it as a kid, my mom did it when she was young, and now my kids do it.  Growing up, it helped the story come alive for me, even when it drifted into the absurd.  For instance, instead of Mary riding a donkey, she had to ride a giant stuffed tiger.  Because we didn’t have a big stuffed donkey.

To help you visualize, here is a scene from the play.  I think I am supposed to be the Virgin Mary.  My baby sister is Jesus.  It was a gender bending production:

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Another example of things getting a bit silly:  We didn’t usually stop the story at Jesus’s birth.  In fact, we went so far as to include Simeon blessing Jesus.  I played most of the roles in the play and in an attempt to depict Simeon’s age I decided that he needed a beard.  My solution?  I put a white sock between my teeth so that it dangled below my chin like a beard.  I also draped a sock over my head to simulate white hair.

This is me as Simeon:

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Curiously, I don’t remember us reading the Magnificat.  I seem to recall that we told the story of the Annunciation.  We even read Mary’s humble declaration, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38, KJV), but we didn’t make it as far as her song of praise.  It’s too bad, because it is one of the most powerful and subversive texts in the entire story.

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.   For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  And 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 mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel,  in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-55 ESV)

Everything about the song is stunning.  It gives us a window into God’s heart for the poor and the marginalized. As an impoverished, unwed, teenage mother, Mary could not have been further from the centers of social and religious power.  Yet in this song, she declares that she will be known for generations as blessed, and that God will lift high the lowly and pull down the mighty.  It is a message that should be greeted with rejoicing by those living on the margins of society, and with more than a bit of trepidation by those who are not.  In many ways, it sets the tone for Christ’s entire ministry, a ministry that would invert traditional ideas of power and righteousness, a ministry that would declare the first last and the last first.  It tells us that God actively works for the poor and forgotten.

This brings me in a roundabout way to another story.

From the age of two to five, I lived in a single parent household.  My mom raised me while working and attending college.  They were difficult years and for a time we lived well below the poverty line.  

At age five my mom remarried and we found ourselves pulled out of constant need.  In later years, she would frequently tell me this story.  

One day we found ourselves with no food or money.  Our cupboards were empty.  We had nothing.  

That same day, we got a knock on the door.  A member of my mom’s church had come to check on us.  When she realized our dire situation, she took my mom to the grocery store and stocked our cupboards with food and other basic necessities.  When my mom talked about repaying her, she firmly said no.

“Someday you’ll have the chance to do this for someone else,” she said. “You do it for them and that’s how you’ll repay me.”

In that moment, she was acting as the hands of God on earth.  She understood that as Christians we are called to be “little Christs”.  We are required to care about what He cares about.  We are expected to fulfill the promise that Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat.

It is important that we tell these stories.  As a parent, I will tell my children the stories of the Bible.  I will teach them the Magnificat.  And I will tell them the story of the woman who brought it to life for my family.  I will repeat them over and over again until they are written on their hearts, so that they too can help give life to the promises of God.