When I was a girl, I remember reaching high for things on the upper shelves of stores and the like. Years ago, they used to put children’s books on a long metal rack in the middle of the cereal aisle and they were just within reach of kids who might want to read a book while their parents shopped the grocery store. We had one of those plastic “clicker” -like grocery counters – not exactly a calculator, but a red, plastic mechanism that had white buttons on top and allowed parents to calculate their groceries as they selected them from the shelves. If I wasn’t playing around with red clicker, I could be found sitting in the cereal aisle reading books to myself –many beyond my reading level– while my parents shopped. That book rack was just my height and seemed designed just for us kids. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t understand all the words in the book. They pointed to worlds and experiences that seemed just within reach.
As I got older, I discovered that some things were put purposely just out of my reach: sugary treats that I couldn’t have, dangerous items that I shouldn’t have, and all manner of thing that I couldn’t clamor to get—whether mentally, physically, or both. Even God, some might say, seemed intentionally out of reach. Of course, it was my understanding that was limited, and that understanding both expanded and contracted as I grew—depending on the season of life and what the understanding was. Learning from and, occasionally stumbling upon, our limitations is part of our humanity—we come to understand which limitations are TRULY limitations we must accept to lead a fulfilling life and which limitations are merely self-imposed and meant to be exceeded. Likewise, we learn the ways in which other people and society can project limitations on us and different ways of responding to that—both healthy and unhealthy. I can’t remember exactly when I started to pray for God to reach those places and people where I could not—but somewhere along the line, my prayers took the shape of, “if I can’t do this, God…perhaps you can.”
The song of Mary—what we know as Mary’s Magnificat—is truly an exclamation of praise. It is a realization that God exceeds our human limits; that the mystery and power of God transcends our ways of doing things and our deeply human limitations. When Mary rejoices and says these words, she is staying with her cousin, Elizabeth, who recognizes God’s blessing in and on Mary’s life. Like women before her, cousin Elizabeth mentors, guides, and shelters Mary, as they are both pregnant, though Elizabeth is much further along in her pregnancy, six month’s per Luke’s gospel account.
The things that Mary says in Luke’s account are an acknowledgement of God’s reversals on human lives. Mary—once without a child—will bear a son who will be a blessing both to her and to others. But that is not the only thing, or even the most important thing, in this song. Mary rejoices that, though she is poor and of low estate, the Mighty One “sees” her and looks upon her with favor. To know this—that the God of All looks upon you – YOU—with all your quirks and idiosyncracies– with favor is to rejoice that you are important and necessary in God’s sight. You are not a nobody. You’ve got purpose, value, and agency.
Likewise, Mary—a poor, pregnant, unwed teenager living with relatives– recognizes that God has done wonderful things for her. This isn’t the song of an ungrateful person—someone who cries “woe is me”– or the song of someone who takes for granted the blessings in one’s life. Mary is truly thankful and, importantly, the scope of her thanksgiving extends beyond herself to others.
Many through time have declared Mary’s Magnificat to be a radical song, a revolutionary, and a subversive song. 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 Advent hymn ever sung.” In an Advent sermon in 1933, he said, “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. 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 the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”As the Washington Post and others have pointed out, some countries—including India, Argentina, and Guatemala—have all banned, at one point or another, the recitation of Mary’s Magnificat in liturgy and in public because it was deemed too subversive for the masses.
And here’s why:
The poor are noticed and lifted up.
The powerful who have thus ignored the poor or, worse, taken advantage of them, are knocked from their thrones.
The hungry are filled—not with the mediocre or the spoilt, the leftovers or crumbs, but GOOD things, worthy to behold.
The rich are sent away– empty.
But the line that always strikes me to the core is the line that declares that nothing and no one is beyond God’s reach.
Mary declares, “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”
There are times in my life when I have literally clung to that phrase and that promise. God scatters the proud by “getting into” the thoughts of their hearts. When I am frustrated by those who take advantage without a thought or a care, when I am stung by the callousness of some humans towards others, when I am dismayed that my both my reach and my time are much too short, I remember that God reaches where I cannot. It’s less about karma and more about the way in which God knows our human hearts, transforming and shaping us, even as we rebel and turn aside.
Like others, I have been overly proud too. I’ve gotten in the way of others, rather than making a way for others. Books, doctors, therapists, friends, nature, and good exercise can all help a person reach beyond self-imposed limits and all manner of brokenness. They are to be prized for their healing capabilities. But when I’ve been too proud or too “full” of something that teeters on danger to myself and others, I am glad to worship a savior who can read and reach those hidden thoughts in our hearts and “scatters” them like so many fall leaves in the wind. I am grateful for a God, a community, and scripture that can reach places in me, where I am unsure or misdirected or just plain wrong. I rejoice, like Mary, that God’s mercy is as real and as tangible as a warm blanket staying the chill of a cold day, for those who know and trust this about God’s goodness.
Too many stories reduce Mary to a meek and mild, young and obedient woman. If you’ve seen this Mary and are less impressed with her, you might love to know that the Mary of Luke’s gospel is bold and full of vigor. She senses that the world is about to turn and she is a part of that turning. She is not acted upon, but has agency. She has chosen—by saying yes to her God—to bring about change and to reach beyond what society has told her maidens must be and do. She is a person who knows the limitations that society and others have placed on her, but is about to turn those limitations into opportunities.
And what about you, my sisters and brothers? Do you know how blessed you are? What limitations have been placed on you by others or are, perhaps, self-imposed? Are you ready to turn your limitations into opportunities? Have you invited God to help you to transform those limitations into opportunities—not just for yourself, but for others?
Our Savior comes to us as a babe—vulnerable, dependent, and curtailed by his own humanity. One might say the same of Mary—a poor, pregnant teenager who is sheltering with her cousin and older mentor, Elizabeth.
Yet appearances are deceiving.
What is vulnerable has its own deep strength.
What is dependent reminds us of our own interdependence and dependence on the Mighty One.
Limitations often give birth to extraordinary possibilities that are just within reach.
Reach out, friends, and know your God will reach back as well.
And if you ever pass a grocery store with one of those long metal racks, like the one I mentioned, take a moment to thank the store manager.
It just might save a life.