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.
Much later in life, I was shocked to discover that Mary wasn’t quiet, nor was she what I would call meek and mild.
Go read the first chapter of Luke. Read the song, called the “Magnificat,” that Mary sings.
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.
I asked evangelical Christians on Twitter about the passage, and more than 1,100 responded: 28 percent said they had never heard the title “Magnificat” (Latin for “magnify”); another 43 percent said their churches never read or discussed it; 21 percent said they had encountered it just a few times; and 8 percent said they read it every year.
Almost all of the popular evangelical songs that incorporate the Magnificat stop after the first few verses. According to Spotify, this version by ZOEgroup is the most popular English-language version of the Magnificat; it leaves out the parts about the rulers being brought down and the rich being sent away.
However, some pastors are trying to bring Mary’s song back into church. Brian Thomas, a former Southern Baptist pastor, said he left his denomination after learning how Protestantism, and evangelicalism in particular, dismissed certain parts of the Bible — including the importance of Mary.
Thomas Irby preached on the Magnificat last year as a response to the #MeToo movement. He spoke of Mary’s physical vulnerability and her courage to share her own story. “Preachers have too often settled for a pliable passage about a devoted woman and the mighty God she serves,” said Irby, an associate pastor at Ashland Place United Methodist Church in Mobile, Ala., which has gained notability as the congregation of former attorney general Jeff Sessions. Irby said he is planning on preaching the Magnificat again this year.
The artist Ben Wildflower grew up evangelical, reading the Bible over and over. Yet he never heard the song of Mary emphasized in church until he started attending an Anglican congregation. There, the Magnificat was a part of the evening prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, and Wildflower found it beautiful and profound. One day he picked up a piece of wood outside of a construction site and crafted an image of Mary that was different from all the sweet pictures of her staring up into heaven. He drew her with her fist raised to the sky, and her foot stepping on a snake. It is now his most popular image.
“She’s a young woman singing a song about toppling rulers from their thrones. She’s a radical who exists within the confines of institutionalized religion,” he said. Some Christians took issue with the political nature of his image, until Wildflower wrote a post explaining the revolutionary text came from the Bible.
Why has this song been forgotten, or trimmed, for so many people who grew up evangelical? It could be a byproduct of the Reformation, which caused Protestants to devalue Mary in reaction to Catholic theology. Or a lack of familiarity with liturgy, and an emphasis on other texts. Or perhaps the song doesn’t sound like good news if you are well fed, or rich, or in a position of power and might — or if you benefit from systems that oppress. How does the Magnificat feel if you aren’t one of the lowly, if you aren’t as vulnerable and humble as Mary?
Theologian Warren Carter writes that in the time of Jesus, 2 to 3 percent of the population was rich, while the majority lived a subsistence-level existence. “Mary articulates an end to economic structures that are exploitative and unjust. She speaks of a time when all will enjoy the good things given by God.”
This year, I will be reading the Magnificat as it was meant to be read. As Gustavo Gutierrez, a Dominican priest, once wrote, we will miss the meaning of the text with any “attempts to tone down what Mary’s song tells us about the preferential love of God for the lowly and the abused."
It 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.
Mary, no longer just a silent member of the nativity, or a holy womb for God, or an obedient and compliant girl, has become the focal point for how I, and many other Christians, celebrate Christmas while living in the reality of waiting for true justice to come. She has helped me understand the true magnificence of how much God cares about our political, economic and social realities.
The economic and political worldview of many white evangelicals has led to a silencing of Mary and of God’s dream for the world. But now she is helping me trust that the eventual upending of the systems of the world will be good news for me, and for other evangelicals, as well.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a pastor at Ashland Place United Methodist Church. He is Thomas Irby.