Listening to Mary’s Song

A young, unmarried woman becomes pregnant. Poor and uneducated, she is sure to face censure from both her fiancé (the baby is not his) and her community (which has been known to execute adulterers). So the woman’s response to her pregnancy is somewhat surprising: she sings. 

From now on all generations will call me blessed, 

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. 

I first encountered these words in a Bible study at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was not the seminarian in the family; that was my husband. I myself was busy teaching fourth grade in an elementary school across town. I only attended this particular Bible study this one time. But one pre-dawn December morning before hustling off to my own classroom, I accompanied my husband to a circle of hard plastic chairs over at the seminary, and examined Mary’s song for the very first time. 

…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.

Phrase by phrase, we noticed all the things God does in these verses. Scatters the proud. Brings down rulers. Lifts the humble. Fills the hungry. Sends the rich away empty. “How would a community be shaped,” asked Dr. Darrell Guder, who was leading the Bible study, “if they meditated daily on these words?” 

And that’s the only thing I remember from that Bible study. I rushed off to my teaching day, and the busy holiday season, and all the hectic years that followed. But that simple question has stuck with me. Every time I’ve run across Mary’s song since, I’ve remembered Dr. Guder’s words: How would a community be shaped if they meditated daily on these words? 

Almost two decades after that Bible study, I encountered Mary’s song in a very different setting. This past summer, I had the opportunity to attend Evensong at Westminster Abbey in London, where a choir lifted Mary’s words high into the Gothic rafters. Before they began, a church leader informed us that worship services had been conducted on this very spot every day for one thousand years. Perhaps I’d found it, then—the community that had been shaped by meditating daily on Mary’s song?

But as the Latin words of Mary’s song filled the great cathedral, I thought back over the history of the last millennium and wondered if the British people had really been paying attention to the words being sung daily in their midst. For a thousand years, with this song about God scattering the proud and bringing down rulers as daily background music, people had sailed out from this island to fight the Crusades and colonize half the globe. I’d traveled directly to London from West Africa, and the whiplash of moving directly from the formerly colonized to the former colonizers grieved me. There was so much economic instability there, and so much affluence here. Perhaps some small pockets of individuals had heard Mary’s words here at Westminster Abbey, but it seemed that the daily singing of her song for a thousand years had hardly penetrated the politics of this people. 

I can’t just pick on the British, though. For one thing, I’m descended from them. And like my ancestors, I find it all too easy to rush out to the next conquest without stopping to consider the quiet wisdom of Mary’s minority report. I’ve never attacked anyone with swords or cannons because they looked or thought differently from me. But all too often, I am proud in my inmost thoughts. All too often, I imagine that earthly power and riches will solve my problems. All too often, I forget to look for, and join in on, the ways God is lifting up the humble and filling the hungry with good things. 

This Advent season, I’m still asking the question. How would a community be shaped if they meditated daily on Mary’s words? Not what would happen if we chanted her words in a forgotten language and then moved on to our political conquests. Not what would happen if we glanced at her words while seated in a circle of hard plastic chairs and then sped off to the tasks of our day. But what would happen if we really stopped to listen to what this poor, unmarried, marginalized young woman has to tell us about who God is? 

I’m thankful, this year, for this community of Three-Fifths readers and writers. I’m hopeful, too, that together, we can stop to listen to this unlikely song. After all these years—how would we be shaped as a community if, together, we began to truly hear what Mary has to say? 

My soul glorifies the Lord 

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name. 

His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 

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.

He has helped his servant Israel, 

remembering to be faithful to Abraham and his descendants forever, 

even as he said to our fathers. 

Luke 1:46-55

By Sarah L. Sanderson

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