It didn’t take long before I could sing along to Taylor Swift’s Midnights album. Odds are good you can too. Taylor (can I call her that?) has struck a deep chord with this generation positing herself as the anti-hero and singing about oppression. But long before Taylor made the topic trendy, Mary the mother of Jesus made it prophetic. The differences between these two songwriters are many, obviously, but one that stands out among the others is their approach. Taylor sings “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me” while Mary’s lyrics go a different direction: “It’s me, hi, the hope of generations, it’s me.”
Taylor finds the problem with oppression, but Mary sings of the solution. But we misunderstand Mary if we think she’s saying she’s the hero. She has indeed crafted a victory song, but it’s not her victory; it’s the Lord’s.
Seeing Mary For Who She Is
Mary’s song starts off like many modern worship songs, by singing praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” The lyrics shift into something more battle worn than carol service ready when she sings, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” and “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” These aren’t the sentiments we might expect to usher us into the New Testament, a book typically cast as the place to find peace of our salvation. But reacquainting ourselves with the Old Testament patterns will tune our ears to a familiar note Mary carries with these words.
Moses, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and David wrote songs too and each sang similar songs of victory celebrating both the Lord who prevailed and the chosen warriors through whom he conquered. Modern worship songs love to employ battle imagery, but unlike ours, their lyrics were not figurative. When Moses sings, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” he means the Lord became his literal strength when God defeated the Egyptian armies in the Red Sea. Deborah spares no gory detail as she outlines how God defeated his enemies through Jael and a tent peg she sent through Sisera’s temple. The enemies Hannah’s “mouth derides” in
1 Samuel 2 aren’t conceptual; they are her sister-wife Penninah and the worthless priests, Hophni and Phinehas. The context of Israelite victory songs was not an invisible contest but one where the spiritual meets the physical in a flesh-and-blood war. Their torch is passed to Mary.
The Magnificat is no saccharine allegory; it’s a war song. But that’s not how we typically think of it, is it? I think our sentiments about the song start with how we think about the person who sang it. It’s hard to think of Mary’s words as a war song when we think of Mary herself as a benign background character noticeable for being nearly unnoticeable—a woman of gentle disposition content to stand in the background of a stable.
Our misunderstanding of the person of Mary is reasonable: seasonal nativity scenes and ubiquitous plaster virgins depict her as some kind of ideal of gentle purity. Pure, Mary probably was, but fragile plaster she most certainly was not. Mary was born into layers of oppression. She was an Israelite dominated by the heavy-handed Roman government, a poor Galilean looked down upon by the Israelite establishment, and a woman, discriminated against by her own people. Surely she is a woman acquainted with sorrows and grief.
Seeing the World Like Mary
And yet, instead of considering her self-proclaimed “humble estate” with pity, Mary considers the promises of God with faith. But before we stray back into idealized plaster territory, look carefully at which promises she intones. She extols a God who sees her situation—and does something about it. He does “great things” for her, “exalting the humble” and “filling the hungry with good things.” This is no modern fairytale where everybody wins. Intervening on behalf of the lowly means a reversal of fortune for those in power: he scatters the proud, humbles the exalted, sends the rich away empty.
Put another way, Mary declares the Lord has gone to war. But war against whom?
Against the powers of oppression, sin, and death, as well as the flesh and blood that perpetuate them. This is not a new idea. The prophets sing over and over about the “Day of the Lord” when God would visit his people and “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” On that day, those who oppress the poor and crush the needy will be judged.
To be honest, that’s not the usual imagery that colors my hope for the future. In our instant gratification culture, war feels as far away as Ukraine. We struggle to identify with Mary and her song sometimes because we don’t see the need for it. We’re so busy trying to fit into the culture that we forgot to pray that God would overturn it. But I think the Magnificat may not resonate with us not only because it’s too far away in our imaginations but also because it hits a little too close to home.
Seeing Ourselves in Mary’s World
We identify a little too closely with Mary’s song, but not as the protagonist, but rather with the proud, the rich, the full. It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me. What if we are indeed the anti-hero? We don’t long for the empty to be filled because we can Doordash whatever we want and pay someone peanuts to rush it across town. We don’t look for the exalted to be humbled because we live in the top 1% of the world, and we like it up here. We can caveat and explain away our lived reality because we don’t want to consider the implications of it and, frankly, we don’t know how to change it either.
In the Prophets, the Day of the Lord was a day of reckoning not only for the foreign powers that oppress God’s people but for God’s people as well. Micah says they think being God’s people prevents them from His discipline: “Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us,” they scoff. “Prepare to meet your God,” says Amos. What kind of preparation is necessary when you’re the one in danger of being humbled? When the Lord goes to war against the rich, exalted, and full, and it’s you?
The answer is right there in Mary’s war song. Mary declares that God’s mercy is from generation to generation; on those who fear him.
Mercy is available to everyone who fears God. So what does fearing God look like to those whose reality places them high and lifted up? Sell everything? Never enjoy a fancy dinner again? Let go of your community, your identity, your wealth? Maybe. I don’t know where it will take you, but I know where it starts: taking seriously the plight of the Marys in the world.
Aligning ourselves with the values of God begins to place us on the winning side of the war Mary sings about. “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause,” says Isaiah. In the same way that the powers of darkness perpetuate their oppression through real people, so too does the kingdom of God fight back through us. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to be an agent of light in the midst of a dark world. And it’s a costly mission for the high and lifted up.
Before you throw that mirror down, let me point out the best news. While the Magnificat may be a hard word for some of us, it is also a circular word. Once the exalted have been humbled—an uncomfortable transformation, to be sure—they are now of low estate, the same humbled estate that God will exalt. So the offer is this: in giving up power and privilege, you actually lose nothing, because you gain on God’s terms.
Mary’s song points to our privileged and powerful position and asks us to give up that power and privilege on our own terms. God is asking us to be willing to suffer. That is a big ask, but when God makes the ask of us, he knows what it will take because he has been there himself; he considered equality with God not something to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6–7). When the same ask was made of him, he willing laid down his own glory to suffer on our behalf. And it is against that very suffering—every pain, every grief, every heaviness, every burden, that he has declared war.
And it is that war, Mary declares, that he has already won.
Cover image by Mark Von Werder.