AT THIS time of year, there is often criticism of church leaders for “politicising” the Christian message in their sermons. Of course, the fear that the gospel may be distorted by secular values and ideologies is a legitimate one. But the demarcation of a realm called “politics”, which is to be kept separate from another realm, “religion”, is itself the fruit of an ideology that is alien to scripture.
As this Sunday’s lections remind us, the “politicisation” of religion is already present in the Bible, and particularly in Luke’s Gospel. For the Blessed Virgin Mary, as for the Hebrew prophets, the spiritual is not something wholly separate from the physical. The work of the Spirit transfigures our material relationships so that they embody the justice and compassion of God.
The Magnificat speaks of this transfiguration: of the poor being “lifted up and filled with good things”, and the rich “sent away empty”. “From Mary, who in her Magnificat proclaims that salvation has to do with justice, there flows authentic commitment to the rest of humanity, our brothers and sisters, especially for the poorest and most needy, and to the transformation of society” (St John Paul II).
The message of Micah and his fellow prophets has a political dimension: denouncing the faithlessness and injustice of the rulers of his day, and, like Mary, looking forward to their dethroning. The verses we read this Sunday, proclaiming that “Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah”, will bring forth “one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days”, locates God’s decisive act of redemption in those whom the world disregards and despises.
The wider promise of Micah is of God’s restoration of a remnant made up of those who are now marginalised (Carol Dempsey, New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk). This is fulfilled as God raises up his “lowly handmaiden” to bear his Word made flesh.
In contemporary political discourse, the poor are often talked about: sometimes to stigmatise, and sometimes to support. Either way, their own voices are rarely heard. In Luke’s Gospel, they are the ones through whom God speaks and acts. The Magnificat declares the power of the poorest in history, both by its content and by the identity of its proclaimer.
While the voice and vocation of the poorest is central to Luke’s account, it is always God who is the ultimate initiator. The Blessed Virgin Mary is the supreme example of discipleship. She shows each generation of Christians what it means to be receptive to God’s word and to mediate his grace. The Magnificat is not a call to work for justice in our own power, but a celebration of God’s saving work.
This does not render us passive spectators. In Mary, we see that receptivity to God involves courage and tenacity. In John Paul II’s words, “she is also a model, the faithful accomplisher of God’s will, for those who do not accept passively the adverse circumstances of personal and social life.”
Mary’s song is the fruit of a deep contemplation of the events in her life and the life of her aged cousin, and of the Hebrew scriptures. It draws heavily on the song of Hannah, who, like Elizabeth, was without child for many years (1 Samuel 2). But it is also full of phrases from the Psalms and the prophets. As St Bonaventure writes, the canticle “shows that the fulfilment of all promised blessings has come about, and therefore brings about the fulfilment of all praise and canticles”.
The Magnificat is both a song of rejoicing and a summons to struggle. As our epistle reminds us, the body that is being nurtured in Mary’s womb will be nailed to the cross. Just as John the Baptist leaps to herald Jesus in the womb, so his execution will prefigure Jesus’s treatment at the hands of the religious and political authorities. The joy of the visitation will, in time, give way, not only to the pain of childbirth, but to the far greater pain — for Son and mother alike — of Calvary.
In the paschal victory, this world’s death-dealing powers are cast down, and the crucified one is exalted. As Advent draws to a close, we look forward to the day when the whole creation is drawn into the fullness of that victory.