The Song of the Lowly: A Reflection on Luke 1.39-55

It is one of the sad realities of Christian history that the Roman Empire conquered Christianity — not by persecuting it, but by adopting it. Despite the valiant efforts of monastics, mystics, and reformers, who have offered up a ‘minority report’ in every generation, for the most part, Christianity has been enmeshed with ideas of power, might, and earthly glory for a good 1600 years, and in some quarters remains so to this day. Today’s readings push back against this unholy alliance and remind us that God chooses to act far from centres of power and on behalf of those the world sees as small and insignificant.

We begin with the words of the prophet Micah:

You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (5.2)

Already Bethlehem had birthed Israel’s most revered ruler, King David. David himself had been the smallest among his brothers, and his father was completely blind to his potential for greatness because of his smallness. Even the judge and prophet Samuel had to be explicitly told not to get caught up on David’s small stature! Now, Micah uses this historical precedent to lift up this tiny village outside of Jerusalem as the birthplace of another great king. This is all the more striking considering Micah was addressing a political context in which vast empires were in the process of swallowing up the small kingdoms that had historically been the norm in the Ancient Near East: At a time when, more than ever, might equaled right, Micah emphasized Bethlehem’s insignificance and insisted that it will see greatness again.

If we fast-forward a few hundred years to today’s Gospel reading, we see this theme repeat itself. Mary, a few weeks into her pregnancy, travels to a small, unnamed village to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also expecting a child. Elizabeth’s baby, who will grow up to be none other than John the Baptist, recognizes Jesus in utero and leaps for joy at the meeting. John recognizes greatness in a weeks-old fetus; Elizabeth recognizes in Mary — her young cousin from the backwaters of the country and whose pregnancy had been cause for scandal — the mother of her lord, and she too rejoices. And then, Mary prophesies the wonderful words we know as the Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1.46b-55)

Again we see the theme of God choosing what is small and insignificant in the world’s eyes comes to the fore. God has “favoured the lowliness” of Mary, and therefore she is called “blessed.” God likewise “has scattered the proud” and “brought down the powerful” but has “lifted up the lowly” and “filled the hungry with good things.” The whole point of this great hymn of praise to God is at work in and for those the world overlooks. Once again, the way the world works is seen as inherently oppressive and exploitative, and those who thrive by these rules are understood to be on the outside of what God is doing.

Of course, as we’ve seen time and time again, the story is more complicated than that. Intersectionality means that most people in the world experience both privilege and marginalization in some ways, and human nature is such that the same power dynamics tend to replay themselves within marginalized communities as in wider society. The point of Mary’s song and God’s solidarity for those on the margins is not to point blame or exclude, but to get us to open our eyes to the ways power differentials damage human community, and to advocate on behalf of those who come out on their losing end.

This is, I am convinced, Good News for everyone. It’s obviously Good News for “the lowly,” because it means that God identifies with them and is at work within and for them. But it’s also Good News for the powerful because it opens their — our — eyes to the reality of oppressive systems in the world and challenges us to use the benefits of our positions to tear down those systems in the name of God.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed

2 thoughts on “The Song of the Lowly: A Reflection on Luke 1.39-55

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