It’s time for Mary to step up to the microphone and sing her song of praise and revolution, a song that echoes through the centuries of the Church’s existence, a song whose words bring comfort to the oppressed and strike terror in the hearts of the domination system:
My soul gives glory to my God.
My heart pours out its praise.
God lifted up my lowliness
in many marvelous ways.
Like Mary, we, too, like to sing when we gather to celebrate God’s power and presence among us. Sometimes I even find myself humming hymn tunes unconsciously during the week after having sung them the Sunday before. This is, I think, an example of residual grace that helps carry me through the week. I’m singing on the outside, but inside I am manifesting wholeness and healing and joy.
Luke, the Gospel writer, is also a semi-professional musician and music critic. He is the first century Simon Cowell, hosting a biblical version of Hebrew Idol. In his story of the birth of Jesus, Luke turns his Gospel into a Christmas pageant. He’s in the director’s chair, giving cues to the cast, and they come out one by one to debut their song. Zechariah hears that he going to be a father, and he breaks into song. Little Mary, overcome with joy and emotion, has a solo. The angels sing, Elizabeth sings, the old man, Simeon, sings; just about everybody gets a solo song in Luke’s Christmas story.
When you think about it, what does Mary really have to sing about? She’s a fourteen year old girl, old enough to babysit other people’s kids perhaps, but way too young to know what she’s agreeing to. She has no clue what life is going to deal her in coming years: the joy and sorrow, the challenges of unwed pregnancy, the pleasure of teaching her son, the worrying about his choice of careers, and, of course, the ultimate pain for any parent—holding the lifeless body of her son, reluctant to let him go.
The angel had told her that there was nothing to fear, but that wasn’t quite true. There was more than a little to fear, actually–situations to make a person so frightened that they might well cry out in the night, waking in a cold sweat. For starters, there was the issue of bringing shame and disgrace on the family name, being shunned by friends and relatives alike, being whispered about in the whole village. A public stoning wasn’t out of the question either. “Fear not?” Really??
And so her song begins. It’s not a child’s lullaby, but neither is it a song that reinforces her fears. It is the song of victory for her God, a battle cry for justice in a world held under the power of Empire:
God has shown strength with his arm,
He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts,
He has put down the mighty from their thrones;
And the rich he has sent empty away.
Her song is a song from the wrong side of town, a song from the projects. A song from a young teen living on Pontiac Street where only yesterday her best friend’s body was found stabbed to death in an alley. Mary’s song is about somebody at the bottom, someone who is forgotten and ignored suddenly being raised up. It is the song still sung by women the world over in Haiti, Somalia, Sarajevo, Darfur, Milwaukee and Fort Wayne.
I was a young child in the 1960s, but I remember the energy of the times, the hope for a better tomorrow that permeated my large Catholic parish, and of course, I remember the music: Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Moody Blues, Chicago, Janis Joplin. I loved all of it, especially the songs that challenged the world as I found it, a world at war, a world distrustful of authority and weary of violence. Neighborhood boys were being drafted into a ridiculous war, forced to kill women and children; assassinations seemed to be the order of the day in this country, and I lived in what can only be called an abusive household, afraid for my personal safety and integrity. But despite all that turmoil—or maybe because of it–I first heard the melody of Mary’s song. At first it seemed ironic, considering the circumstances of my life, but somehow her song became a part of me, growing louder and stronger within. It was a survival song, a subversive spiritual whose message became (unconsciously) the thread I held on to no matter what. I have felt a deep connection to Mary ever since because she taught me to sing through my darkest times.
We have all heard Mary’s song. Maybe we’ve forgotten the melody. Maybe we want to sing along, but we’ve lost our voice. Maybe we wonder if it makes any difference whether we sing or not. Those who work with starving children know that when a child is starving, when a child is utterly emaciated and near death, that child no longer cries. Tears dry up and the child is silent. The hunger is so deep it has moved beyond pain, beyond feeling, to utter, empty silence. This past week, sitting with the victims of a serious auto accident, one of them told me the same thing: her pain was so intense immediately following the crash, that she couldn’t even pray. She had to rely on the prayers of others to carry her through. The same is true of me and you: when we are hurt often enough, deeply enough, if we continually feel disappointed, defeated and pushed down, we, too, withdraw and become silent.
First century Judea, under the Roman domination system, had little to sing about. People for the most part tried to live silent, invisible lives, living in fear of the Roman soldiers. Despite the words of our beloved Christmas carol, the words “all is calm, all is bright” have nothing to do with anything that was happening in that time and place. Yet there, in the night of fearful silence comes an unmistakably pure feminine voice that cuts through the dark:
God casts the mighty from their thrones, Promotes the insecure,
Leaves hungry spirits satisfied,
The rich are suddenly poor.
I have come to know with absolute certainty that there is strength in singing, especially in the face of tough times and impossible situations. We never know, for example, what to say at a funeral, but we often acknowledge our collective grief by singing. The Church encourages us to sing, especially then, because singing becomes an act of defiance and stunning faith, a call for clench-fisted revolution in the face of death’s presence. Death hates music. And so do tyrants.
In the face of defeat and fear, in the day of tribulation, we hear Mary sing to us her song of holy reversal, a song of defiant trust in the face of unthinkable odds–a song that breaks into our silent night, our unholy night.
Difficult days lie ahead for Mary. Her joy as a young mother will be eclipsed by pain and unspeakable loss. Just down the road in another Palestinian city, other mothers will weep for their slaughtered children, as others will weep for Mary’s Son. But for now, in this moment of total clarity, Mary’s faith enables her to sing out into the darkness and declare that God is already completely victorious! And though we ourselves face challenges ahead, in this moment our faith enables us to sing. We sing because we believe. We sing even when our doubts outweigh our trust. We sing because our Mother, Mary, stands in solidarity with us in the dark times, her song reverberating in our hearts and souls.