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The Sound of Defiance

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Dec 17

Text: Luke 1:46b-55

           The Magnificat! Upon hearing the terrifying yet joyful news from the angel, rather than invoking a traditional ancient blessing for being with child, Mary instead raises her song of joyful praise with these exquisite words in Luke. Countless hymn writers, composers, gospel artists and choir masters have set and arranged these words with soaring melodies, steady bass lines and descants to reach the rafters. The hymn we will sing at the end of the service is one example, and one of my all-time Advent favorites. The early 17th century cantata by Michael Praetorius that the choir will sing is another. We will hear it in three parts – sections 1-4 when I’m done, sections 5-10 during the Offertory and the closing Gloria Patria after the benediction.

First, allow me to share just a few thoughts about this well-known scripture from Luke. As Rachel Held Evans has put in a recent blog: “When sung in a warm, candlelit church at Advent, it can be easy to blunt these words, to imagine them as symbolic, non-specific, comforting. But,” she continues, “I’m not feeling sentimental this Advent. I’m feeling angry, restless. And so in this season, I hear Mary’s Magnificat shouted, not sung.” (1)

Bear with me here. After another week of mostly dreadful headlines, I can almost go there with her! “Almost” because I too am needing a place to channel my rage about the perverse miscarriages of justice and decency we are witnessing on a daily basis in our country. I need something to do with that pit in my stomach I’ve been walking around with all day after reading the 7-piece Globe Spotlight series about the appalling prevalence of institutional racism in Boston. Just one example, which comes out of a Federal Reserve study, is that the average net assets of a white family in Boston is $247, 000 and the average for an African America family is $8. I don’t know if I want to shout or cry, and stand in awe at the fact that any black person in this city could go to work or school after reading those articles, though surely it’s not news to them!  

I can almost go there, for I’m angry and restless these days too. But, I’ll take a sung Magnificat over a shouted one any day. I’ll take the singing right now because more than a channel to get my rage out, I need one that draws beauty and hope and even joy in. I need to open my heart and remind myself of the persistence of beauty in world, and with it the Spirit’s endlessly creative and generative presence in our midst. My soul needs art, now more than ever, to transform and metabolize my grief and anger over what’s happening in our world into compassion and reflection and action, rather than mere raging and gut level reaction. 

She can keep the shouting, but her blog continues and helpfully invites us to imagine these words being expressed in a context other than a warm, candle-lit church during Advent. For this and all scripture, context is everything. So she hears and imagines the Magnificat being shared in other settings as follows:

In the halls of the Capitol Building…. 

"He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

In the corridors of the West Wing… 

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

In the streets of Charlottesville… 

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”

Among women who have survived assault, harassment, and rape...

“He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

Among the poor, the refugees, the victims of gun violence, and the faithful ministers of the gospel who at great cost are speaking out against the false religions of nationalism and white supremacy…

“His mercy is for those who fear him, from generation to generation.”

Call it the “Magnificat in Context!” The Magnificat as sung (or shouted) in the centers of power, in spaces of poverty, racism and degradation, in the face of empire! Don’t let the pretty candles, festive wreathes or these towering walls fool you! This is our context too, and it is this context that we need to hear these sacred texts of holy writ raised to and through the rooftops!

And for me, the singing is key. For a song, even the gentlest of lullabies, when sung in the midst of cold-hearted injustice, can be profoundly more defiant than any full-throated rallying cries. In fact, I would claim that defiance is what sets the tone of the Magnificat, no matter what its form. 

Listen for it – tune your ears to it – the sounds of spiritual defiance. The Magnificat carries in it defiant beauty, fearless hope and Spirit-filled joy, whatever form it takes! Listen for it in the Praetorius. Listen to yourself when we sing our closing hymn and you will hear it there too, the defiance that makes a profound theological claim, namely that God takes sides. God resists with us and takes sides, and, quoting Evans again:

… it’s not with the powerful, but the humble.

It’s not with the rich, but with the poor.

It’s not with the occupying force, but with people on the margins.

It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.

This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside. And in her defiant prayer, Mary—a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality.

“God is with us. And if God is with us, who can stand against us?” 

So open a channel in your heart that can take in this masterpiece of beauty, and its joy— imagine these words not as merely symbolic or comforting, but as the grace-filled, glorious, welcome and desperately needed sound of spiritual defiance. Take it in, even now, and with Mary, ponder these words in your soul that they may lead us from anger to compassion, from despair to hope, from indecency to beauty, from restlessness to peace.



1) https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/16104392-mary-the-magnificat...

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