Subversive liberation - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Subversive liberation

Luke 1:39-55

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39 And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda;

40 And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.

41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:

42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.

45 And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.

46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

54 He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

The Gospel passage that we have just heard might, at first sight, be regarded as a rather jolly story about two expectant mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, having coffee together and exchanging Parentcraft magazines (or whatever was the ancient Israelite equivalent).

But be warned! Do not be fooled! Because that very reading contains a passage that is so subversive and so highly dangerous that in Calcutta in the early 1800s it was banned from church services, lest it incited the restless indigenous people to insurrection. It really was that explosive.

The passage in question is the text that will be familiar to many of you as 'The Magnificat' - sometimes referred to as the 'Song of Mary', which the choir sings here every Sunday evening throughout the rest of the year as part of our regular service of Choral Evensong, and which we heard this morning immediately after our first reading. It begins with the famous line that is a heartfelt hymn of praise to God: 'My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour'. Nothing much wrong with that so far.. 

But, of course, the reason why the Magnificat was deemed to be such a dangerous text in the Calcutta of the 1800s was because of what comes next. Because it does not merely celebrate God's supreme greatness and might - it goes on to claim that God exerts that power by casting down the might and lifting up the humble and meek; by filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Which is not at all the kind of thing that mighty and powerful and rich occupying colonial forces really want to hear proclaimed aloud at all, let alone in their churches. It is heady stuff - more on this in a moment.

But our passage is fascinating for other reasons, too. For example, people are often surprised to learn that there is a very sound and long-established Biblical manuscript tradition in the West, that attributes the words of the Magnificat not to Mary at all, but rather to her companion in today's story, Elizabeth - and interestingly enough, if you read them carefully in context, one has to admit that they do actually make rather more sense when placed in the mouth of Elizabeth. And to find the reason for that, we need to look back to the Old Testament.

Those of you who know your Bibles will remember that the First Book of Samuel opens with the poignant story of Hannah, wife of Elkanah, who, exactly like Elizabeth in our Gospel reading, was barren. Ancient Israel was a culture in which a married woman who was unable to bear children was an object of utter contempt - and that was certainly the case for Hannah. In particular we are told that she endured dreadful taunts from her husband's second wife, who had produced both sons and daughters for Elkanah. So Hannah goes to the Temple, weeping and distraught at her childless state and her consequent humiliation - and, we are told, the Lord hears her cries, as a result of which she conceives and gives birth to a son, Samuel. Rejoicing at her dramatic change of fortune and circumstances, Hannah offers a prayer of thanksgiving at the Temple, which includes the following lines, which may sound strangely familiar:


My heart exults in the Lord

In the Lord I now hold my head high ...

Strong men stand in mute dismay,

but those who faltered put on new strength. 

Those who had plenty sell themselves for a crust,

and the hungry grow strong again. 

Poverty and riches both come from the Lord;

he brings low and he raises up. 

He lifts the weak out of the dust

and raises the poor from the refuse heap

to give them a place among the great,

to assign them seats of honour.

You do not have to be a world-ranking biblical scholar to recognize that the Magnificat is closely based on this passage, the song of Hannah. And given the parallels in the stories of Hannah and Elizabeth - both of them women who had suffered humiliation because of their childless state, and whose fortunes were dramatically reversed, through God's intervention - you can see why there is such a strong tradition attributing the words of the Magnificat to Elizabeth.

But for all their similarities there is, nevertheless, one very important respect in which the two passages differ. Because in her prayer of thanksgiving to God in 1 Samuel, Hannah does nothing to conceal her delight - indeed, her gloating - that she has at last got her revenge upon her rival. In the passage that I just read to you I deliberately omitted the following words that come from the lips of Hannah:

I gloat over my enemies

I rejoice because you have saved me ...

Cease your proud boasting,

Let no word of arrogance pass your lips,

for the Lord is a God who knows;

he governs what mortals do. 

The barren woman bears seven children

And the mother of many sons is left to languish.


It is hard to escape the uncomfortable fact that, with Hannah it is personal. This is her revenge. Whereas in our equivalent passage from today's gospel from St Luke, there is not the merest hint of any of that. Which is why I am not really sure that, in the end, it actually matters very much at all whether the words of the Magnificat were spoken by Mary or Elizabeth.                                                                                                

Because the really important lesson we learn here is, that, when Hannah's prayer is recast in the words of the Magnificat, for all its similarities, there is no longer any scope within it at all for revenge. 

Ours is a Gospel that really does have the power to reverse fortunes; to bring about radical change, to bring true liberation to all who are in chains - whatever form those chains might take. And that includes some of the most pernicious chains of all - pernicious because they can remain hidden, even from those who are held captive by them. The chains of hatred, and the need for revenge; the desire to see others suffer because of the hurt that they may have caused us. 

The problem is that as long as we continue to harbor within our hearts that need for revenge, then there will always be a deep part of ourselves that remains closed to the healing love and grace of God. And so long as that is the case, then we can never be truly free; we can never fully experience the radical wonder of God's healing and liberating grace.

The Good News that Jesus brought; the Good News that Jesus lived, and indeed paid for with his life, is that we are at our richest, not when we have the most, or control the most, or achieve the most, but when we no longer need the false security that such things bring. We are at our strongest, not when we are able to lord it over others, or get even with those who have wronged us, but rather when we know that we no longer need to feel afraid. We are at our most liberated, not when we have the freedom to do whatever we want, but rather when we know that we are truly loved and accepted. 

Today, as we eavesdrop on that encounter between Elizabeth and Mary, we are invited to share with them, as they await the births of their God-given children, a sense of wonder and amazement at the life that is about to dawn, and the part that they have been called to play in it. And therein lies the truth of the Advent Hope.

The gift that is offered to us at Christmas is a gift that is freely offered, with no price tag attached. But it is a gift that we need to be able to accept, by opening our hearts to receive it. It is a gift that has the power truly to set us free. The question is, are we ready - really ready - for a liberation that is quite so radical and subversive?



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