(Song: “Canticle of the Turning”)
IS the world about to turn? Doesn’t really seem like it, does it? The rich keep getting richer; the poor keep getting poorer. Tyrants still rule, money still rules, the hungry poor still weep for the food they can never earn. Spears and rods…and guns and tear gas….they aren’t so much crushed by God as upgraded and used with alarmingly greater frequency.
The world seems about as resistant to turning as it’s ever been.
…which is pretty much how things were in 1st century Palestine, especially for poor Jews like Mary and Joseph. Centuries before, the Jewish people had lost their sovereignty, which means they were a subjugated people, an oppressed people. Without Roman citizenship, they had few rights. The only way to break out of poverty was to work for the Roman government, either as a tax collector, like Zaccheus, or as a Tetrarch, like Herod.
So, it’s to this poor, young, pregnant-but-not-yet-married Jewish woman that God’s message of turning the world comes. It’s hard to imagine someone in that culture with less power…maybe an old, childless, Jewish widow…with leprosy… Why in the world would God entrust God’s message to someone with so little power by the world’s standards?
Maybe it’s because–as someone with little power–Mary knew of her need. One of the downsides of privilege is that you lose touch with your neediness. That’s the point of privilege, right? To be able to do things for yourself, to have the power to create your own world? A message of love, justice, and wholeness isn’t going to mean much to someone who already experiences those things. Who’s going to really appreciate a message of love, justice, and wholeness? Someone who deep down knows her need for them.
A couple of years ago, I began to wonder if I had the capacity to understand Scripture. The Bible–especially the Gospels–was written for people with little power, people on the margins, people who know of their need for a loving God, not to make life more pleasant, but simply to make life possible. As a white, middle class, educated American, I ooze privilege. How could I possibly understand a text that was written to and for those without power?
I prayed about it. Had to. Can’t preach the Bible if you don’t understand it. Okay. That’s totally possible. But still…I prayed. Here’s where I ended up: as a person of privilege, I am called to read Scripture as if I am a person with less power, less privilege. Reading Scripture from the perspective of someone who desperately needs the good news it proclaims? It’s like I have an entirely new Bible! Now when I read Scripture, I see it in a whole new light.
One of the things that has helped in this process is a book called The Gospel in Solentiname. In the mid-1960s, Catholic priest Ernesto Cardenal led a Bible study for campesinos (peasants) in the Nicaraguan village of Solentiname. The Gospel of Solentiname contains transcriptions of those Bible studies. The class’ members were part of what’s known as a base community. Base communities were designed for peasants to learn together, to organize, and to advocate for themselves in the face of intense oppression. As villager Alejandro said, “The people can’t be liberated by others. They must liberate themselves. God can show the way to the Promised Land, but the people themselves must begin the journey.” Base communities helped campesinos begin their journeys toward liberation.
Here’s what some of the campesinos said of Mary’s song.
1: “God chose Mary because she was poor.”
Cardenal asked what they thought Herod would have said if he had known that a woman of the people had sung that God had pulled down the mighty and raised up the humble, filled the hungry with good things and left the rich with nothing.
2: “He’d say she was crazy.”
1: “That she was a communist.”
As you might guess, the campesinos spent a lot of time talking about the sharp divides between rich and poor. Here’s a snippet of one of those conversations. Referring to those whom Mary names as having “proud hearts,” old Tomas said:
3: “They are the rich, because they think they are above us and they look down on us…since they have the money. A poor person comes to their house and they won’t even turn around to look at him. They don’t have anything more than we do, except money. Only money and pride. That’s all they have that we don’t.”
4: “I don’t believe that’s true. There are humble rich people and there are proud poor people. If we weren’t proud we wouldn’t be divided, and us poor are divided.”
1: “We’re divided because the rich divide us. Or because a poor person often wants to be like a rich one. He yearns to be rich, and then he’s an exploiter in his heart, that is, the poor person has the mentality of the exploiter.”
2: “That’s why Mary talks about people with proud hearts. It’s not a matter of having money or not, but of having the mentality of an exploiter or not.”
Of Mary’s song, one woman says,
1: “Mary says that God is holy, and that means ‘just.’”
When Cardenal asked what a holy society would be, Laureano said:
4: “The one we are seeking. The one that revolutionaries want to build, all the revolutionaries of the world.” (17)
What does the world revolutionaries want to build look like? What does the world Jesus showed us how to build look like? What does the world of which God dreams look like?
What would that world look like for children? For the poor? What would it look like for girls and women, boys and men, for gender-non-conforming folks? What would a holy and just society mean for the otherly-abled? For those who are addicted… to drugs, to alcohol, to power? What would it mean for housekeepers, farm workers, and factory workers? What would the world of which God dreams of mean for Earth and all her creatures?
It’s been said of Chreasters—folks who faithfully attend church on Christmas and Easter—that they come those Sundays because “those are the only parts of the story they know.”…which proves just how amazing Chreasters are. Those are the two hardest parts of the story we have! Easter? Rising from the dead and all that? Yeah. You’ll have to come back in April for that one. (And I hope you will! April 21st. We’ll save you a seat. J)
On the face of it, Christmas seems pretty easy— angels, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and that cute little baby…On the surface, Christmas is all sweetness and light.
But when you read the lyrics of pregnant Mary’s song…about lifting up the lowly and bringing down the powerful, about feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty… creating that world? It probably will take a revolution. Mary’s song—sweet, young, powerless Mary–calls us to nothing less than a radical revolution in this world, an upending of the ways things are. Mary calls us, sings us to a revolution of love…a revolution that will turn the world right side up again—a world where everyone has enough food to eat and a place to live…a world without war and where all people strive together for the common good…..a world where every person knows their full worth as a beloved child of God.
Artist: Ben Wildflower
So, is the world about to turn? It’s a serious question. Is the world about to turn? Or maybe the more important question is this: How are we going to help the world turn? What are we going to do to create the world of which Mary sings? How will we address our own leaders who are addicted to power? How will we help to transform unjust and exploitative systems? How will we lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things?
In truth, some of us have been working at these tasks for decades. Some of you have probably already written a letter to your representative while we’ve been sitting here.
Even for those of us who’ve been working for justice for a long time, those of us who, when we hear the Magnificat always whisper to Mary, “You go, girl!” Even for us who get it, I still think Mary has something to say to us…perhaps especially in our current context.
When Mary arrives at her cousin Elizabeth’s house and announces her news, the older also-pregnant woman says: “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by God.” That might be the most radical, the most miraculous part of this story: Mary was able to do her part in turning the world because she believed it could turn. She believed the world could turn.
Do you believe the world can turn? It’s hard…when you work and work and work for justice and strides made from that work keep evaporating. That might be the hardest part of justice work—believing it can make a difference.
And yet that is what Mary calls us to—Mary calls us to believe that the world of which God dreams is possible. One of the women in Solentiname said it this way: “Mary recognizes liberation…We have to do the same thing. Liberation is from sin, that is, from selfishness, from injustice, from misery, from ignorance–from everything that’s oppressive. That liberation is in our wombs too.” That liberation is in our wombs, too.
We focus a lot this time of year on what—on who—will emerge from Mary’s womb. Maybe we should focus instead on what is emerging from our own. To what are we giving birth? What liberation will come because of us? What revolutions will start because of us?
What I’m asking, Church, is, How will we help the world to turn?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2018