“This song of Mary’s is the oldest Advent hymn. It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of men. These are the tones of the prophetic women of the Old Testament: Deborah, Judith, Miriam, coming alive in the mouth of Mary.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a 1933 Advent sermon.
Have you ever heard of liberation theology? It’s a movement, or cluster of movements, that began in the 1960s and 1970s. Liberation theologians claim that God is not politically neutral—God actually sides with the marginalized and against the privileged. That was controversial. Conservative critics claimed that liberation theologians were just Marxists in disguise. More moderate critics insisted that a God of universal, unconditional love couldn’t take sides.
But these early liberation theologians were not Marxists in disguise—they liked Marx because he reminded them of biblical prophets. And they didn’t deny that God loves everybody unconditionally. They simply recognized that universal love insists on eroding rigid structures that privilege some and marginalize others. God stands with the marginalized and against the privileged for the sake of all—privileged and marginalized alike.
These theologians recognized that some of our favorite texts from the Bible are anything but politically neutral. And one of the favorite texts they appealed to was what has come to be known as the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, recited or sung daily by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans. God “has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” God has always been the God who takes sides, who undoes structures of privilege.
Of course, you can’t overturn these structures if you simply get individuals to switch places. Nothing really changes if you simply drag some people from their thrones and replace them with others. What has to change are fixed structures that fail to honor the diversity of gifts each of us brings to our common life, regardless of how marginal any of us appears. Those structures have to change so that all can find life to be a blessing.
The Magnificat ends by recalling the promise of mercy God made to Abraham. In Genesis God promised Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:2-3). God sided with Abraham, but only because through Abraham and his descendants God intended to bless everyone. God sides with the marginalized for the same reason, so that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”