Black Lives Matter and the Power of Mary’s Song

I had the opportunity to attend a beautiful and inspiring Black Lives Matter rally at Government Springs Park in Enid, Okla., on Saturday, with my wife Tammy. We have attended several of these events in recent weeks — a youth march, an NAACP-sponsored march and rally, and a grassroots protest at city hall.

All of those were worthwhile, with unique atmospheres. Saturday’s event felt like a reconciliation picnic (with excellent barbecue). Families of all races brought their lawn chairs, children ran and played and fed the ducks. Several keynote speakers addressed the crowd, followed by an open-mic period in which attendees expressed pain, anger, frustration and indomitable hope.

The organizers of this event were not the usual group of pastors and elder civic leaders — in other words, of men. Rather, the organizers were a group of mostly younger black women, who pulled together a great event on short notice. As I sat listening to their words, to the pain and hardship of their experiences, and their hopes for their children, my mind turned to another young woman of color to whom I usually turn when I am feeling troubled. My mind and my spirit turned to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Soaking in the energy of that Black Lives Matter rally, I opened the Bible I’ve been carrying to these events, and read through one of my favorite passages — Mary’s Song of Praise, or The Magnificat, from Luke 1:46-55:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Let’s consider the context for a moment. Mary is a teenager, a young woman of color, living in a land occupied by a militarized white power structure (Rome). She’s just been told by the archangel Gabriel she will bear Christ — a tremendous weight for a teenage girl, already engaged to an older man in a patriarchal society that’s liable to stone her to death for becoming pregnant. She fears for her life, and the life of the child she carries — a child she ultimately will see tortured and crucified by the white power structure.

Yet, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, she does not sing a song of fear, or woe, or grief. No. She sings a song of power. She sings a song of hope. She sings a song that overturns the entire world order, and brings justice to the lowly, the oppressed, the marginalized and forgotten.

Listen to her words again, within the context of slavery, of Jim Crow, of lynching, segregation, re-segregation, economic injustice and systemic racism:

“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

Mary tells us her Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ — the Word Made Flesh — tears down the old world order. He tears down the mighty from their thrones. He lifts up the lowly. He relieves the poor and hungry at the expense of the rich.

Mary’s Magnificat is the beating heart of social justice, and if we are to walk with Christian hearts, it must beat within us. And that is a radical call, a powerful call, for justice in the face of injustice, light and love in the face of darkness and hate.

In a 1933 sermon, given shortly after Hitler’s rise to power, German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would later die at the hands of the Nazis, told us the power of Mary’s words:

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.

Mary brings to life the words of the Old Testament prophets, and passes them on for all of us, and perhaps especially for young women of color like those who organized Saturday’s Black Lives Matter rally. These words of Mary, and the inspiration they bring to oppressed hearts, are so dangerous to powerful, white oppressors, their public recitation has been banned in many settings through colonial history.

As the St. Mary’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, in Luton, England, notes on its website:

Apparently the Magnificat was excluded from its traditional place in evensong in churches run by the British East India Company in India. Years later Gandhi requested that this song be read in all the places where the British flag was being lowered on the final day of imperial rule in India.  The junta in Argentina forbade the song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza. And during the 1980s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador prohibited any public recitation of the song.

The words of Mary, born of the Spirit of Christ beating within her womb, are as dangerous to oppressors and as uplifting to the oppressed as they were 2,000 years ago. Read these words. Recite them. Pray them. Write them on your hearts. And most importantly, let them guide your hands, your feet and your words, that Mary’s Song of Justice may come to fruition in our land, in our time.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, who created all of us in your image: Grant us
grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace
with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom,
help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our
communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy
Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

3 thoughts on “Black Lives Matter and the Power of Mary’s Song

  1. Thank you for this powerful article. As musicians we are very familiar with “Mary’s Song” but the context in which you have placed it has really given it more meaning to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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