Along with three others sisters in their mid-30s, I am in a busy café in St. Louis, Missouri, enjoying a lunch of sandwiches and salads. A bit ago, we prayed over our food. Between bites, we’re laughing and chatting about the work we need to do. Feeling happy and a little anxious, we still have many tasks to complete before nearly 80 more sisters arrive from all corners of the country.
It’s the final day of preparations for the Giving Voice National Gathering at Fontbonne University that the four of us — along with a team of three more sisters and two other women — have been planning since the fall of 2018. The theme for our gathering is “The Boldness and Beauty of Communion: Living Religious Life NOW!” and we have four days of prayer, presentations, discussions, workshops, art and fun planned to help us break open how our communal lives compel us to be “experts of communion,” as Pope Francis insisted. We long to be awake to…
Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration.
Maybe these or any number of other things has knocked the wind of you and left you wondering how you will make it through the coming days. Instead of joining in the angels’ exultant song of jubilation, your heart resonates more with “O Come O Come Emmanuel’s” plaintive words of mourning in lonely exile.
If this is you, I’m sorry. Whatever your struggle is, it’s legitimate, and whatever hard feelings it elicits – anxiety, grief, anger or sadness – are real. You’re not Ebenezer Scrooge because you’re unable to marshal the inner resources for holiday cheer this year, you’re just human. Even when you try to focus on the positive and what you’re thankful for instead of what you’ve lost, there is no short-circuiting grief. More and more churches acknowledge this reality and now offer “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” liturgies as spaces of prayer and pastoral care for those who struggle.
As I’ve been accompanying some loved ones who find this season challenging, it seems the general message offered in mainstream culture, “Be joyful and happy! Holidays are filled with magic and delight!” only serves to highlight the chasm between what they wished they were feeling with what they actually are. It is salt in the wound not only to grieve a loss but then to be fed a steady diet of idealized images of the picture-perfect holiday. The crooning singers advising “let your heart be light” because “from now on your troubles will be out of sight” don’t help matters much.
If you’re living in the uncomfortable gap between the ideal and the real, take heart: this perfect holiday tableau of cheerful families in matching pajamas, gathered around a huge turkey or the Christmas tree, is the invention of marketers trying to sell us stuff. That’s how advertising works: it offers an attractive ideal that we invariably fall short of and then pitches a product or service with the promise that we, too, can achieve that ideal. The commercialization is the cultural water we swim in, so it is hard to separate that American capitalist spin from the Gospel truth of the Feast of the Incarnation. But it’s worth dissecting the cultural overlay from the scriptural narrative – especially if you’re not feeling “merry and bright” this holiday season.
If it is any consolation, if we excavate the original Christmas story out from under the accumulated layers of advertising content, it’s plain to see that the first Christmas would not make a feel-good Hallmark movie. When the culture offers images of jolly Santa and his flying reindeer, or affluent families with toothpaste-commercial smiles opening piles of perfectly wrapped gifts, the Gospels offer the story of Emmanuel, God with us, poor and weak.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus were vulnerable and faced great uncertainty as Jews living under brutal imperial occupiers. It’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t tension in the family when Mary announced she was pregnant outside of marriage, especially when Mosaic law prescribed she should be stoned. Mary and Joseph weren’t wealthy (as evidenced by their offering in the temple) and lived under heavy taxation (which is why they traveled to Bethlehem for the census). There was no room at the inn for them, and then they fled to Egypt as refugees because of Herod’s ruthless decree to slaughter children. The Lukan author reminds us that when the Christ child was presented in the temple, Mary was told a sword would pierce her heart. Myrrh, one of the gifts of the Magi, was used for embalming and prefigures death.
There is darkness and tumult to this story; however, in churches or culture in general, it doesn’t get much air time in popular depictions of Christmas. Though I understand adapting the narrative to make it kid-friendly, it is a pastoral disservice to make the Christmas story too sanitized and saccharine. Yes, there is rejoicing, new life and good news. And it comes in the midst of the messiness, fear, uncertainty, loss and oppression that maybe resonates with you if you’re not in a head space to sing “be of good cheer!” Christmas is about the birth of God coming in the middle of a lot of turmoil and pain.
The cleaned-up scene in church sanctuary creches or in pastel tones on Christmas cards distances us from the more complicated truth. God was born as a baby into a messy, broken, chaotic world. From a scriptural standpoint, the Christmas spirit has nothing to do with our American cultural clichés and everything to do with the miracle of a light shining in the darkness that is not overcome. Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was killed for his opposition to the Nazis, wrote that “the early Church viewed Christmas as the feast of the great howl of those whose lives have been upended, shaken – the birth is not a romantic wonder, it’s a chancy rescue mission from the borders.”
So if it doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year – take heart that you are not alone. The birth of the Christ child is not supposed to be “a romantic wonder.” Let’s turn off the TV with its constant flash of idealized images of holiday cheer and close the glossy pages of catalogues peddling a pictures of prosperity and glee. And let’s turn back to the original story of this “chancy rescue mission” of how God chose to enter the world as a vulnerable newborn in the midst of great uncertainty and turmoil.
“With five brothers,” began my dad, telling the familiar story to my niece and nephew, “your Great-aunt Kathy was always getting her food stolen. Her spot was right next to your great-grandfather, who used to tease her. Every night at dinner, your Aunt Kathy would huddle over her plate, with her fork ready to stab anyone’s hand that came near her food. My dad would slowly creep his fork over to Aunt Kathy’s plate when he thought she wasn’t looking. Oh, she would get so mad! ” He imitated my aunt huddling over her food for dramatic effect. My niece and nephew giggled when they heard this story for the first time. “We always ate ’till all the food was gone,” he remembered, smiling. “There were never any leftovers at Thanksgiving!” he finished. My mother chimed in with another familiar part of the story. “The first time I went to your great-grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving I swear, it was like watching a plague of locusts devour the food,” she remembered.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that story, but my dad’s imitation of my Aunt Kathy always makes me laugh. I love this part of the holiday; the family stories and familiar anecdotes, trying to one up each other to see who can make everyone laugh the hardest. I feel so safe and connected to my family during these storytelling sessions. We create connections and community together. This is the heart of both the Thanksgiving holiday and the Eucharist — community. Loved ones gather at the table to share food, memories, and of course, family stories. Like life in my religious and church community, it can be both joyous and complicated.
I imagine that the Last Supper with Jesus was, in many ways, not unlike many Thanksgiving holidays. I’m certain there was a tremendous hustle and bustle of making plans for travel and preparations for the meal itself. Where would they eat? Who would prepare the food? Who was invited? Also like many Thanksgivings I have experienced, once the festivities began, there must have been both joy in being together, a sharing of memories, prayer and, definitely, disagreements.
One of the best things for me about Thanksgiving is the intergenerational sharing. I delight in watching my nieces and nephews as we gather around our Thanksgiving table each year. Since I am no chef, I often have the responsibility of keeping the children in my family occupied as the others take over the kitchen to prepare the feast. This year will be the first time my six-month-old great-nephew will join us. (How am I even old enough to have a great-nephew?) I am so excited to be able see Thanksgiving through his eyes.
Slowly but surely, little by little, responsibility for Thanksgiving has shifted to my generation. My earliest Thanksgivings were put on by my grandparents. We used to switch off and on from my mother’s parents to my father’s mother’s house. Eventually, my parents’ generation took over hosting duties. Now, my siblings take charge. It wasn’t without tension or disagreements. My parents had to slowly let go of some of the things they used to do; how they prepared the food, what was served, and so on. This was especially hard for my father, who delights in cooking. Over the years, circumstances just made it easier for my brother or my sister to host the meal.
It can be difficult to avoid conflict with family members during holidays. Sometimes the conflict is as simple as expectations for helping in the kitchen, or an unkind word or two. Others are more deep-seeded such as those driven by grief, broken relationships or politics. It can take a great deal of patience, forgiveness and humility to navigate these relationships, especially in a family of stubborn, hot-headed Irish-American Catholics! This is true of disagreements in our church family as well. Patience, forgiveness and humility are key in healing the great divisions.
Loss can also take on more significant meaning during the holidays. We mourn those who are no longer with us. We miss their presence. This is my best friend’s first Thanksgiving since her mother passed six months ago. “It just won’t be the same without Mom. I can’t do everything she used to,” she’s lamented to me. My heart feels for her. All I can do is offer my support, and assure her that her mother would be proud of the effort she and her siblings make this year. I wonder what that next Passover, the year after Jesus died, was like for the remaining apostles. (It would seem that they were scattered over the Middle East and Europe.)
One thing that we do know for sure: they told the story to the first Christians. The significance of that Passover has been handed on to us from them, and has become the centerpiece around which the Christian community gathers.
Isn’t that the heart of Eucharist? A handing down of the story of our salvation, a meal shared in memory of the one who loved us even to his death on the cross? And isn’t that the heart of what we do at Thanksgiving? Share a meal and our life stories together? It’s how we come to know each other as individuals and as family. It’s how we pass on the values that are important to us to the younger generation. It’s how we remember those who have left us. The story connects and bonds us. This Thanksgiving, I hope to focus on listening to the stories of the lives of those I love, and sharing my life story with them.
Sister Shannon Fox
Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.
It’s indisputable that today’s signs of the times point to heartache, injustice, division and confusion. The truth seems to be debatable. The persecutions of the little ones — from immigrant children, refugees, victims of natural disasters and targets of sexual assault; those who are on the margins — often are the ones who bear the brunt of the pain.
Today, on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi in 2018, I am not going to write volumes comparing and contrasting the 1200s with the present time. But I would like to suggest that the legacy of St. Francis — and particular Franciscan values — offer a formula for Christian resistance.
Francis reacted to much of the injustices occurring around him by behaving countercultural, by responding in ways that were opposite to the status quo. I believe that we could do the same by fostering the values of joy and humility within ourselves. To do so is radical resistance, a response to the wrongs in our time.
The headlines can be discouraging, can cause us to feel weighed down with despair. Adults mock those who are hurting in ways worse than children on playgrounds. The poor and elderly are dying in floods, earthquakes, fires. More women are speaking the truth of how they have been abused, violated. With such facts spinning around us, it may be only natural to be down.
Yet, the Franciscan way to resist the gloom and despair is to expand the goodness, to rejoice in the sweetness of God becoming part of the mess through the Incarnation. This is not a blissful, Pollyanna happiness but a refusal to let the negativity discourage us or overcome us. It is a deep joy because God’s goodness is greater than any sorrow. This was the spirit of my community’s assembly this past June: we started A Revolution of Goodness, so that goodness could overtake the awfulness corrupting hope and joy around the world.
For us Franciscans, the perfect joy persists no matter how awful the circumstances. God’s goodness provides a zest deep within.
Here are some words from St. Francis of Assisi, regarding the meaning of true joy:
Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, “What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? And if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, “I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.
Humility and Poverty
Like Francis, we live in a society that puts the rich, famous, and accomplished on pedestals. We love to celebrate the wealth and might of the rich. The image of success that we are fed is often a scene of materialism: a nice house, car and tons of stuff. Such greed for power and wealth is dangerous to our relationships, our civility and our planet, though. What is the way to resist?
St. Francis’ response to the pressure to become wealthy was a radical renouncement of money and power. Francis literally stripped down the wealth from his cloth merchant father, becoming naked in the public square. He took on the clothes of a poor man. He taught his followers to go the margins to live with and serve the lepers. He embraced poverty and humility, wholeheartedly, insisting that brothers forming community with him to call themselves the Order of Friars Minor. This Franciscan value of is often called minoritas by those of us that are Franciscans.
In today’s world, we can resist the greed for wealth and power and instead embrace the Franciscan values of poverty and humility by becoming downwardly mobile. Instead of working to associate with the elite, we turn our attention to the little ones, the poor and marginalized. We serve and spend time with the weak ones who are often ignored, aligning our selves with them on the streets; in shelters, soup kitchens, prisons and detention centers. We become smaller and lesser in the process as we pursue the chance to serve others instead of being served.
Here are some strong words from St. Francis of Assisi challenging us to grow in humility:
Consider, O human being, in what great excellence the Lord God has placed you, for He created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His likeness according to the Spirit.
And all creatures under heaven serve, know, and obey their Creator, each according to its own nature, better than you. And even the demons did not crucify Him, but you, together with them, have crucified Him and are still crucifying Him by delighting in vices and sins.
In what, then, can you boast? Even if you were so skillful and wise that you possessed all knowledge, knew how to interpret every kind of language, and to scrutinize heavenly matters with skill: you could not boast in these things. For, even though someone may have received from the Lord a special knowledge of the highest wisdom, one demon knew about heavenly matters and now knows more about those of Earth than all human beings.
In the same way, even if you were more handsome and richer than everyone else, and even if you worked miracles so that you put demons to flight: all these things are contrary to you; nothing belongs to you; you can boast in none of these things.
But we can boast in our weaknesses and in carrying each day the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Admonition V)
Franciscan joy and humility are not the only ways to resist the injustices corrupting our current society; peacemaking, contemplation, and continual conversion are also good Franciscan values to influence us. It actually seems that joy and humility will naturally grow in us while we pursue peace, contemplate God’s goodness, and develop into who he is calling us to become.
Franciscanism is Gospel living, after all. And Gospel living itself is a constant turning to Christ. We follow Jesus as we promote the peace and justice that comes from him. We love our enemies. We decrease so God can increase. We spread the Truth of love.
These are radical ways to behave. We are Christian resisters in the style of St. Francis of Assisi, boldly living with joy and humility. May it be! Amen.
There is nothing everyone is so afraid of as of being told how vastly much he is capable of. You are capable of – do you want to know? – you are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of standing almost any kind of maltreatment, abuse, etc. But you do not wish to know about it, isn’t that so? You would be furious with him who told you, and only call that person your friend who bolsters you in saying: “No, this I cannot bear, this is beyond my strength, etc.” – From “The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard”
I turn to Mary when I just can’t take it anymore.
I am a person who can find myself suddenly overwhelmed. Perhaps I am looking out on the sorrow of the world. I read or hear reports of some tragedy – some dreadful violence – and my heart breaks. It’s senseless and staggering, and the grief is as deep as it is sudden. I can’t take it. So I turn away; I think about something else. I turn the page or change the channel. I look away.
Or sometimes I come across a great joy. I watch my daughter do something for the first time; discover something she’s never experienced before. I get a call from a friend finally home from the hospital – the treatment went better than expected. A long-distance friend is stopping by for a visit. I am overjoyed and overcome with gratitude, and get lost in the celebration. My heart is bursting. So I make a joke to break through the sublime, or I trivialize the moment. I look away.
Sometimes I am battered by banality. It’s not the light or the dark that assaults me, but mundane gray. Another hour of chores. Another cold and frustrating traffic-filled commute. Another busy tone while I wait on hold. Another bill, another task. Tedium seeps into my bones and I want to scream. I daydream or imagine I’m elsewhere. I look away.
And in these moments, when I can catch myself, I turn to my mother. Because Mary never looked away. Mary opened her heart to all that God had to give her. One of the most frequently repeated observations about Mary in Scripture is that she watches and listens, then reflects and ponders.
But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:29)
And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)
Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sisters, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. (John 19:25)
When Mary was confronted with the glad tidings of the angel, she did not look away. She did not diminish or shirk the joy. She did not, in a moment of self-effacing low self-esteem, deny the blessing and demand God find someone worthier. She embraced it, and cried out in joy thanking God for his blessings and his faithfulness.
She did not flee from the suffering of her son. She kept in her heart the prophecy foreseeing that same heart pierced, and she stayed at the foot of the cross through the piercing. She bore witness to it until the end.
Mary accompanied her son and his mission in all the moments in between. She watched and observed her young son faithfully, day in and day out, as he advanced in wisdom and age and favor. She stayed with his disciples after the sorrow, in those strange and fearful and breathless days in the upper room while they all waited for what would come next.
Mary rejoiced and mourned fully, tasting the sweet and the bitter and every flavor in between. She gave each part of her life her full attention and countless hours of reflection, so as to fully receive the gift God was giving her in that moment. I have heard it said that Mary, in her perfect faithfulness, can come off as inhuman – a holy statue, too placid, too “good.” This is not the scriptural Mary. Mary felt more than I have – she felt higher highs and lower lows. In this way, she is more human than I might ever be.
In this new year, I ask for Mary’s strength to be fully present. To sit in my sorrow and that of others and not run or hide from it, and to celebrate with people in their joy and not be embarrassed by it. To take even the dull moments and accept them with open hands, as moments to pause and reflect and to stay faithful.
And when everyone else around me says it’s too much, that it’s beyond my strength, that I have to find a way to shake of these unbearable burdens, I hope I will hear my mother’s voice, clearly and brightly cutting through the din: “You can bear it. You can.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
Editor’s note: This is the final blog post of a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” (see lessons #1, #2, #3 and #4) by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda.
More than almost anyone I know, my Ugandan host parents embody the “American Dream” of hard work and righteous living resulting in opportunity.
My host dad’s story almost seems too inspiring to be true (but it is): he grew up in a traditional clay house nestled within a small subsistence-farming village. A self-described “naive village boy,” he was eight years old before he saw an electrical light bulb (and the story of his first encounter with a toilet would have you in stitches). During secondary school, he walked 14 miles every day to attend class; as the top-performing student in his district, he earned a scholarship to attend university in Uganda’s capital. From there, he was recruited for a prestigious post-graduate program in development studies in Dublin, Ireland, and now works as a professor at the local university in Mbale. He is in the process of completing his dissertation (focused on emergency response to climate change-related landslides in the foothills of Mount Elgon), and will soon be awarded his PhD.
My host mum is no less impressive (indeed, my host dad would be the first to tell you—with great pride—that she is his boss at the university). Together, they are a force of wisdom, intellect, and tireless work. With their credentials and connections, they would have no problem establishing an easier, more convenient life in a Western country.
But they have no interest in doing so.
They have made the choice to remain in Uganda and put their skills to use in service of their people. That choice is fraught with daily sacrifices—sacrifices which probably would have overwhelmed me many years ago. But for my host family, whose every breath is rooted in transcendent hope, the trials of life in Uganda can do nothing to diminish their sense of fulfillment in doing their work … or their sense of joy in knowing, truly knowing, they are loved by God as they do it.
Of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, hope was always somewhat nebulous to me. What does it mean to hope, and how is that different from having faith? But life with my Ugandan family made real to me just what it looks like to dwell in the joy of belonging to the Lord.
The Catechism describes hope this way: “The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man … Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.” (CCC 1818) My host family’s hope cannot be stymied by the setbacks and tragedies they experience in Uganda, because their hope is written in their hearts by Someone greater.
The unmistakable fruit of that hope is their relentless joy.
When I am asked to describe my host family, the first word to come to mind is always “joyful.” But words really cannot do justice to the sheer jubilation that is infused in my Ugandan family. They are radiant with it. It is palpable, contagious … It is, quite frankly, exactly the sort of thing that can change the world.
It has certainly changed me.
For reflection: How can I nurture a spirit of true hope in my family, so that our joy and generosity are not influenced by our circumstances?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She considers her experience in Uganda to be the greatest theology class she’s ever taken.
We’re in the midst of the octave of Easter—eight days especially for rejoicing—and then we can celebrate the awesomeness of the Easter miracle for many more days.
I have a personality type that loves to be set to “fun” and “joy,” and I love to celebrate the goodness of God as much as possible.
Still, during this Octave of Easter days, I am making an extra effort to do special things each day to keep the Easter party going on. I made a bunny cake one day. I wore my Easter best dress another. Every day I am praying with praise and gratitude. I am refusing to fast, or diet, or deprive myself.
I am focusing on the freedom that comes from the resurrection. I am worshiping and praising God with joyful tunes and abundant Alleluias. This feels especially freeing after all the penance of Lent gave me such a new, fresh start.
God is so good! Let us praise Jesus and thank him over and over for all he is for us.
Alleluia!! Alleluia! He lives, and laughs death right in its face, saying, Surprise, surprise! Nothing can kill this everlasting love!
Ordinary resurrections are everywhere.
There are glimpses of light where despair was once too intense for hope! The broken bone has healed completely. The child awoke from the terrifying coma. Your neighbor offered you an unexpected invitation to dinner. A relationship has been mended. Ugly habits have decreased; renewal found you in the Lenten desert. The tendency of that cruel colleague to snap at you decreased. The struggling student earned a high grade. New, green life is bursting forth through dismal ground.
Amazingly, the love that has caused this freedom made tombs of all sorts tremble.
The grumpy, over-stressed grandmother lets out a big belly laugh. The violent mind experiences a moment of truth and compassion. The refugee child squeals with joy, seeing the father from which she was separated. Tears fall down cheeks while the family, once divided, laughs over an Easter feast, forgetting what caused the rift between them. Joy beams through border fences, and all are welcomed to the feast.
Our awesome God is victorious, and today is a day to celebrate!!!
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me, for at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” –Luke 1:41-44
Gaudete! This is the week of joyful anticipation!!
Just as Jesus and John leaped for joy in the wombs of their holy mothers, we rejoice and leap for joy as we wait for the great things to come, the fulfillment of God’s promises!
Yes, we are aware that we wait in darkness. We are overwhelmed and pained by the intensity of oppression suffered throughout the world, near and far. Children sleep on streets, many people lack adequate shelter and water, bombs are being dropped, refugees are fleeing. Poverty, injustice, and violence are real and serious threats upon the dignity of humanity.
Still, with hope and joy we lovingly labor for a world where God’s reign is known, wherein justice is triumphant.
No matter our circumstances, how can our voices contribute toward the coming fullness of God’s reign? How can we join our voices together and sing a song of reversal that is in harmony with the strength and hope heard in Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55?
And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
I recently studied Elizabeth Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) within her masterful work Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 2003) as part of my graduate studies. This writing encouraged me to remain faithful and hopeful in the midst of the struggle for justice. I was provided a solid footing in information about the requirements for justice.
For example, even though Mary’s song is the longest speech from any woman in the entire New Testament, it is one of several hymns sung by Jewish women; it is parallel in content and structure to what was sung by several prophetesses in the Old Testament. Like their songs, Mary’s song also praises God’s creation of a liberating revolution.
With scholarship and reverence, Johnson details how Mary’s particular circumstances established her as dangerous for anyone who does not embrace God’s reign. God chose Mary, a poor woman, to be the partner in our salvation and she praises God from the depth of her relationship with God; God has preference for those who are economically and spiritually poor.
Mary was an oppressed woman and her song paints a picture of justice; throughout salvation history we understand that God defines justice as reversal. Mary’s voice foreshadows Jesus’ message in the Gospels. Fittingly then, Mary’s song is a “revolutionary song of salvation whose concrete social, economic, and political dimensions cannot be blunted.”
Praise and justice come together; by the life-giving body of the pregnant Mary we know a role model for solidarity with the oppressed. In her message, we can envision a world where all the hungry are fed and all power structures turn upside down.
Mary’s song is a song for everyone, and it is very much music to the ears of people who live in poverty. Yet, Johnson admits, “This message will not appeal to those who are satisfied with the way things are.” She advises that those who are prosperous strengthen their solidarity. I was invigorated for my task of informing those of us who comfortably enjoy privileges about the needs of a hungry humanity, of calling all of us to more mindfulness.
Ultimately, Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat provides me with a hopeful lens through which I can view the injustices of today. It taught me how to joyfully sing songs of response that glorify and please God, through both word and deed.
By Mary’s partnership we experience the dawning of the Messianic Age. Her song is also a daily prayer that can inform our every-day work of helping God’s justice reign. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerless of humankind.”
Indeed, as Johnson so clearly articulated, in Mary’s universal song we hear the ultimate Advent hymn—a song of hope to reverse the patterns of suffering prevalent in the world today.
As we leap in joy and wait in hopeful anticipation for the coming of God’s Kingdom fully known, let us join Mary and do the work of establishing God’s justice while this song rings in our hearts!
 Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister (New York: Continuum, 2003), 263-264.