Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five columns written by Ron Byler, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. executive director, to mark 100 […]
This coming weekend, during the fourth Sunday of Advent, churches across the globe will read Mary’s Magnificat from the first chapter of Luke. It is a beautiful and stirring group of words in which Mary sings out her praise to God for the many blessings shown to her. To me, it feels very satisfying to read because of its sense of finality. Mary feels as if all of God’s blessings to her have already occurred. God is good, and worthy of praise. Among the list, Mary suggests that God has already “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” “done great things,” “shown strength with God’s arm,” “lifted up the lowly,” and “filled the hungry with good things.”
As a person who likes things to be fixed, for problems to be solved, for evil to be overcome with good, I see the tempting allure of Mary’s words. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to arrive at a place of completion, for God’s kingdom to be fully realized here and now?
Mary’s words paint a picture that goodness has already won, that God has been victorious “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Yet we know that Mary’s days that followed surly were not without pain and struggle. In the coming weeks and years she would experience marginalization for pregnancy outside of marriage, the demands of traveling while pregnant, the oppressive desire of Herod to kill all babies in an effort to wipe out her young child, being required to flee as a refugee, as well as the challenge of raising a child who was different than other children ultimately ending with a state crucifixion of this beloved offspring.
And yet, in that moment, Mary magnified the Lord.
It feels beautiful and infuriating, complete and also open-ended, optimistic as well as frightening in its lack of realism. It also seems fitting for us to read again, during this moment in human history, which holds so many similar kinds of paradoxes.
Like Mary, we have many in our world who are praising God because they feel as if all their needs are taken care of. We live in a moment in history in which, by many markers, humanity is doing better than ever: global life expectancy continues to rise, while poverty and global warfare is in decline. Yet we also know that the kingdom of God is still not fully here, as many in our world continue to suffer from poverty, abuse, warfare and various kinds of marginalization and oppression.
In my daily work I get to walk with college students who are celebrating accomplishments and milestones, while also being present in the pain of those who continue to be alienated for their race, gender, religion or social status. Our own country seems to bounce back and forth between imagining itself as a place of abundance and a place where fear drives our sense of scarcity, need and exclusion.
It makes me wonder if we can possibly pray the words that Mary offered. Do we really feel as if God has already done great things, fed the hungry and lifted up the lowly? Have we as the church always lived out our calling to do those things, or is it naive of us to do so?
Perhaps Advent gives us the space, once again, to remind ourselves in the midst of our praise that we acknowledge the need for this ever-unfolding kingdom. In the midst of our celebration and praise to God, we recognize that there is still work to be done, that many are still hungry and lowly. Many are still suffering from the powerful who sit on their thrones, and many are in need of a church who does not passively say that God’s will has already been done.
Advent provides us with the space to long for this future kingdom to be here now, and to look ahead with hope and promise that we are called to join the Spirit’s movement, just as Mary did so many years ago, according to the promise God made to our ancestors. May it be so.
Ben Wideman is campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania.
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