As I sat in church on Sunday, I was moved by the magic of the moment. For Christians, it is Advent, the beginning of the liturgical year and a time of preparation for the coming birth of Jesus Christ. Jesus, born of unwed parents in a lowly stable, shattered expectations about a Messiah who would come in power and glory, overcoming Rome’s oppressive occupation of Israel, and who came instead to teach us how to love one another. One can debate the “facts” of this account, but no one can deny that the story is both endearing and enduring.
A traditional Scripture reading in Advent has come to be known as Mary’s Song of Praise, or simply, The Magnificat (Luke 4:46-56). There, the soon-to-be mother of Jesus, who, scholars say, was a mere thirteen-year-old girl, sings of gratitude that she has been chosen to be God’s handmaiden and goes on to proclaim God’s plan for justice and human dignity, including the following words: “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
The sanctuary was decorated for Christmas, the choir had just sung Vivaldi’s brilliant composition based on this text and the congregation was reading Mary’s words. And then, in one of those unplanned, but very human, moments, my throat suddenly clutched and I blinked back tears. I was overwhelmed by both the power and the simplicity of the image of faithfulness and courage in this young, unwed pregnant girl who prophesied that God would find a way to raise up the oppressed and bring down the arrogant, that the hungry would be fed and the rich would be sent away empty-handed. And I reflected on our time and how relevant these words are for our day. I thought about the courage of so many women who recently risked so much to claim their dignity and their humanity.
I thought about the social timbre in today’s world—a media that careens from scandal to scandal, a Congress considering a wanton giveaway to the rich under the guise of “tax reform,” a society that features the greatest income inequality in our nation’s history. We hold debates devoid of issues, mistrust one another across lines of difference—be it race, religion, class or political views. We call each other vitriolic names instead of engaging in meaningful conversation. In the soft light of the sanctuary on Sunday, I thought about the current context of rampant arrogance, blindness to human need and lack of empathy for those whose lives are different and the juxtaposition to Mary’s words, confident in God’s grace and urgently and creatively calling us to action. I was literally moved to tears.
And then, just days later, Congress passed the largest “tax reform” measure of a generation and gathered on the South Portico of the White House and smugly celebrated their victory (and added an offensively childish display of obsequious fealty to Donald Trump). Yet, as Congressional Republicans jubilantly celebrate the passage of this measure, critical needs go unaddressed: failure to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program (see an important editorial in the New York Times that outlines the impact of this failure on children and their families); the fear of being deported and uncertainty about their legal status among more than 700,000 immigrant young people (Dreamers) because of the Trump administration rescinding DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals); repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, potentially putting health insurance for millions of Americans at risk; and changes to patent laws specifically targeting Puerto Rico that will make the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria even more difficult.
There was no realistic talk in this smug celebration about the needs among most of us—the cost of education, child care, health care, assistance for those with disabilities. No words reflective of Mary’s Magnificat. No humility, no empathy, no justice for the lowly, the marginalized, the stigmatized. No plea for racial harmony. And, we have not yet even witnessed the ruthless but inevitable upcoming attacks on social programs to keep the tax cuts that were just passed from adding even more to our nation’s deficit.
The good news in this moment is that the opposition to this cruel approach to governing has been energized. It is not likely to turn back. Recent progressive gains in Virginia, New Jersey, Alabama and elsewhere are harbingers that give us hope. But it is incumbent upon us—Christian and non-Christian alike—to hear in Mary’s words the magnitude of need and the critical challenge of responding to injustice wherever we find it. May each of us become a glimmer of light in this season of joy, too often darkened by pride and greed.