The Magnificat, Prophecy, and the Message of Christmas

by Sam Tomlin

The current season of Christmas (12 days not 1, as popularly believed!) means a lot of different things to different people. The prevailing Western view, however, is one of ‘domesticity’. For many, Christmas hasn’t truly arrived until we have seen the Coke advert with the trucks, a scene of domestic bliss, a time not to talk politics.

In a recent publication from think tank Theos‘The politics of Christmas’, it was argued that the ‘domesticization’ of Christmas is a recent phenomenon thanks mainly to Victorian influence of books like ‘A Christmas Carol’ and carols like ‘Silent Night’.

The very first Christmas, however, was one steeped in political reality as noted by the author of the above report:

“It is a government census that forces Mary & Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, and causes such overcrowding in the town that she is forced to use a stable as an antenatal suite… the stable is not the most hygienic setting  for a birth, and so we can add healthcare provision to the list of themes referenced. Herod is a dictator afraid of his position, and so orders his troops to commit an act of brutality in an attempt to eradicate a perceived threat, The family is homeless when Jesus is born; their flight into Egypt turns them into asylum seekers. It seems almost certain that Mary was 14, perhaps 15, and of course… Joseph is not her child’s father: Government bureaucracy; healthcare provision; brutal dictatorship; homelessness; asylum seekers; a single teenage mother – with this story in view, it might seem that we simply have to do politics at Christmas! (p.21-22)”

Perhaps more important, is Mary’s recorded interpretation (in all likelihood, the early church’s first ‘Christmas Carol’) in the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55). Here, Luke’s Mary is prophesying a message of liberation.

The biblical idea of prophecy has, in my opinion, been largely misconstrued. Not simply a prediction of a future event, prophecy is the speaking of an often difficult truth into a situation where someone/people need to hear it. It is generally accepted that the Old Testament prophets’ messages of judgement came when Israel forgot its mandate to be a blessing to the nations around it and to look after the poorest and most vulnerable. When Israel was in exile, it did not need to hear judgement any more (it was already in it(!) – e.g. Isaiah 1-40), but what it needed was messages of hope (e.g. Isaiah 41-66).

Mary’s Magnificat is a prophecy of salvation and liberation which is both personal (the message more often taught by the church) but also corporate, both of which we need in the world because without individuals we don’t have a society and without society we don’t have individuals. God ‘scatters the proud in heart’ (Lk 1.51) and consequently liberates us all from our own selfishness, but also ‘casts the mighty down from their thrones and raises the lowly’ (Lk 1.52). As Dr Roger Ray expounds in his pre-Christmas sermon: the message of Christmas is not necessarily good news for everyone, as it is disturbing and dangerous for those who oppress the downtrodden. As the liberation theologians reminded us, a Christian concept of sin must go beyond (but not leave behind) simply the personal to the idea of ‘structural sin’ very much like the banking crisis: no ‘one person’ was at fault, but as a whole, vast evil was done. It is up to us all in the West to accept at least some responsibility for our role in the structures which oppress those without a voice in the world.

Overall, Christmas teaches us to have more ‘prophets’ like Mary who are able to ‘tell it as it is’. The message of Christmas (and Christianity) is a message of personal and corporate liberation (or salvation – synonymous?) as opposed to the often oppressive message in popular conception (admittedly often fairly given). The Church needs to remember the deeply political connotations of the coming of its Saviour, a task it has often failed to do. Perhaps this can be, however, the perfect blend of a ‘right-ist’ and ‘leftist’ approach, showing that working together can produce a very powerful force.

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