For a very long time now, I have been on a mission to liberate the white porcelain hands of Mary from clerics and capitalists who have turned our tough sister into little more than a cooing dove. A saccharine symbol of passivity. A willing tool of the patriarchy. A voiceless virgin who is venerated but never listened to, much less followed.
If I had a dollar for every time I squirmed in church pews and internally screamed, “No, no, NO!!!!!” as Mary was hijacked in homilies that completely denied her humanity and political-cultural context, I could pay for several of the exorbitant water bills that have resulted in shutoffs for so many of our neighbors.
Where is the young dusty-footed refugee with dirt under her fingernails, a crying baby in her arms, and the government on her back? The tenacious and courageous Palestinian Jewish teenager who crossed borders and stepped out in the shadow of Herod’s palace? The humble yet strong-willed adolescent who promises us that God is going to trouble the water in ways that will leave the powerful gasping for air?
The final week of Advent this year brings us to Mary’s Magnificat, a reading so powerful, so subversive in its description of a God who turns the world on its head that authoritarian regimes around the world have discouraged, and some claim even banned, its being read aloud.
Years before being executed by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung.” Bonhoeffer wrote, “This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world . . .”
Clearly, this is not the gentle women we sing about in church. Rather, this is the one who interrupts meetings at city hall, who is arrested for waging love for alerting her neighbors that water shutoffs are imminent, who refuses to stand down and shut up. The one whose bold voice cries out in the wilderness that water is a human right.
I always loved the fact that the context for the Magnificat is a conspiracy of sorts between Mary and her older cousin Elizabeth. To conspire means to “breathe together” and the thought of these two strong women whispering back and forth and leaning into the bold truth that God is working in a way that is shaking the system to its very core reminds me of the women I know who carry the water struggle here in Detroit and around the world, especially indigenous water protectors.
Sadly, the Catholic lectionary truncates the reading, but here it is in its entirety.
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
As we ponder the reality of families living without water in Detroit, of people dealing with poisoned water in Flint, of communities around the state drinking PFAS-contaminated water, of the horror of pipelines buried beneath the Great Lakes, of radioactive fracking byproducts being dumped near homes and schools on the east side of Detroit, we turn to the words of Mary that assure us that a day of reckoning is near.
As we light the final candle on the Advent wreath, Mary’s Magnificat reminds us that this is dangerous business – we are dealing with powers and principalities with kings and contractors with big money and political bedfellows who wouldn’t hesitate to send the red trucks out to Nazareth to shut off water on the Holy Family and their neighbors.
But – and this is the good news – our sister Mary promises that the poor will be vindicated!
The powerful will be pulled down from their thrones and tossed out of office and turned away from the banquet table while those who wait in line at water centers and soup kitchens will have their fill of clean, affordable water and take part in the great feast called the Beloved Community where the first are last and the last are first and everything is turned on its head.
In Rory Cooney’s rendition of the Magnificat, we are assured in these final days of Advent that the world is about to turn and that God’s gonna trouble the water in ways that we can only imagine.
This is the subversive message of our sister, Mary. May we hold firm to this promise as we continue to work for water justice:
From the halls of power to the fortess tower, not a stone will be left on stone
Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from this throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
(Canticle of the Turning https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9QeTmRCpW4)
Kim Redigan is a veteran high school teacher, community organizer, mother and overall badass radical disciple living in Detroit, Michigan.