Luke 1:39-45 (46-56)
December 23, 2012
When I was a little girl, probably no older than a Kindergartner, I learned a song that I absolutely adored. I would sing it loudly and with great enthusiasm. I’m not sure if I learned it first in school or at home, but I know we sang it in school. I’m going to start the song, and you join in as soon as you recognize it.
“This land is your land. This land is my land.
From California to the New York Island.
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.”
“As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway;
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.”
As I said, I sang that song with gusto! I loved it. I still do. When I first learned it I knew it was written and sung by a man named Woody Guthrie, but I knew nothing more about him than that. I just loved his song. It seems that life really has come full circle now that I’m an unofficial Okie, living not that far away from where Guthrie grew up.
But while I loved the chorus and the first verse of this song, they were the only parts of the song that I knew for a long, long time. It really hasn’t been until recent years that I learned Guthrie wrote this essentially as a protest song. One story I read is that it was in reaction to the song “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin. Guthrie felt that song was too staid, and as my research suggested, he grew tired of hearing Kate Smith singing it on the radio – a lot.
So he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” in response. Here’s one of the verses I didn’t learn as a child. “Was a high wall there that tried to stop me. A sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’ But on the back side it didn’t say nothing – this land was made for you and me.”
Yeah. My proper teachers in school weren’t going to teach us that one. Even though I doubt we would have understood the implications of Guthrie’s words, I’m sure they would have been afraid that we would hear lyrics like that and decide to ignore all private property signs for the rest of our lives.
I don’t want to imply that Woody Guthrie was necessarily suggesting that either, but this song is really a protest song. He was protesting the idea or the belief that the land belonged only to those who could afford it. He was protesting the notion that land, like every other commodity, could be co-opted and unfairly distributed by the wealthy. This land was made for you and me. This land belongs to all of us. Woody Guthrie wrote from the position of one who is marginalized, disenfranchised. His music, his words were a protest against how those at the bottom were treated. This land isn’t just for the richest of the rich. This land was made for you and me. Every person, rich or poor. All of us. Guthrie’s song was a protest song; a reflection of life as one on the bottom looking both up and out.
Kind of like Mary. Sort of like her song.
Mary’s song is a protest song. In fact I would venture to say that it is as radical a reflection of life from the margins, from the bottom protest song as I have ever heard. It is radical. But we miss that. We miss the radical quality of this song. Why? Well I think it starts with the title. It is known as “The Magnificat.” I know that the reason we call it that is because that is the Latin translation of the first thing Mary sings. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Magnificat. Magnify. But no matter how well I know that, the first word that pops into my head is “magnificent.” Right? What Mary sings is how magnificent God truly is.
In my Kindle version of the NRSV, the title the translators give this section is “Mary’s Song of Praise.” She is praising God. She is rejoicing at God’s goodness. Her soul magnifies the Lord. Her Spirit rejoices in God the Savior. God is good all the time. All the time God is good.
All of this is true. She is rejoicing. She is praising God. Her soul does magnify the Lord because what the Lord is about to do is so amazing, so wonderful, so unexpected and magnificent, she, a lowly girl without rank or position in her society, can barely comprehend it. It’s all true! But think about the magnificent thing God is about to do. Not only is God working through a lowly girl. God has “shown strength with his arm; he 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.”
These are radical lyrics! So radical that I guarantee you had they been from any other source than the Bible I would not have been taught them as a child! Not in the Nashville, Tennessee public schools of the 1970’s. Not in church! They’re too radical. They’re too risky. God is about to turn the world upside down. Those who think they have it all figured out, those who think they have it made, don’t. Those who are the bottom won’t stay there. What God is about to do is radical and risky and earth shaking and life changing. That’s what makes it scary. That’s what makes it wonderful. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Even though Mary may not have totally comprehended the full implications of what God turning the world upside down would mean, she knew almost instinctively how changed life would truly be. That’s why she sings.
That’s why she sings.
That’s why we sing
Whether we’re singing protest songs or praise songs or songs of lamentation or thanksgiving or a combination of all, we sing because music expresses the deepest longings of our hearts. Music has the power to say what we sometimes cannot. This Advent season, I’ve found it hard at times to sing, especially this past week, because the music of this season has an emotional pull on me. And yet, even though I sing with a quavering voice, and at times have to stop and rely on the others singing around me, I find that our hymns, our carols expresses all I cannot say.
The other night when a group of us went caroling, I marveled again at the power music has to touch people. Folks in nursing homes, who might not remember much about their lives hear the familiar Christmas carols and begin to sing along. They may no longer remember their own names, but they remember the words to “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.”
Music has the power to express the deepest longings of our hearts. Music can express our protests against what is and our hope for what can be. Music magnifies our wonder at the power of God. The music we sing at this time of year reminds us that God does not leave us to ourselves, but chooses instead to shake up the world by being born in our midst. Mary sings a song of radical protest. The angels sing songs of Alleluias. Simeon sings a song of wonder. All the songs are there in the story of Jesus’ birth.
That is why we sing.
Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”