The Revolution in Mary’s Magnificat

As we enter the Advent season, Dan and Rachael reflect upon Mary’s Magnificat with theologian Dr. Chelle Stearns from the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Join the conversation to consider what it means to let our hearts be open to our own places of ache yet also be open to the invitation to transform in response to this revolutionary idea of “God with us.”

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Episode Transcript

Dan: Rachael. We have such a gift to give our audience for Christmas, and that is a reflection on Mary’s Magnificat with one of the most magnificat theologians. I know, and that is we get to join Dr. Chelle Stearns. This is so sweet. Chelle is unquestionably like my favorite theologian in the universe, except maybe Augustine, but still nonetheless she’s staggeringly remarkable with a degree doctorate from St. Andrews. She’s an associate professor at the theological institution that we work at. What is that again? Oh yeah. The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and, oh my gosh. She’s a violinist of renown. I mean like renown, but also she has got to be, would you confirm this Rachael, one of the quirkiest human beings outside of 30 Rock that I have ever known. And in fact, if you look in the Oxford English dictionary under quirky, Shelly’s face. 

Rachael: It’s a delightful quirkiness. And guess what? She’s in really good company. 

Dan: Oh, I, I would agree you fit, you fit that remarkably. Well, I actually consider myself to be the French meter of normalcy, but nonetheless, uh, it is good to be together. Chelle, welcome! 

Chelle: It’s a delight to be here and to be mocked at the beginning of a podcast. 

Dan: Where would you wait, but wait a minute. Where would you see even a single iota of mockery?

Chelle: I know you, you appreciate my quirkiness, so I love that. So, yeah.

Dan: Well and Shelley and I have taught together, uh, oh my gosh. Uh, what feels like in dog years, about 50 years of a course called Faith, Hope and Love. And we are about to do a course together that you, as an audience have access to sometime in the Spring. And we’ll talk about that at a later point, but a theology of trauma is one of Chelle’s realms of expertise, but today, um, we’re going to shift and prepare Chelle for how you utilize Mary’s Magnificat and preparation of gifts for your beloved husband, David.

Chelle: Because I think of Dave when I read Mary songs. 

Dan: Do you?

Chelle: No. Actually, um, do, do we want to start with actually reading the Magnificat? Cause I think in some ways, 

Rachael: Many people might be going, what are you talking about? 

Chelle: And I remember a few years ago I was playing for something around Christmas time, it was during advent. And, um, it was a choir orchestra kind of event. And there was a soloist that sang the Magnificat. And I remember just sitting there wrapped and hearing the words a new one more time. It was kind of like, I kind of forgotten the power of the words. And as this woman’s saying Mary’s song, I began to realize, wow, do people actually listen to what this says and what a radical beginning for the, you know, waiting for the coming of Jesus. So I’ll read it really quickly.

Dan: Please. Oh yes, please.

Chelle: “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 is 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, to his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” And I love that this is, um, in some ways the, in the company of women, she’s with Elizabeth and both she and Elizabeth are having these miraculous children. And so in some ways that’s the context and the song just emerges from her.

Dan: What do you do with how as you put it well. That’s such a radical song. And when you think of the word radical, what, what, where does it take you?

Chelle: I think in some ways the unexpected, what do we, you know, I think advent is one of those seasons where you, you sit back a little bit and you wonder what is it that we expect even for ourselves. Um, often we’re busy, we’re buying presents, we’re preparing for the season. You know, Christmas becomes this kind of culmination of a day rather than advent being the season where we sit back and we actually prepare to make space for the arrival of a beginning of something within our hearts, within our lives. That Christmas is at the beginning of something and it isn’t the, it isn’t the end or the culmination of something. And so when I hear a song like this, I begin to realize, have we actually sat back and wondered, what is the offering? Like, what is this, what is this leading us to? But what is the offering of the song? How has it meant to kind of shake us in the inside of who we are? Um, and are we ready to hear the message of it? Um, that’s all kind of abstract a bit, but, um, because there’s, there’s promises, there’s glory in this there’s praise and then there’s this prophetic language of, of, and God will come and fill the hungry. God will send the rich away unfulfilled. Um, those who see themselves as being powerful and uplifted will be disappointed. This Savior that is coming, this Messiah is not who you expect him to be.

Rachael: Oh, I mean, I’m, I could see you looking at me, our audience can’t see that. I can see it. I think I am just to be quite honest, I had a really emotional response to Mary song, Chelle and reminding me that she is in the presence of Elizabeth and there’s something really powerful happening here to how God is wanting to, in some ways, incarnate in the world. And I, in anticipation of this, I was doing a little research and just reminding myself about this song, it’s where it’s located and the Luke and the gospel of Luke and some of its particularities. Um, and I read something that was talking about how this song is banned from liturgical, has been banned in like in India, under British rule. It was banned from liturgical reading and in Guatemala and Argentina, mostly in the wake of uprisings that happened, you know, in cruel and really corrupt systems banned from being read or posted in public. And so there’s also, I think your naming of there’s a prophetic power to Mary’s words in what she’s perceiving naming of God’s blessing and what will come and the disruption that will come, um, through this baby. Um, and I’m really struck by that. I probably have more of a sense of, obviously this is a very powerful text. It’s certainly talked about, uh, on behalf of oppressed peoples. Um, it does have direct speaking against empire and established power structures and the status quo, but I don’t think I had quite realized that it had that kind of political power in more modern day. So yeah, I don’t know if I have like a good question that comes out of that, but I do think your word radical, um, there is something really radical and I don’t think we often, especially those of us coming from contexts where we are well acquainted with power and the privileges of power, um, move into the advent season with this kind of awareness or even preparation. Um, cause we were too busy spending all of our money to bring gifts to people. And um, so I find myself more disrupted right now. Um, but also struck in a really emotional way so.

Chelle: Well in, yeah, I love that. Just the visceralness of hearing the words and, um, the other thing that really strikes me in all of this is, you know, I don’t know if this is too political to say, but in some ways I’m, I’m curious about the blindness that’s happening in a lot of, uh, Christian circles that are really afraid of prophetic voices. Um, you know, and, and denouncing things like Critical Race Theory as being unbiblical or, and in some ways not allowing this very prophetic line that is, I’m like very biblical to actually just hear people who are saying I’m unhappy things aren’t going the way they should be going. And instead of being afraid and to actually be open to the possibility that that things might shift or might change that reconciliation and redemption is possible right in this moment. And I wonder about that. So the other thing that really strikes me about this passage, and so I’m kind of curious what the two of you would do with this is that these words come after, you know, Elizabeth is, is filled with the spirit when she sees Mary and is like, you are blessed. It like, she just like starts proclaiming the baby and her own womb jumps for joy. There is deep, deep joy in this moment of this prophetic language. Um, and I, and I do wonder about the delight of God, but the delight of the Holy Spirit in this moment of saying there will be the hungry will be filled with good things, that there is something really beautiful and powerful about justice and mercy and love being offered to all.

Dan: Well, if I can step back and go, you know, I think most people read this again in the blindness of individualism. So this is actually just a promise. Jesus is going to die on the cross and cover your sins and you go, oh, well, that’s true too. But the disruption is speaking about larger systems. Then in one sense mere individualism and mere individual need for a savior. There is a very deep collective sense, but the disruption, you know, when I, I literally heard someone talk, I won’t even mention what time of my life or where, but they were talking about, yes, this is why communism has in one sense, been a collapsing reality. Um, so the rulers certainly are not us. This is not talking to me other than I need, I need salvation. Jesus is my salvation. So it’s individual not collective, and it’s really talking about systems that are really corrupt and wrong, not my world. So the kind of the notion of, you know, sweet Jesus in a manger and let’s sing silent night. Look, I know what I’m about to say is a form of apostasy, but silent night has always just sort of me off. I don’t think it’s a very silent night. I think there’s a pretty busy night, uh, with a whole lot of noise, uh, from the standpoint of angels and shepherds freaking out. And in some sense, uh, the kingdom of darkness with some intuition that this is a game changer, um, that there is a deep disruption in the universe that doesn’t somehow make it with most crushes that get put out, uh, on one’s tableau. So I think in some ways we quarantine this passage in a way that confirms our wealth and our power, but also presumes. Yeah, we do need salvation and this passage doesn’t reject our need individually, but actually demands that we think in larger systems than just, uh, my personal need for a Savior. 

Dan: Well, that apparently created silence.

Chelle: Silence is a good thing. Um, actually what the season actually requires of us, uh, because I think my response to that is why is it, why is it so difficult to push against the individualistic nature, especially of American faith, but of really, in some ways the Protestant faith was, you know, was this revolution of, I can actually read the Bible for myself. And sometimes we forget the radicalness of that and the empowerment of that. And at the same time, we then lose that, that greater sense that this is a more a systemic, this is God not coming for, for me and my heart, but for all of us. And how do we, how do we share the love? I mean, even as children, we don’t want to share the love of our parents. You know, it’s like we want it all for ourselves. And we’re very, very, um, I dunno, greedy to be loved, but this is the God of all. I don’t want to say all consuming love, but more it’s like, this is the God of generative love that is coming as in the, in the vulnerable form of a baby. And here’s this woman who has no status, who has no power, um, is impregnated by the Holy Spirit. I mean, the, of this, like she’s pregnant teenager and what does she do? She says, I am blessed. Elizabeth like says you are blessed and through this. So in some ways, again, like this kind of systemic individual systemic individual that she, because she says, yes, has this capacity to create space for God to be born into the world. And I know for a lot of people that just like that just blows their mind. I mean, um, as one theologian talks about it as, um, the same language and the Septuagint that’s used for the descending of the Holy Spirit and God’s presence being in the tabernacle is the same language that is used for Mary. And that she is not only filled with the Spirit, but she’s given the presence of God, literally. And her body enables the sinews, the fingers, the like the, everything of Christ to be nurtured and born. And, and not for the sake of isn’t this nice a little baby, but for the tearing down of the injustice of the world.

Dan: Is it fair to say, you’re saying she becomes the tabernacle?

Chelle: Um, well in many ways, yeah.

Dan: So if she’s in some sense, prefiguring, we are individually collectively the very presence of God, the tabernacle, um, and in that, you know, we are not impregnated by the Spirit, but we are filled by the Spirit in some form that bears a, I don’t know if similarity is the right word, but a connectedness to, to that. And so in that sense, we become both personally and collectively meant to reveal something of the Magnificat in our awareness of, you know, I think one of the reasons I’ve always had a hard time with this is, uh, this particular section of the scriptures. I I’m, I’m the ruler, I’m the rich man. Uh, and I both need salvation, but I also need the disruption this passage brings. So it’s the interplay then of someone like us becomes the very presence. It is such a reversal of everything that we would even begin to comprehend about God and about ourselves.

Rachael:  And I think even that, the assumption that if you would maybe identify with more like the rich, who will turn away, be turned away, unfulfilled, that, that that’s not seen as a part of salvation. Like, I, I think that that’s, what’s so powerful about Mary’s proclamation and her knowing of something of what this coming of God of Emmanual that is she is encompassing in her body, um, is actually part of what it’s meant to bring. And I think we do hear a lot of people, especially in our context, which makes a lot of sense, because this would be something you don’t want to hear, um, and would be afraid of. And I think I’m going back to your question, Chelle around, what does it mean that God delights in justice and mercy and, and, and that’s likely a part of our salvation, not some separate part of it, or, you know, separate action of it. And, and I think it is hard for us to hold intention, the personal and the collective and how we all fit together and that different… I mean, one of the things like to be able to say Jesus, 100%, uh, Emmanuelle 100% was coming, um, to bring us mercy in tangible ways. Um, and I don’t know, I’m just struck by, and that there’s something of God that delights in that, and that has to mean, um, that a lowering and a humbling is not an act of punishment, but potentially also an act of salvation.

Dan: Oh, that, that, that is searing almost to hear you say that, because to think that disruption and humbling is actually the beginning of joy… actually is the open heart to joy is such a foreign concept that even though we know that repentance is the beginning of, uh, a not just to change, but a reclamation of restoration, a return of justice and mercy kissing. So that, that to me, all of a sudden, even through this conversation goes, oh, oh, I love that, that, um, it is the deep, deep disruption of my wealth, my power, but it’s an invitation to such joy,

Chelle: And not happiness. And I think maybe it was a very CS Lewis-y thing to say that that joy and pleasure are two things that in some ways in life and our, our humanity and our connection to others and the pursuit of happiness then becomes, um, futile. It’s it lacks it lacks wisdom if you will. Um, but there is something to that. Joy brings us maybe to the hard things of life and allows, allows maybe the, the contradiction or the paradox of, of being invited into a life that gives you abundant life. And that same life is in some ways, a struggler or a battle for, and I don’t like to use the word equity here, but there is something to of,  this is this just not owned by me. Neither my, my doctrine, nor my faith, nor my own sense of salvation has any power over anyone else. This is always an open invitation. So if we are people who are filled with the Holy Spirit and we become the very tabernacle, we are the place where the Holy Spirit dwells that is so humbling, you know? And so Mary does prefigure this. And, um, and, but at the same time, this invitation into a life that isn’t just about, you know, what songs we sing on Sunday morning, though, that’s important. Um, or the battles that we have around certain kinds of doctrinal issues, but it’s really about, well, what is God doing in this particular moment and how is the world being moved in this direction? Um, are we really, um, I’ve been reading a lot of Catherine Tanner over the last year or so, and she has this quote from someone, I think it was Gregory of Nyssa around that. God is such a good God that we are nourished by the goodness. 

Dan: Yeah. Isn’t that the image of I will feed, I will feed, but I sort of want to make a slight shift to ask. So how does this passage in particular, but, but the larger, of course, the larger Luke chapter one, um, how does it form shape redact play with your advent and your Christmas?

Chelle: Well, besides the fact that everyone should be watching musicals during advent season, because this is a, I love the fact that the first two chapters of Luke is like, God, the musical everyone’s breaking out into song. Everyone’s like dancing, even babies in the womb or dancing. And, you know, all these things are happening. 

Dan: So this would affirm Christmas… Chevy Chase’s Christmas vacation?

Chelle: That’s not the one I was thinking of, but, um, I dunno, I, I think there is something too that Advent becomes a preparation. That the, this is the, this is the introduction to, um, this is an insight into how the Holy Spirit comes and lives with us. But, you know, in some ways I think this is the reminder that the triune God is in the world and active and working. And so when I think about the advent season, it is an invitation to sit back a little bit. Um, I remember at one point, you know, hearing a professor, I think when I was at Regent, when I was a master’s student, you know, kind of talking about that advent, actually a season of fasting, um, that really you should be giving up something and putting the money away and then giving that away that the gifting is really supposed to be on behalf of other people, not so that you can get a bunch of stuff that you want, um, or that you have the right decorations, or, you know, all of that is preparation. You know, you have gifts under the tree. Um, you have a tree or, you know, whatever your traditions are around Christmas. Um, but instead this is an invitation into stepping back and thinking of prayer more as a listening. Um, I’ve been doing a bit of work around what prayer looks like in Romans 8. And one of the things that really strikes me in some of these passages, when we talk about the role of the Holy Spirit is prayer doesn’t mean that you have to go to a workshop and learn how to do something. Um, this preparation for the Christian life, you don’t have to like have a degree in theology or, um, have a whole library of things, telling you what to do with the Christian life. What Romans eight kind of invites us into is our own vulnerability and our inability to speak, um, our capacity to grieve our, um, our willingness to allow the Holy Spirit to take what is deep within us that really seasoned justice, or has sorrow in our hearts. And the Spirit takes that. And that becomes our prayer. And so this whole, um, image of this cosmic play of prayer and communication of the triune God, we’re invited into that space. Not because we are strong and powerful than all the rest of it, because, but because we’re vulnerable and we don’t know what to say, and that’s actually the introduction to prayer. And so when I think about advent advent and  lent, or these two parallel seasons that invite us into our vulnerability and into our own silence in a way not to just power disempower us, but actually to open up our ears, that we might be able to hear what God is saying today, where is God leading us? So Christmas becomes, again, the great beginning. It becomes an opening of God in the world.

Rachael: Well, I’m just thinking about one of the things I, one of the tangible things I love about advent is that we’re entering. And I know it’s not actually like anywhere close to the time Jesus would have been born in the biblical texts. It was likely in the summer and we appropriated this pagan holiday. And like, I know that’s part of the history of Christmas, which might be very disillusioning to some people, but frankly, in a liturgical way, I actually love that it happens to be in the season where we really are descending into a lack of sunlight and shorter days and a kind of darkness, especially if you live more North like towards the Northern hemisphere, because the days get shorter and shorter and shorter and, and the looking for light and the, the way that in the darkness, the smallest speck of light can just really bring comfort and, and hope. And there’s something about this sense of an opening, a beginning, um, and this revolutionary song, um, that I think makes space for people to not feel like they have to enter the Christmas season with a kind of denial of aches, a denial of places where there is oppression and injustice and agony, and a sense of, I don’t know how to manufacture happiness or I don’t, you know, like that there’s a space in the advent season and the coming of God with us. And I’ve always loved that language of God with us, um, that we find in this season. And I think this revolutionary song alludes to not just, uh, a God who doesn’t care, where there is massive imbalance of power, misuse of power that keeps people hungry and crushed. Um, but God who says, I’m coming, I have come, I’m coming. I will come. And, and that there is an invitation to join the living God, um, in this, in this beginning and in this revolution, so to speak. So I love that imagination of both letting the light, permeated the places, um, but also pondering what are those places that bring darkness and injustice, and I’m not trying to call darkness bad, cause I know there’s all this beautiful writing about the spirituality of entering darkness and the quiet of it and the silence of it and letting that shape you, the mystery. Um, but letting our hearts be open to our own places of ache, where we are in need, we are in need of this God that Mary is talking about, but also being moved and reflecting on where we might, um, be invited to pour out and to join, um, and to be transformed and to shape, so.

Dan: Well, it, it, as we come near an end, there’s something about the notion of holding the season, almost with a kind of Lenten anticipation that there is this intersection of ache and desire and owning of hunger. Well, also this incredible sense of reversal of the gospel inverts– the lowly are raised. Those who have power are brought low. There’s something in that. And again, I, this may sound a bit like trivializing the incredible wisdom both of you have offered, but I have always enjoyed being able to get, I’ll just say my wife, to get Becky something she really wants. Um, and that question of what do you want for Christmas? You know, and you know, a few things get named and it’s like, oh yeah, that sounds good. But it’s never satisfying. I like, I like that. I, I know she wants X. I want to get her X, but it’s the work of surprising her, the work of knowing her well, enough to name what she doesn’t know she wants, but she does. And then finding that thing that sort of freaks her out and that inversion reversal, uh, you know, it’s, I’ve not been able to pull it off that often, but when I do, oh my gosh, those are the sweetest Christmases of, oh, I made the ache be satisfied, but may the inversion actually bring you a teeny little taste of a kind of gift that is indeed what Jesus brings, uh, to each of our lives and holding that. I sorta want to come back to, uh, maybe a sentence from each of you or two as to, so how will it shape your buying of gifts on behalf of others?

Chelle: I know that Dave and I, in this season, we’ve been having an active conversation about, um, what is it that we want to do? What do we want to rearrange about Christmas this year? And part of what we’ve talked about is actually buying less, um, and actually having more experiences of, um, being out in our community. Um, we always like to, well, yeah, we, we like to buy gifts locally and things like that to make sure our local shops are doing well, but it’s more than that. We’ve, we’ve really kind of thought more of, yeah. What, what are the things that we enjoy? What are the things, um, that will bring us life in this season? And it’s rarely the consumption of something. It’s usually the connection with other people. And

Dan: I say amen to that, oh my gosh. That’s well said.

Rachael: I mean, this is a hard question because when you are embedded in a family with a lot of children and established traditions, um, it requires a different level of work and it’s something Michael and I have actually been talking about as well. And I think part of it is what this past couple of years of being in a pandemic and, and systems of injustice that are, have been present, just being so radically exposed there, something that almost, and again, it’s not a, I actually love giving good gifts. And I think what you’re saying, Dan, like being able to surprise them with intensifying, the ache of being need, known, and loved and delighted. And so there’s something in me that loves thinking through what would be a good gift. And I do find it sometimes it is a thing it’s rare, but it’s rarely that it is often more, uh, an experience you’re creating an anticipating together or words that need to be spoken. Um, but I think about what it takes, what it means to, you know, like for example, if I were to say, Hey family, just so you know, this year, we’re not buying gifts. Well, that means like one of my siblings who I drew their name is like, well, that’s cool. Um, can we just remove you from the drawing or, and again, not that they wouldn’t want to come along for the ride, but, and again, I think this is revolutionary moments should require labor should require thoughtfulness should require contemplation. And I think I find myself in a season where that’s actually something I desperately need and the pace of work and what is required. Doesn’t actually allow a lot of space for that in this particular season of my life. So I think it actually makes me think of how do I want to shape what’s even possible, even if none of that change gets to come this year, but it is a beginning to be able to say, well, what if this could be a start of intentioning? And, um, intentioning some really significant changes for how we view certain traditions. And I, I know for myself that intentions always take time to unfold.

Dan: Yeah, well, as Chelle has said, well, this is a season of which there is a kind of quiet, silent night percolation for the disruption that has meant to bring joy and our ability to, in one sense, have a very radical Merry Christmas in and of itself is quite a beautiful inversion. So if I don’t get a chance to say this on your behalf to you, I’ll say it now. And probably again, Merry Christmas,

Rachael: Merry Christmas

Chelle: Merry Christmas.