I never liked the Virgin Mary. Growing up, I always saw her as one of the girls I could never be: sweet, with perfect hair and perfect grades.
So it didn’t bother me that I was never cast as Mary in Christmas pageants. I don’t recall her ever having any lines of her own anyway. She was the perfect woman: impossibly both a virgin and a mother. And silently passive.
At least, that’s what I thought until I got into slam poetry, a form of spoken word performance invented in Chicago in the 1980s. At slam events, I began to hear powerful testimony about what it is like to be Black, female, trans, poor or just alive when the world does not value your personhood. Slam poetry is embodied preaching at its best; it is protest from the margins; it is prophetic witness to God’s favour upon the lowly.
Suddenly, I started seeing slam poets all over the Bible: Isaiah with his metaphors of vineyards and new creations, Amos with his social justice laments, Ezekiel with his intense visions. I started to recognize the people I saw at the slams — tattooed, quirky, queer, loud, weird poets — as the people responsible for the poetry in my Bible.
It took a bit longer, but I also came to see the Virgin Mary as a slam poet. When Mary learns she is pregnant, she celebrates the good news in verse, reciting a poem (Luke 1:46-55) that is now known as the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” the poem begins, “for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.”
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Reading Mary’s poem, I imagine how she might look delivering it today: still in high school, already showing, a tough expression on her face, she walks up to the mic to declare, despite all appearances, that she is not ruined. She is not disgraced — no, she carries the infinite blessing of making God bigger.
Mary is not a worthless, knocked up, unwed teenager — she has power gathering inside her and she has nothing less than the downfall of kings and salvation for the hungry in store. Her pregnancy brings down “the powerful from their thrones,” “fills the hungry with good things,” and “sends the rich away empty.”
Now that is a Virgin Mary that I like! She is an active creator of her own story, a feisty young person who won’t be scolded into silence by her elders.
That Mary is a powerful role model for our churches. She speaks from the devalued, disgraced communities that dare to declare they are still carriers of divine favour. Her fiery words have the power to overturn empires, overthrow tyrants and overhaul every boring Christmas pageant in our churches.
So this year, when you plan your pageant, consider handing Mary the mic for the Magnificat, the longest speech made by a woman in the New Testament.
This column first appeared in Broadview’s December 2019 issue with the title “The fiery words of Mary.”
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