A Little Meditation on the Magnificat
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away. (Lk 1:51–53).
As a general rule, we like our Mary to look this way when she says this,
because then it’s pious and we don’t have to think about it. It’s a nice sentiment applicable to people like Herod and Hitler and we can think about beggars in 1950s biblical epics sobbing with gratitude without having to apply it to our lives.
Ocassionally, when we are enjoying the medieval capacity for piety which appreciated Mary’s more formidable side, we will savor thinking about Mary this way:
And we know, theologically, that Mary is the “terror of demons” who often gets invoked as the defender of children and other oppressed people. So there is a certain amount of room in the American Catholic psyche (largely formed by the experience of oppressed Catholics from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany and similar lands that have been under sundry bootheels) for seeing her as the defender who is not hesitant to whack the devil with a Big Stick:
Relatedly, the biblical view of God nearly always sees him from the perspective of the underdog. He is the champion of–and in Jesus he stands alongside and is one of–the oppressed, not the oppressor. He picks a side, and does not spew “Both Sides” bushwah in order to crush the oppressed with guilt in addition to their poverty and powerlessness. He practices what Holy Church calls the Preferential Option for the Poor. He says, literally, “Blessed are the poor” and “Woe to you who are rich”. No. Really. It’s right there in Luke 6:20 and 24. You can read it yourself.
But there are limits in American Catholic piety for the Mary, Champion of the Underdog narrative. Namely, when we stop being the underdog and start being the oppressor. We like being the hero, not the villain. We like saying “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” as a way of saying, “You’re just as bad as me, so get off my back” not as a way of saying, “I am not fit to be called your son, Father. make me one of your servants so I can just get a decent meal.” We suffer, as white people in the US, from Disney Princess theology:
And so the words of the Magnificat above coming from this Mary are instantly perceived as a threat and draw the reflexive cry “Stop politicizing the gospel!” from anxious white conservative Christians faster than you can say “knee jerk denials with a side order of systemic racism”.
The funny thing is, you don’t have change a word of the Magnificat quoted above to fill prosperous white conservative Catholics with anxiety and resentment. The reason those words sound like something coming out of a BLM bullhorn at a peaceful rally is that the Civil Rights movement is a huge by-product of the gospel at work in that part of the Church–the African-American Church–that preserves the experience of Christians being persecuted by the rich and powerful.
You simply have to put those words in this mouth in this painting and the fury at “politicizing the gospel” comes pouring out from Good White Catholics. And the most impressive part? You needn’t say a word to or about the people who get furious over such a representation of Our Lady. They do all the work themselves by the reliable tactic of saying, “I resent your blanket accusation!” when nobody has accused them of a thing or said a word about them. The “I furiously deny that I fit the shoe I am desperately trying to put on” response is one of the weirdest reactions of the Good White Christian confronted by the challenge of persecuted brown Christian brothers and sisters.
Which brings me to the case of Gloria Purvis, of which more tomorrow.