This essay was originally published on Sunday December 30, 2018, in the Springfield State Journal-Register Beliefs column for which Sister Beth Murphy writes regularly.
For many of us, January 1 has become unmoored from the faith context of Christmas. It’s New Year’s Day, of course, and holds a sense of promise and fresh start that can renew everyone’s spirits this time of year. For sports fans it’s Bowl Game Day, serving to rally friends and family around a common enjoyment and a bit of overindulgence. For Catholics, it’s also a Marian feast and World Day of Peace.
Often on the run up to New Years, I reminisce about a story I heard from one of my Dominican Brothers in Edinburgh. Gilbert was committed to dismantling the nuclear war machine. He relished telling a story—details escape me—about the time he participated in a protest where they played Mary’s Magnificat from the loud speaker and were arrested for subversion against the British government.
That would be THE Mary—you know, the Mother of God—whom Catholics celebrate on January 1.
Her song starts joyously: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…” and then somewhere in the middle proceeds to: “God has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. God has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty….” You’ll find the whole song at Luke 1:46.
The song has been ubiquitous in my life since I was a college graduate discovering the power of these words prayed in the Church’s evening prayer. Back then I was designing high school English textbooks and going to Mass after work at a suburban parish staffed by the Ursuline Sisters—the ones from here in town, I would discover. The sisters invited me to pray with them after Mass during Lent. Singing those wonderful words with them each evening helped open my heart to God’s call, which eventually landed me with the Dominicans. (Another story, another day!)
Only obliquely did I understand what I sang at the top of my lungs in that little chapel in Oak Park nearly four decades ago. But I remember the joy it sowed in my heart, which is still periodically stoked, like a tiny spark brought to flame by a gust of wind in a quiet hearth.
That’s been the case for me this winter. I’ve enjoyed the way Mary’s song weaves its way into the liturgies of the Christmas season, providing fresh context to remember God’s Love is the Source of Existence. Mary’s song—especially the naughty bit that got Gilbert arrested—is about that Love subverting every structure working counter to Love.
The challenge is to allow her song to release our grip on whatever keeps us from experiencing that powerful Love. What binds us is different for everyone. It might be white privilege, or access to capital or political power. It might be addictive behaviors that limit our ability to receive love in healthy ways. It might be an inability to recognize our inherent goodness and lovability. It might be a powerful grief we can’t see our way past.
It makes sense that Mary’s words would make governments nervous! Wherever they are sung they are God’s powerful promise at work in our world, subverting what keeps us from knowing divine love present in our human nature. If you want a New Year’s resolution, this might be just the thing: Sing Mary’s song every day. Let it align your spirit with God’s Love. You can’t go wrong by choosing to stand with those whom Mary raises up in song: the lowly, the hungry, and the poor.