Of Joy and Justice

Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Dec 25, 2008

One of the most beautiful and powerful texts in Christian scriptures is the Magnificat recorded in the Gospel of Luke, the joyous and searing response to the birth of Jesus, reprised from the equally powerful Song of Hannah in the Hebrew scripture of Samuel.

This is not the more familiar image of the innocent babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, surrounded by angels singing in the night air. Nor is it the image of the innocent, sweet, loving Jesus heralded over the centuries by Christians across the globe, bringing simple peace. Perhaps that is why this Song of Mary is seldom lifted up, even though it precedes the familiar birth narrative by only a few verses.

The Magnificat is a song of profound joy and sweeping justice, ringing with a vision of hope and fulfillment for the oppressed, the poor, the hungry. In its verses the mighty are cast down, the lowly lifted up. The hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty. The suffering are made whole and mercy is spread about freely upon those who believe in the promise of Abraham. Joy and justice reign.

This is the lost story of the Jesus that Christians celebrate this day. Even without all the wrappings of the cultural celebration that has permeated the religious expression, this is a story that most Christians would rather skip over quickly in favor of sweetness and light. In this simple song is the story that conveys both the beginning and the end of the life of this one born of humble beginnings, whose journey from Bethlehem eventually took him to a deadly encounter with Rome in Jerusalem: one does not stand up against empire in ones midst without paying a high cost; one does not challenge political and economic power without readiness to risk life itself.

So it is on this day that Christians do indeed celebrate, feel, and experience the richness of the promise inherent in the birth of this Jesus—and rightly so. But so it is also on this day Christians are starkly reminded that this birth, this life is world-changing in ways that many are not expecting. The mighty are cast down, the hungry are fed, the rich sent away empty. So may it be. Joy and justice are twinned; the Song of Mary is sung quietly in the middle of the silent night, and the possibility of a new day for those cast aside is made dreadfully, wonderfully real.

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