Environmental Stewardship: Advent 4 – Magnificat and the Unholy Silence
Magnificat and the Unholy Silence
This post is a few days late; the Fourth Sunday of Advent has come and gone, and Christmas Day is nearly here.
An extra full calendar and to-do list contributed to the delay, but the greater reason for the delay has been the need for time to make some sense in light of Advent of what is happening in the world and the way we talk — or fail to talk — about it.
While studying the Gospel passage for Advent IV this year (Luke 1: 39-56) , I was struck by something very obvious that had never really caught my attention before. Mary says:
[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
These words express a hope and a longing for justice, for compassionate treatment of those who would usually have no power and no voice, for the restoration of a world where wholeness and holiness replace divisions and sinfulness. Many of us who share that longing treasure the Magnificat because it so beautifully expresses that hope. Always before, the joy of this prophecy caught my full attention. This year, however, I wondered at Mary’s words and their power through the centuries because the proud and powerful still lord it over too many people in this world; most hungry people in the world remain hungry while rich people eat far more than we need and throw generous amounts of leftover food in the garbage. The Romans and their lackeys remained in power after Jesus was born, eventually nailing Jesus to a cross. How do these words remain so powerful and meaningful to us when the economic and political structures in the world continue to oppress people who are meek, “lowly”, hungry, or poor?
The distance between the holy vision of the Magnificat and the unholy picture of our world is strikingly evident in the way those in power have manipulated the public conversation about climate change. Recent investigations have concluded that the American Petroleum Institute and a slew of big oil companies knew about greenhouse gases and their predicted effect on the climate from the 1970’s. (See yesterday’s story Exxon’s Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too from InsideClimate News, Bill McKibben’s piece in The Guardian October 14, 2015, or NPR’s November 5, 2015 story.) They knew, but they chose to be silent about what they knew, choosing instead to work against efforts to limit our use of fossil fuels and to work instead for increased extraction of fossil fuels. That silence now endangers all living things on the earth.
The unholy silence of the fossil fuel industry was matched in the two televised candidates’ debates that have occurred since the big climate talks in Paris. In neither the Republican nor the Democratic debate did any of the moderators ask a question about climate change even though “national security” was supposed to be a focus for both debates. Surely the politically and economically destabilizing effects of an unstable climate should be included in any serious conversation about national security, especially so soon after the gathering of the world’s leaders in Paris.
This silence is everywhere — in our own conversations with friends and family where we might discuss every sort of issue under the sun except climate change, whenever we leave a Sunday morning worship service with no prayer having been prayed or words preached that acknowledge what is happening, when good people who care about human welfare write and speak about hopes for a better world in 2016 and beyond without acknowledging the gravest threat to human welfare in this century.
The economic and political structures that discount the lives of millions of people are still in place, and even though we live in a time when information about what is happening all around the world is readily available, we barely hear a word about how the big changes in the earth’s climate make human life even more insecure. The lives of “the lowly” and “the hungry” are getting more and more precarious, but we go through our days acting as if they aren’t even there.
But Mary’s words still grab my heart, not because they describe something that has happened or is likely to happen in the political sphere or be reported by the corporate media, but because they describe the reality into which Jesus invites us to live. Yes, it’s true that the powers that be in the worlds of politics and business and, too often, even the church continue to find new ways to support the old injustices and keep the old silences about oppression, but that doesn’t mean that we accept that as our reality.
Jesus showed us his kingdom. Jesus saw the people at the edge of the crowd, the women, the lepers, the short tax collector up in the branches of the sycamore tree. Jesus saw them and he talked to them, acknowledged their existence, and treated them as children of God. Jesus didn’t worry about offending the religious elite when he sat down to eat with people considered too sinful for polite company, and he preached God’s truth and God’s justice even when people were offended by what he preached.
The Magnificat gives us courage to do what Mary did, to do whatever God calls us to do and to live in the way God intends us to live no matter what other reality the powers that be offer us. Today, the Magnificat can give us courage to break the unholy silence. We can say no to the talking points and prescribed silences of those with power to lose; we can say yes to the reality of God’s kingdom and speak from a reality that sees the weakness of the powerful and the poverty of the rich. Mary does not call us to a false hope; Mary helps us to follow Jesus with eyes wide open to see the world around us as it is.
As we follow Jesus and live further into the kingdom, we find our voices and creative ways to resist the death-dealing culture of the rich and powerful. Many sense a change swelling up from the grassroots, ready to bypass the old obstacles. As we find our voices, we begin to sense that, in the words of The Canticle of the Turning, “the world is about to turn”.