The word Subvert has surrounded me since the week I moved to Chicago. I was walking to the Red Line station and noticed that along the sidewalk that lined Roosevelt Road were paving stones engraved with single words. Words like Study, Publish, and Dance, but only one made me stop dead in my tracks. Just before the station entrance was the word Subvert. An act of subversion pushes back against the status quo, stripping away the lies that are taught to us by society and says “No! That is not how it has to be.” Subvert is a word that has defined my calling to ministry.
Mary’s life, like the song she sang in our text today, is absolutely filled with subversion. Mary is a strong, independent woman, much more so than Christian Tradition gives her credit for when we describe her as meek and mild. Mary doesn’t strike me as either of those things when she vocalizes her autonomy and acceptance to take part in the earliest stages of Jesus’ life, nor as she journeys to visit Elizabeth, without any escort accompanying her, to process that very news that she has just received from the angel Gabriel.
In the Magnificat, Mary sings of a God who flips the world on its head, a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly“ and will continue to do so through Jesus’ ministry. The words Mary sings would ring as utterly absurd to those in power in her time, particularly for coming out of a poor, unwed, pregnant woman. After all, what value could God possibly find in her? Yet, through the very act of choosing Mary to bring Jesus to birth, God subverts expectation, choosing a woman of seemingly little consequence, rather than a person of power in Jewish society to play such a pivotal role, and then interpret the significance of it.
It is the absurdity of a world as Mary describes that has inspired festivals all over the world that celebrate the lifting up of the oppressed over the oppressor, festivals like Carnival in Italy, Spain, and France or Mardi Gras in New Orleans. These festivals, which were celebrated just last week, embody the very spirit of the Magnificat itself. It is for that reason that I chose to subvert the lectionary, which says this text belongs only in the season of Advent, and put it in an equally appropriate home as an introduction to Lent and to Jesus’ life and ministry.
Music is a very, very powerful means of communication. It carries the emotion that mere conversation is incapable of, while sharing stories and experiences. It has the power to make us laugh, cry, lament, or call us to action. Music has a way of touching the human experience profoundly, which is why there are songs that express love from one person to another, that encapsulate the pain experienced in losing a loved one. Punk rock rose to popularity in the mid to late 1970s for its ability subversively push back against conventional social, political, and economic principles of a society.
This past weekend LSTC held a workshop entitled “Building a Vocal Community” lead by Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, composer and former member of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Dr. Barnwell talked about African Spirituals, slave songs, and asked why they existed. They existed, she told us, to tell the story, to find a way of expressing the painful lament of horrific situations slaves were in while also expressing hope that their world would turn upside down. I invite you to listen to a clip of “There is a Balm, in Gilead” which she lead those gathered in singing on Saturday Afternoon. [BALM IN GILEAD clip]
“Who are the wounded” she asked. “The slaves” a couple participants responded. “And who are the sin sick? “The Christians who owned slaves,” she told us. This song is just as subversive as Mary’s Song. The spiritual expresses hope for the healing not only of the slave, but the slave owner, the one oppressed and the oppressor. Other slave songs use stories, from scripture or elsewhere to, disguise their own stories so that the experiences of slavery would live on in perpetuity.
Another such instance, where song was used to lament and to provide hope of a better world, was the Civil Rights Movement. Amidst sit-ins, like at the Woolworth lunch counter that happened in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina and amongst police violence against peaceful protests lead by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Songs rose up out of marches, declaring a message that it was time for a change, that the segregation and marginalization of people of African descent needed to end, and end now. Songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “Strange Fruit” reverberate beyond the protests of the 1960s, because the subversive messages and emotions that they express are still needed. “We Shall Overcome,” often called the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement echoes not only the African Spirituals that came before it, but Mary’s song as well. Listen now to the emotion behind the Harlem Boys Choir’s performance of that very pivotal piece. [WE SHALL OVERCOME clip]
Dr. Barnwell went on to talk about a problem with modern Community Organizing, about how many community organizers of African descent either do not know the songs of the Civil Rights Movement or else resist using them. She pushed back saying chant was not the most effective way for their cries to be heard. Chants are forgotten soon after they are made, but music lasts, because song carries so much more emotional depth than mere words do.
This is why Mary sings. There is no possible way for her to comprehend the magnitude of what she is being asked to do, or the significance of events that will be set in motion as a result. And so she sings, in fear, excitement, confusion, and joy, connecting to a force deep within her soul both lamenting and praising a God has always blessed her life, that God is present with her, just as God has been with Israel.
With crises in our nation like the water crisis in Flint where children and their families discovered they were being poisoned by the very water that was meant to give life, where horrific shootings are making headlines on a monthly basis, and those are the only ones that we are told about, we find ourselves in a place of anger and frustration, lamenting what are we to do? Sing, says Dr. Barnwell. Sing, say an enslaved people. Sing, say protestors in the Civil Rights Movement. Sing, just like Mary.