The politics of the Magnificat
By Kenneth Leech
Editor’s note: For the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we offer an excerpt from the inspiring collection Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech. Kenneth Leech is an Anglican priest, Christian socialist and community theologian from London, England.
* * * * *
The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated throughout most of the Christian world, is not a feast to arouse wild enthusiasm among English Christians.
Seen often as a polemical and divisive dogma, an ecumenical embarrassment, or arrogant assertion of papal claims in the pre-Vatican 2 atmosphere, the dogma is now widely seen as more than an irritant, at best a peripheral factor, at worst the most outrageous of the Marian heresies.
Yet in the Eastern churches this is Mary’s feast par excellence, while Jung hailed the dogma as a sign of the restoration of the feminine dimension to the deity. Some feminist theologians such as Rosemary Reuther have pointed to the potentially liberating features of this andother Marian dogmas in an overwhelmingly male and cerebral Christian tradition. “Liberation Mariology” is certainly on the North American agenda.
Undoubtedly much Marian devotion has been based on a distortion of the Mary of the Magnificat, the prophetic woman who according to the Anglican Consultative Council in 1973, “praises the Lord for the radical changes in economic, political and social structures.”
The late Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Marialis cultus (1974) also criticized the false Mary of corrupt piety, stressing that “Mary of Nazareth … was far from being a timidly submissive woman; on the contrary she was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and oppressed, and removes the powerful people of the world from their privileged positions.”
In fact, the dogma of the Assumption is a development of that of the resurrection. As Christ is the first fruits of the harvest of the dead, so his Mother, the God-bearer, is raised up to share in the risen life of the glorified Body of Christ. As in the Resurrection of Christ, so in the Assumption of Mary, it is the whole personality, the soma, which is raised.
The Assumption rejects the dualism of body and soul which still affects the Christian world: it is the whole person which is raised, just as it is the whole material creation which is to be transformed and share the freedom of the children of God (Rom.8).
Mary is thus the forerunner of the cosmic assumption of which Paul writes; she is the microcosm of the new and glorified creation. The dogma is part an assertion of the materialistic base of the Christian hope.
But the raising up of Mary represents also the exaltation of the poor, the anawim, God’s little people. Small is not only beautiful; small is Queen of Heaven. It is this reversal of power structures which Mary predicts in her “hymn of the universal social revolution” (as Thomas Hancock called it).
God has looked lovingly on her humble state, her littleness, and as a result she will be Makaria, blessed. God puts down the dunastas and fills those in need. “It would be easy to over-spiritualize the meaning of these verses and ignore that literal interpretation,” notes the evangelical scholar Howard Marshall. “The coming of the Kingdom of God should bring about a political and social revolution, bringing the ordinary life of mankind into line with the will of God.”
The Assumption is also a pointer towards the recognition of the feminine dimension in God. Not in the sense that Mary is exalted to the status of a fourth person of the Trinity: but rather that, through the raising of this woman to share the divine nature, we should face the necessary consequence that womanhood, as much as manhood, is involved in that nature.
God is not male, and the “motherhood of God” needs to be taken seriously. Marian devotion can only too easily be used as a safety-valve, a way of transferring the feminine dimension away from God to an idyllic, virginal creature. So we relate to Mary, while retaining the essentially male-dominated symbolism of deity.
There is much to be wrestled with before we can assert positively that Mariology is a potentially liberating tradition. But the place of Mary alongside her Son can hardly be questioned. As the late Fr. Raymond Raynes once said: “If Our Lady is not in heaven, where the hell is she?” The truth of the resurrection demands that, whatever else we say, we must at least say that Christ is in heaven and his Mother with him.
From David Bunch and Angus Ritchie, ed., Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech (New York: Seabury Books, 2009), pp. 126-128. Copyright © 2009, Seabury books, reprinted with permission. (Amazon info here.)