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My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of
his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call
me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He 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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.
Luke 1:46-55

In Luke's gospel, Mary, after learning she is pregnant, visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. Elizabeth tells Mary that her child leapt in her womb when Mary arrived carrying Jesus. Mary responds with this song of praise, known by scholars as the Magnificat, from the first word of the Latin translation.

The song begins joyfully, but quickly turns subversive. Mary envisions a God who is about to turn the world upside down. The child she is carrying will bring down the powerful, will feed the hungry but send the rich away empty.

In the context of that place and time, this would have referred to the Roman Empire, which was in the process of conquering almost the entire Mediterranean region. The Romans had taken Judea and Galilee about a generation before Jesus was born and had placed a puppet dictator named Herod on the throne. Though Herod was Jewish, he was loyal to the Romans and not to his own people. When Herod died, shortly after Jesus' birth, the Romans divided the Jewish lands among Herod's sons. The Romans allowed the Jews to continue worshipping in their temples, but assigned them high priests from another family that was loyal to Rome. The result of Roman occupation was a life that superficially resembled the freedom the nation once had, but placed the power in Roman hands.

The early Christians believed in Mary's vision, and refused to support the empire. Because of their lack of loyalty, Christians were seen as outsiders or even criminals, and often had to meet in secret. Occasionally the Romans broke up a congregation and arrested or executed its members to serve as an example.

We live in a world today that is just as much in the grip of a powerful empire as the ancient Mediterranean was. We don't call the 21st century United States an empire, but it has many of the same characteristics. Wherever there is instability, the U.S. sends troops to restore peace and sets up a government that will be loyal to us.

One difference today, however, is the way American Christians—specifically white evangelicals—have embraced the empire. They've supported the nationalist president when he separated children from families and derided our neighbors; they've pushed for an aggressive foreign policy that would ban entry for Muslims and allow for the assassination of foreign leaders; they have excused his extramarital affairs and praised his regressive tax cuts. This does have the effect of turning the world upside down, but not in the way Jesus intended.

Everyone loves the serene Christmas story, the shepherds and the wise men, the baby in the manger who brings light to our darkness and will return one day to set things right. But it's important that we remember Mary's words, that setting things right involves pulling down the powerful and sending the rich away hungry. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus shouldn't want to be in on of those categories.

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