(Luke 1: 46-55)
How Can We Keep from Singing
Or Making Ourselves Vulnerable to the Power of the Future
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 from their thrones
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
From generation to generation
women sing out of the shadows
and labor in the echoes
for the holy to be born.
--Jan L. Richardson
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that the Song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. “It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung…These are the tones of the women prophets of the old Testament now come to life in Mary’s mouth." This Galilean woman stands in a long Jewish tradition of female singers from Miriam with her tambourine (Exodus 15:2-21) to Deborah (Judges 5:1-3), to Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10 ), the mother of Samuel, who gave away her sons to build the history of her own country. These scholars think that the Magnificat comes out of the long history of political struggle of the Jewish people against their oppressors.
Others like historian Richard Horsely believe that Galilee was the spawning ground for 1st century revolts against the repressive Roman occupation and that this is a victory song turned into a song of revolt. Could this be why missionaries in Africa were forbidden to share it with their converts? And still others like feminist Elizabeth Johnson see it as dangerous and subversive because it reminds us that the Holy One of Israel protects, defends, saves, and rescues the "nobodies" of this world including unwed mothers.
It is dangerous because this image of Mother Miryam challenges our vision of women as submissive to authority. Is this the reason why Women of the Disappeared in Chile used it as their mantra?
Whether it is a victory song of old or a new call to revolution, Miryam's song of praise is also call to nonviolent resistance. Her willingness to make herself vulnerable and her exchange of blessings with her cousin have led her to now dream and imagine a deliverance for all her unborn child and all her people. Her Yes to solidarity with God’s project has now led her to say No to oppression and domination of all kinds.
It is for these reasons that she has become the image of the woman of faith. It is her faith in things not seen and in her ability to submit with her life for the future liberation of her people that we lift her up and call her blessed among women. "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her" (Luke 1:45).
Today, throughout Israel and Palestine, there are blessed women who also are submitting their lives for the liberation and salvation of their people or society. They are the Women in Black who like Lady Wisdom stand in the middle of a busy Jerusalem intersection every Friday with their large black hands calling for an end to the occupation, freedom for Gaza, the liberation of the political prisoners. Their witness has birthed Women in Black movements throughout the world. Their dedication of solidarity has been a model for allies in the struggle.
There are also groups like Maschom Watch: Women Against the Occupation and For Human Rights. Often mothers themselves, these women hold the Israeli soldiers accountable to legal and ethical behavior at the checkpoints. They also join in other protests and demonstrations throughout the West Bank including actions in and around East Jerusalem. Their dedication to making sure the soldiers treat people with respect or that they follow international law has set the bar high for all human rights workers.
And there are the countless Palestinian women who every day, old and young, deal with the violence of the occupation and a patriarchal society that often does not acknowledge or support their rights to equality and justice. And there are the women who have formed cooperatives in villages and refugee camps to turn their skills in traditional embroidery into a means for supporting their families. In a system of restricted work permits and checkpoint closures, this income puts food on the table and allows families to stay in their homes. "To exist is to resist" is a popular Palestinian slogan.
This maintenance of the family and home under the harshest of conditions is a form of resistance. These everyday acts of courage and kindness, stubbornness and steadfastness, hospitality and welcome is a resistance to hatred and violence, oppression and occupation. The women "stay human" when it would be much easier to give in to anger, or give up and leave.
And then there are also those women, who like the men, have been picked up by the military authorities and arrested and imprisoned under a military law called “administrative detention.” Administrative detention is arrest and confinement without a charge or trial for “security reasons.”
There is one woman in particular who this year became the face of the prisoner resistance movement. Like Miryam, her words and actions have inspired many. Her name is Hana Shalabi. She joined the hunger strike this past spring along with other men and women to call the world’s attention to both the illegality of administrative detention and the inhumane prison conditions them selves.
Hana was in administrative detention for two years and then released as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal at the end of 2011. Then on February 16, 2012 she was again violently abducted from her home in Burquin and taken into Israeli custody and held under Administrative detention again. She joined the prisoner hunger strike declaring, “Freedom is more important than life.” She was steadfast in her hunger strike until her release in April, the 43rd day of her hunger strike. She was released and exiled to the open air prison of Gaza for three years, still separated from her family and friends.
As a counterpoint to Miryam’s willingness to give birth for justice, Hana was willing to die for it. Both inspire and call us to action in the midst of suffering. Both call us to a solidarity of divine outrage over the degradation of life. Both call us to freedom.
So let each of us find our song and sing it. Let us to prepare the way for the birth of love and justice. Miryam says we should expect that this birth will turn our lives upside down and inside out. Miryam, the pregnant and poor unwed mom, asks us to wait and sing for the upheaval of the world, the expected reversal. She also asks us to pray for a world without war or conflict or violence. She asks us to hold our leaders accountable for their actions and inactions---their thoughts and their deeds, their votes of support and their votes against dignity and freedom. She asks us to divest from and boycott their stranglehold of economic, social, and political power. She asks us to feed the hungry by lifting their sieges, shaking off their occupation, and breaking down their walls of hostility and concrete. She asks us to dream about the waye world would look if things were reversed, if the Beloved Community could be made manifest. She asks us to dream it in the past tense as if it were already taking place. Finally, Miryam, the mother of Jesus, asks us to affirm God being born not only in her real womb but in the womb of human suffering. She asks us to imagine, to sing, and work to make it so. How can we keep from singing?
Please join me in this song of protest and hope. Sing out of the shadows so the holy can be born.
How Can I Keep From Singing? (traditional tune)
My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation;
I hear the real, though far-off hymn, that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear its music ringing;
it sounds an echo in my soul; how can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble in their fear and hear their death knell ringing,
when friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile our thoughts to them are winging,
when friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?
(music is credited to Baptist Minister Richard Lowry. Lyrics are anonymous.
Many have sung this song but perhaps the most haunting is Enya on her album Shepherd Moors.)
* Blood Rose by Palestinian artist Zena el-Kahalil
** Black and white by Palestinian artist Rahman-al-Muzayen