During the tyrannical reign of King Herod the Great, two marginalized women and their song of praise, tenacity, and promise set the context for the Advent season in Luke’s gospel. Mary and Elizabeth, two expectant mothers, one young and unwed and
the other barren from nearly eighty-eight years, encourage each other amid a patriarchal, politically charged, and violent world. In Luke’s account, the two women, descendants of oppressed and resilient people, are vocal and persistent in a world where women of color should remain silent. Luke subverts tradition and places Mary and Elizabeth in the center of the story instead of relegating them to the background; behind the great men, they are to conceive. In Luke’s account, the women have agency and voice. They are vulnerable, bold, unbent, and unshaken. When the angel visits Mary(Luke 1: 26 – 38) to reveal she would bear the son of promise, who has come to set the captives free, she has the choice to do so, as noted in her response “Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Luke’s foretelling of John, the Baptist, and Jesus’s births shatter traditional expectations and categories. The women exercise body autonomy and agency at a time when women and persecuted people are subjugated and devalued.
When Mary visits Elizabeth, what comes from this shared sisterhood is a beautiful and prophetic melody that theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes as “the most passionate…revolutionary hymn ever sung.” The hymn begins with the women gathering and praising God and rejoicing in God’s goodness. Then, the song (offered below) takes a radical rhythmic bold turn to redress the historical and systemic wrongs done to their people.
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 forever.
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
This advent account is not just about gratitude and praise to God for the birth of Jesus, and eschatological hope and fulfilled promise. This account is also about the power that lies in each of us to subvert and push back against cultural norms and policies that seek to threaten our very existence and to live each day unbent, in awareness of our right to a full life here on earth. Mary, Elizabeth, and their sons are the Magnificat. Being silenced, harmed, mistreated, or enslaved was not intended for God’s people. They, too, have a right to the tree of life and the fruits of their labors.
Mary’s song reminds America of its breach of God’s promise and crimes against Black-bodied people. The enslavement of nearly four million Black women, men, and children, to help forge this young nation into being and enrich institutions, corporations, families, and individuals for generations to come is one of the most significant breaches in human history. This breach cannot simply be addressed by acknowledgement. As my Howard University colleague Dr. Hopson, Associate Professor of Psychology and Pastoral Care insists, “the breach must be redressed, not just addressed. The breach must be redressed: the lowly lifted, the hungry filled, reparations.”
The process of undoing the crime is made clear by the United Nations in its outlining of five conditions for full reparations:
- A state’s cessation, assurance, and guarantee of non-repetition of crimes committed against its people.
- Restitution and repatriation.
- Compensation for damages in proportion to the gravity of the violation and circumstance.
- Satisfaction, which includes moral damage or public apology.
- Rehabilitation, inclusive of legal, medical, and psychological care and services.
The United Nations provides the blueprint, and Mary’s song, shared by two women of color thousands of years ago, is a prophetic witness and invitation to make things right.
 Elizabeth gives birth to Yahyā (Hebrew name; English transliteration, John the Baptist) and Mary, conceives Yeshua (Hebrew name; transliteration in Greek, Joshua [Iesous], and English, Jesus)
- What does Mary’s song mean to you?
- If you were to create a song to redress the wrongs done to Black people in America, what would be included in that song?
- What would be the title of your song of reparation?
DR. RENEE k. HARRISON
Meet the Author
Renee K. Harrison is a tenured Associate Professor of African American and U.S. Religious History at the Howard University School of Divinity (HUSD). She earned her Ph.D. from Emory University, (Atlanta, GA) in Religion with an interdisciplinary focus on History, Philosophy, and African American and Feminist/Womanist Studies.
Dr. Harrison is the author of Black Hands, White House: Slave Labor and the Making of America (Fortress Press, 2021). Black Hands focuses on the pivotal role enslaved Black people played in building this nation and questions the absence of a monument on the National Mall honoring the work of their hands. Dr. Harrison is also the author of Enslaved Women and the Art of Resistance in Antebellum America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and Engaged Teaching in Theology and Religion (co-authored with Jennie Knight, UVA (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
Dr. Harrison is a native of Los Angeles, CA and a former 11-year Los Angeles Police Officer as well as former Executive Director of A Leap of Faith Productions, a non-profit community-based theatre company in Los Angeles. She is an artist, poet, and playwright. Her latest stage production, A Requiem for Black Bodies, which focuses on historical and present-day killings of Black people, has been showcased throughout DC. Dr. Harrison is an avid Shonda Rhimes and Serena Williams fan. She enjoys tennis, interior design, cycling on the beach, and reading and researching hidden histories.