My sermon for this week was based on Luke 1: 39-56.
Karl Marx famously said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses". This is, of course, not a compliment. Opiates numb you, dull you, make you more passive, pliable and easy to control.
I wish I could say that Marx was wrong about religion, but he was not. Historically, just about every organized religion I can think of has indeed served as a system of control, a system to disseminate ignorance and a system to perpetuate the stratification of society. This is particularly true and evident of my own religion, Christianity.
This is hideously ironic to me given that when Christianity (and indeed most religious movements) started out, it was profoundly rebellious, revolutionary and counter-cultural.
Don't believe me? Well, check out Mary's song of celebration, now known as The Magnificat, in today's Gospel passage. Click here to hear her song as we know it today.
Before I even address the text of her song, let's pause to realize first of all that the first true prophets of the New Testament are women. This in and of itself is seditious. In Biblical times, the status of women was abysmal compared to our own time. Women were only a notch above being slaves. They could be bought, sold, bartered, divorced and left destitute on a whim, they could not own property, earn money, etc, etc.
Briefly: compared to men, they were inferior at best, subhuman at worst.
And yet the first people with whom God shares his message in the NT are women. Mary and Elizabeth learn they are to bear the Messiah and his prophet respectively.
Another thing we have to remember about Mary is that she was a case of unwed teenage pregnancy, at least in the eyes of society. Whatever you believe about the Immaculate Conception, you have to realize that the majority of their friends and neighbours were probably didn't buy her story of having been visited by an angel.
The point is that above and beyond being reviled for being a woman, Mary would have also been reviled for being an adulteress.
When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, they share a moment when Jesus and John seem to recognize one another in utero. This moves Mary to sing a song, and far from being the holy, peaceful, reflective and meditative song that we are familiar with today, it was a rock song. It was punk. It was a protest song. It was an anthem of rebellion: "He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart. 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".
These are profoundly seditious statements, right up there with John Lennon's Imagine and Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changing.
Her song describes a dramatic upheaval of society, a fight-the-power, f***-the-man, power-to-the-people vision that flew then and still flies today in the face of everything our culture and society tells us: you need money, you need power, you need to be important, you need to be king of the mountain to feel good about yourself.
Her song would have resonated deeply with the underprivileged, the poor, the needy and the hopeless. It spoke of a frustrated awareness of the way things were and a new vision of the way things should be.
Religion in general and Christianity in particular were always meant to help us hold a mirror up to ourselves and in society, to discover what was immoral, unjust and unethical there and to motivate us to do something about it. It was meant to shake things up and stir up some s***.
Sadly, the fundamentally rebellious, revolutionary and counter-cultural roots of Christianity are often forgotten against the backdrop of the monolithic status and miserable human rights record the Christian religion has amassed.
Christmas, which should be a celebration of brotherly and sisterly love, kindness and generosity has become a farcical parade of consumerism and materialism. It is fair to say that Christianity and Christmas have largely become those very things that they set out to overturn.
Even more sadly, the majority of Christians forget the rebellious call of fundamental Biblical texts like The Magnificat and The Beatitudes.
Please understand I am not talking about armed rebellion, violence or anything like that. Mary and her son after her were calling for a revolution within our own hearts. They were calling us to rebel against materialism and selfishness that keep us from loving ourselves, living our neighbour, loving God and living a full life. They were calling for us to revolt peacefully against war, justly against injustice, lovingly against hatred.
This Christmas, I hope that we all have the courage to join that rebellion.