When I was at junior school in the 1980s, the nuns decided that it would be best for us to learn the hymns that we would sing at assemblies and school Masses off by heart. I’m not sure why we were made to do this, but to this day I can still remember word for word a number of these hymns, but one that sticks particularly in my mind is Go tell everyone based on Luke’s Gospel, the chorus of which went:
He sent me to give the Good News to the poor
Tell prisoners that they are prisoners no more,
Tell blind people that they can see,
And set the downtrodden free.
And go tell ev’ryone the news that the kingdom of God has come,
And go tell ev’ryone the news that God’s kingdom God has come.
At the time, we didn’t realise what a radical message of hope that this was but being confident of God’s love for us (because the universally adored music teacher, Mrs Gregg, had told us that this was so), we sang this with great gusto and joy. Given that we were living in Thatcher’s Britain, a time and place about as far removed from the kingdom as you could get, this was no mean feat.
The third Sunday of Advent is commonly known as Gaudete Sunday and is celebrated to remind us that although this is a season of waiting, it is also a season of joyful anticipation of the birth of Jesus who came to set us free. But the world doesn’t feel very joyful at the moment and freedom, defined by Pope Francis as service to others, has been drowned out by individualism and consumerism. Globally a third-world war is being fought piecemeal, conflicts in Israel-Palestine, Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Haiti (the list could go on) and their attendant refugee crises show us how greed for power, money and revenge destroys lives and societies. When these wars are over, there will be no infrastructure for refuges to return to. Human rights violations are the norm in China. Right-wing populists are now gaining power in Europe and South America. In the UK, austerity has hit the poorest hardest and the structures of society that we once relied upon, such as the NHS, now feel as if they are crumbling. So where can we go to find the radical hope that this long-remembered hymn promises us?
The chorus of this hymn is based on Luke’s Gospel (4: 14-30). This is the Gospel in which we learn that radical hope is based upon joy and the freedom that a life of service to the poor, vulnerable and oppressed brings. This is the only Gospel that contains what Tom Wright calls ‘the gospel before the gospel’ – the Magnificat (Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, 2001, p. 14). Mary who has shown great bravery in following God’s will seeks sanctuary with her cousin Elizabeth, where John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb thereby recognising Jesus’s divinity (Luke 1: 41). The song that Mary recites immediately after this is one of great joy and triumph – an exultation of the promise that awaits us in the heavenly kingdom but also of what could be if we were to follow the teachings of Christ.
What does this Canticle teach us? Through the Magnificat, Mary outlines for us Christ’s mission and demonstrates that we have a role to play in its fulfilment. We are taught what God will do for us, if we take up his offer of freedom by serving others. The mighty will be cast down and the lowly exhalated. This is the good news that Jesus brought and asks us to continually work for. The poet, Carolyn Whitnall, in her poem- prayer “This House” sums up Jesus’s role in this perfectly.
Oh come, oh come Emmanuel, and hurl
Our order into holy disarray:
Upend the tables where we wheel and deal.
And scatter our accrued prosperity.
Awake us, dancer on the dancing deep.
From placid slumber; rock the boat. Disturb
The peace that we content ourselves to keep.
And make us see the chaos that we transfer.
Confound our clarity, cut short our too long
Prayers, take back the narrative and heckle
Sermons preached to itching ears. Through down
Each stone in every separating wall.
Do what you’re here to do … but come what may,
Rebuild the ruins of us, please – and stay.
But we too must play our parts. We need approach the reordering of society with imagination inspired by the Magnificat and create a world worthy of Christ’s incarnation. That radical hope can only be achieved, as Carolyn’s words show us, in partnership with God. A God, who in his mercy wants to reorder society remaking it in the image of the Christ-child born in a manger yet recognised by those who saw him as a messenger of joy and freedom – as the Liberator.
Dr Maria Power, FRHistS, is Research Fellow at Blackfriars, University of Oxford. She is the Director of the Human Dignity Project at Las Casas Institute for Social Justice. In June 2019, she was a Holland Visiting Fellow at the University of Durham. In 2017 she was appointed as a Visiting Fellow at the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University as well as being awarded membership of the Catholic Theological Association.