by Susan Sparks—
Growing up in the south, I learned many important lessons: The word “hey” has a minimum of 19 syllables. Okra can be a side dish, an entree or a dessert. And you must always, always write a thank-you note. No matter what the gift.
My first year out of law school, a cousin with a unique sense of humor gave me a Christmas gift: a toilet paper dispenser that played the song “Deck the Halls.”
I wanted to say, “I didn’t ask for this. This was not on my list.” Instead I wrote a thank-you note: “Oh, my word, thank you so much for the TP dispenser that plays ‘Deck the Halls’! It was so gracious and thoughtful. You shouldn’t have.”
I’d been taught to be thankful for everything, no matter what it was. Not a bad lesson in life. Especially when it comes to prayer.
Many prayers start out like that—like a big ol’ thank-you note to God. Most of us do pretty well with that when it comes to things like friendships, family, health, puppies.
But we typically don’t do as well thanking God for those things we don’t want, those gifts we didn’t ask for. Things like a toilet paper dispenser that plays “Deck the Halls.” Or:
A relationship conflict.
A diagnosis that contains the word “cancer.”
Things that make you want to say, “Um, I didn’t ask for this… I don’t want it… This was not on my list.”
A MAGNIFICENT PRAYER OF THANKS
You know who else must have been very tempted to say those exact words? Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The angel Gabriel shows up and tells Mary that she, an unwed teenager, will become pregnant and give birth—in a barn—to the Messiah.
If ever there was a time for someone to say, “Um, I didn’t ask for this… I don’t want it… This was not on my list…,” this was it.
But Mary doesn’t even blink. She hears the news, and instead of getting mad or scared—or just flat-out saying “No”—Mary gives thanks!
And not just a perfunctory thank-you note. In her stunning, prayerful song, Mary in essence says: “Thank you so much for making me the mother of the Savior of the world! It was so gracious and thoughtful! You shouldn’t have!”
This beautiful thank-you note is called the Magnificat (Latin for “magnify”).
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God
my Savior, …
for the Mighty One has done
great things for me,
and holy is his name.
(Luke 1:46-47, 49)
These words have inspired philosophers, writers, spiritual seekers and artists for centuries. Monteverdi and Rachmaninoff and Verdi and Bach composed beautiful music around the Magnificat. Botticelli painted the Madonna of the Magnificat. It’s an inspirational song of thanksgiving. But it’s more than that.
A SUBVERSIVE SONG OF HOPE
The Magnificat is also a fiery song about hope and destiny, about justice and righteousness. The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred under the Nazi regime in 1945, explained it this way:
The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. — Advent Sermon, 1993, from The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Fortress, 2012).
Just listen to Mary:
He has brought down the
powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with
and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53)
Could there be a message more appropriate to our time?
A time when the gap between rich and poor is beyond shameful.
A time when 1% of U.S. citizens control $30 trillion of assets while 40% of Americans literally cannot pay their bills.
Let me offer another bit of Magnificat trivia: The song of Mary, with its proclamation of God’s special concern for the poor, has been considered so subversive and revolutionary that it was banned by many countries.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the governments of Guatemala, Chile and Argentina banned any public recitation of it.
It was also banned in India during British rule for fear it might incite a revolution. And it stayed that way until the last day of British rule in 1947, when Mahatma Gandhi (who was not a Christian) requested that Mary’s song be read in all places where the British flag was being lowered.
A POWERFUL PRAYER ABOUT TRANSFORMATION
This is not just a little thank-you note to God. This is a warrior’s song. This is about transforming fear into power. And it’s a formula we can follow.
Both Mary’s story and her song offer two steps for transformation:
1. Acknowledge and give thanks for where you are (good or bad, happy or sad). Just the act of being grateful holds transformative power. And we don’t just see the power of thanksgiving with Mary. We see it in Dr. Seuss’ Whoville in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, when the Whos learn that all their Christmas decorations, gifts and feasts have been stolen by the Grinch. When the Whos get up Christmas morning and find their houses bare, they don’t cry or get mad or bemoan their loss.
They sing. They acknowledge their loss and give thanks anyway.
Siblings in Christ, there is always something to be thankful for, if for no other reason than the fact that God loves you and that love is a light in your heart—a light of eternal Christmas that will never go out.
As even the Grinch finally figures out, “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
The act of giving thanks—in other words, the act of claiming joy—in any circumstance is transformative. And in giving thanks, we find the power to take step #2.
2. Use where you are, wherever you find yourself. Take the fear… the anger… the joy… the pain… or whatever you are experiencing, and use it.
If you are joyful, use that energy to transform the world of others who are in pain.
If you are in pain, fear or anger, use that energy to make things different.
Augustine of Hippo said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
Mary does this. She acknowledges where she is and gives thanks. Then she uses her fear, tapping into its power to march forward and give birth to something great.
The Rev. Susan Sparks is a trial lawyer turned preacher, stand-up comedian and author.