Kingdom or Empire: A Reflection on the Magnificat

by Philip Maikkula, St. Vladimir’s Seminary

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

My guess is that most of us are so accustomed to hearing the beautiful words of the Magnificat that we fail to actually hear them. This is sad, not only because the Magnificat is the only Biblical ode that is still widely sung and heard in the canon of matins, but also, because we miss the profound Gospel proclamation found on the lips of the Mother of God.

Do we truly have ears to hear that Gospel?

I wonder if our Lady’s Gospel words are too radical, her Gospel message too challenging for us to hear. Her Gospel words overturn our comfortable reality, because her words are a proclamation of Gospel (good news) for the weak and the poor. Her Gospel words are an outright rejection of the status quo.

Picking up in the middle of her song she says,

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. (Luke 1:51-53 NRSV)

Notice that it is the proud, powerful, and rich who are brought down and left empty, while the lowly and hungry are exalted and filled. Mary’s words are a fitting response to the promise of the Archangel Gabriel who said of Jesus that…

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32-33 NRSV)

Jesus, whose name means “Yahweh, save,” will be called the son of God, the son of David. He will restore the Davidic kingdom and reign as the Messianic King. Therefore, it is clear to the Theotokos that this announcement of salvation will result in overturning the social and political powers of the world, rendering in return deliverance for the people of Israel.

The Empire of Caesar:

As radical as these words are, they are more radical in the context of the first century. If we heard them in the context of imperial cult of the Greco-Roman world we would be even more shocked. For in the imperial cult of the Greco-Roman world, Caesar Augustus the Roman emperor from 27 BC till 14 AD, was called “son of God,” “the savior of the whole world,” the bringer of universal peace (Pax Romana), and his birth was celebrated as the gospel (good news – euangelion) of the new beginning of the world.

Yet, as we can see in the announcement of the Gospel to Mary, Jesus radically overturns the imperial claims of the Roman Empire. It is Jesus, not Caesar, who is the true Son of God. It is Jesus, not Caesar, who is the true savior of the world. It is Jesus, not Caesar, who truly brings “peace on earth,” as the heavenly host of Angels proclaim. It is Jesus’ birth, not Caesar’s, which is gospel (good news – euangelion) for the world.

What can’t be missed in the Magnificat and the narrative of Jesus’ birth is that it is a radical challenge to the status quo. It is a radical challenge to the ruling empire. It is a radical challenge to worldly power. God’s reign has begun in the birth of Jesus and the kingdoms of the world must take notice.

Modern Empire?

The difficult thing in hearing the radical words of the Gospel is that we too live in an empire. It is not the Roman empire of the Caesar Augustus, yet its claim to power, wealth, and peace are no less real. We live in an empire which attempts to bring peace through superior firepower, bragging of dropping “The Mother of All Bombs,” the largest non-nuclear ordnance ever used; We live in an empire where we look to Presidents as saviors who will bring “hope and change” or will “make America great again;” We live in the wealthiest empire in the history of the world and yet the marginalized and the poor go unnoticed and forgotten.

So when we hear the Gospel, we must ask ourselves…
Which kingdom do we belong to?
Which son of God do we serve?
Who do we call Lord?
Where do we look for peace?
What is our good news?

I’m afraid that for most of us, myself included, it’s easy to give lip service to Christ as Lord and yet still live as if the empires of this world have dominion. So what can we do?

Repentance?

Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” declares John the Baptist (Luke 3:7).

Repentance is the key way we can start to live in the Kingdom of God rather than the empires of this world. And it is important to note that repentance is not merely a psychological feeling that we might have. Repentance must bear fruit.

That is why John tells the crowd,

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)

That is why John tells the tax collectors,

Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:13)

That is why John tells the soldiers,

Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:14).

No matter where we finds ourselves living in the empire, John offers us a means of bearing fruit worthy of repentance. Rather than hoarding our goods, John prescribes radical charity. Rather than exploiting others, John prescribes economic justice. Rather than utilizing power and fear to gain our desires, John prescribes contentment.

As John shows, it is through repentance that we too
like the crowd,
like the tax collectors,
like the soldiers
can live in the Kingdom of God rather than the empires of this world.