I love Mary’s Magnificat. Bach’s setting is a particular favorite, though one might ponder how the short song of a “humble servant of God” ends up as a glorious half hour piece with orchestra, choir and soloists. We might also ponder how this song of a teenage girl gets set to music by so many male composers. Or the way this song of revolution gets edited so that “the mighty deposed from their thrones and the lowly raised to high places” ends up on the cutting room floor.
Several weeks ago these would have been my ponderings. And then I met a contemporary singer of the Magnificat, a woman who lives with faith that what Mary sings is true, no matter how impossible it sounds. Antonia preached here on the first Sunday of advent. Her Magnificat rings loud and strong.
The Magnificat is a song of hope and promise sung by the powerless. Mary states, matter-of-factly, that she is a humble, lowly, servant of God. And yet, it seems she sees the power in being small.
Mary learned her song from her ancestors, Miriam and Hannah, handed down by women in the tradition. Now Antonia teaches the song, through her life and commitments.
Antonia is a single mother of four, three of whom are Dreamers and DACA recipients. Originally from south of the US, Antonia and her family now live in the midwest. For more than 16 years she has been working for immigration reform with an organization she founded. When she is not organizing her friends, fellow church members and neighbors for immigration reform, Antonia is a house cleaner.
During the last week of November, Antonia and 50 others from her organization came to DC to talk to their Congress members about the Dream Act. They explained to me the plan for her to remain and fast at the Capitol while the rest of her group went home. When I asked where she would stay in DC, she basically said, “God will provide.”
I tried to have Antonia’s confident faith as I wrote emails to introduce her to folks in the local faith community. Pastors and faithful activists get so many emails asking for help. Would anyone respond? Of course God did provide, more than adequate housing for two weeks; Antonia wasn’t more than two days into her fast when people began stopping by to see her, saying they had heard about her. Social media, the new gossip, it works.
Antonia’s song comes from her deep faith and her fierce love for her children, and all children. Her love and faith compel her to do what it takes to keep her family – and other families threatened by deportation – together. But her vision for keeping her family together was strange, even irrational, to me: sit at the edge of the capitol grounds, for 12 days, praying, fasting and talking to people. Mary, Antonia: humble servants of God, living into and claiming their weakness.
Mary does not sing her song alone. She sings for Elizabeth. She sings with Elizabeth, this song passed down among women of faith. Mary and Elizabeth are Jewish women in an occupied country, both improbably pregnant. And yet Mary sings her song, claiming her humility as empowering in God’s eyes. Together Mary and Elizabeth trust that even in the weakness of flesh, a mysterious power works through them as they stand together.
Antonia does not sing her song alone either. For most of the past month thousands of people, from all over the country, who are affected by the repeal of DACA, have been in DC to talk to members of Congress. This new generation of civil rights advocates and activists put their vulnerable bodies on the line, shouting “Undocumented! Unafraid!” They occupied congress – offices, tunnels, cafeterias, and even the restrooms, risking arrest for civil disobedience even while desperately wanting to avoid detention and deportation.
During the days of her fast, Antonia stayed at her prayer table near the Capitol. It held a 2 1/2 foot tall cross, a large picture of her family, and several signs. People often stopped to ask her questions: Why are fasting? Are you okay today without food? Can we take your picture? She always told people the story of her family and asked them to join her in working for the Dream Act.
Part of living into Mary’s song, being a humble servant of God, means being vulnerable and trusting that God will work it out. For those who perceive themselves as powerful, it can be hard to ask for help but Antonia was practiced at inviting others to assist her. I was with Antonia one afternoon at her prayer table and she said, “We should take a picture.” Simple enough but she wanted someone else to take the picture. “Someone will walk by and we will ask them.” Soon a man came toward us on the sidewalk. I would not have dared to ask this middle aged man in a suit to take a picture. But Antonia, several days into her fast, had shed any fear she might have had.
Antonia called out, “Will you take our picture?” The man looked at the signs, the cross, the family picture and he said, “I support you, I support your cause.” And then in a mixture of English and Spanish he said, “Yes, I will take your picture. Can I get a picture with you as well? I am a member.” I remember thinking, “A member? A member of what? Is there membership in this movement?” Then he said, “I am a member of congress.” And he stuck out his hand, “Vincente Gonzalez, District 15, Texas.” This was not the only time that patient, humility paid off. Antonia met other members of congress and their aides this way as well.
Antonia finished her 12 day fast on Dec 15. She got a ride back home to Minnesota and was reunited with her family for two days. Then she got on a bus, this time with two of her daughters and fifty more people from her organization and came back to DC. This week I saw her picture on Facebook, arm in arm with Senator Elizabeth Warren. “How did you manage that? Elizabeth Warren is a rock star.” Antonia said, “I am small, I can cross the security line; no one notices me.”
But of course people do notice her. Daniel, a Dreamer from Chicago, read on social media that Antonia was planning to fast at the Capitol. He didn’t know anyone in DC but inspired by Antonia’s determination, he came to DC to join her in fasting. Daniel stayed with Antonia at her table during the day and lodging became available to him for more than two weeks. (God provides.)
Living with this kind of uncertainty and vulnerability makes me uncomfortable. As a white feminist I have been taught to claim my power. Mary and Antonia’s approach, claiming weakness as strength, seems downright ridiculous. But when the power the world gives and understands isn’t an option, you learn to work with other people to turn vulnerability into an asset.
It was a peculiar privilege to witness Antonia use her vulnerability as power. While it may look simple and seat of the pants, claiming vulnerability as power takes practice and planning, a lot of faith and at least the seeds of confidence that God can make it happen. Jesus’ words, “Ask and you shall receive, knock and the door will be opened to you,” reverberate.
Antonia asked and she received. Companions appeared who sat with her, prayed with her; they amplified and spread her message. One faithful new friend, rode his bike through the snow with a Coleman stove, kettles and homemade vegetable soup in his bike crate, to provide food to break the fast. December 15 was a snowy dark evening, and Antonia broke her fast on the Capitol grounds with an ecumenical, international group of over 20 people who prayed and shared soup with her. She was not alone.
And —— Mary and Antonia’s use of vulnerability as a tool for change is not appropriate in every situation. We are called to life in its fullness and I saw how Antonia was filled even as she fasted. But, for example, victims and survivors of domestic violence where isolation and violence are part of the abuse, making oneself weaker, more vulnerable is not the solution. Reaching out for self preservation in whatever way possible is paramount. If one wants to be part of the coming generations that Mary sings of, offering oneself up in vulnerable humility is a very tricky choice. Those who live in tenuous, “humble” situations must make this choice for themselves, in consultation with others. It is to be chosen not forced.
We wait and we watch for the coming of the Christ. We wonder when “the mighty will be deposed and the lowly raised up.” When will “the hungry will be filled and the rich sent away empty.”
Mary’s revolutionary song resonates just as she said it would. All over the world there are Marys with the Magnificat on their lips. Faithful Marys hoping and praying and singing and living impossible visions into reality. We are invited to join in. May it be so.