Phenomenal Cosmic Power, Itty Bitty Living Space
December 11, Third Sunday of Advent
by Sarah Brock
“My soul doth magnify the Lord.”
What?! What does that even mean?! How can Mary, or any human for that matter, possibly magnify a God who is infinite, transcendent?!
“For he that is mighty hath magnified me.”
Mary, ‘you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.’ [The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner (1987), DVD.]
If anything, isn’t it the opposite that is about to happen? Are we not waiting for the infinite, transcendent God of Abraham to be made smaller, more tangible, incarnate? In fact, there is a particular internet meme that always pops up about this time of year. The frame is filled with two side by side icons. The first, Jesus, illuminated from behind, sitting on a cloud resting his feet on a rainbow is captioned ‘Phenomenal Cosmic Power.’ The second icon of Mary depicted with baby Jesus in her womb is captioned ‘Itty Bitty Living Space.’ If you or a beloved child of yours grew up in the 90s, you probably recognize the quote from Genie in Disney’s Aladdin.
But, it isn’t just God that seems to become smaller and more limited in these circumstances. Doesn’t this pregnancy, separate from her betrothed, have far more potential to diminish Mary’s place in her family, her society, the world?
How can Mary possibly magnify God? How is this pregnancy magnifying Mary?
There is an old Jewish folktale about a man who goes out into the world in search of true justice. He believes that somewhere such a society must exist and he is determined to find it. After searching for many, many years he comes to a mysterious woods at the end of the known world. In the midst of the forest he finds a cottage, larger on the inside than it appears on the outside.
His eyes widened as he realized the cavernous expanse was filled with hundreds of shelves, holding thousands upon thousands of oil candles. Some of the candles sat in fine holders of marble and gold, while others sat in holders of clay or tin. Some were filled with oil so that the flames burned as brightly as the stars, while others had little oil left, and were beginning to grow dim.
The man felt a hand on his shoulder.
He turned to find an old man with a long, white beard, wearing a white robe, standing beside him.
“Shalom aleikhem, my son,” the old man said. “Peace be upon you.” “Aleikhem shalom,” the startled traveler responded.
“How can I help you?” the old man asked.
“I have traveled the world searching for justice,” he said, “but never have I
encountered a place like this. Tell me, what are all these candles for?”
The old man replied, “Each of these candles is a person’s soul. As long as a
person’s candle burns, he or she remains alive. But when a person’s candle burns out, the soul is taken away to leave this world.”
“Can you show me the candle of my soul?” the man asked.
“Follow me,” the old man replied, leading his guest through a labyrinth of rooms and shelves, passing row after row of candles.
After what seemed like a long time, they reached a small shelf that held a candle in a holder of clay.
“That is the candle of your soul,” the old man said.
Immediately a wave of fear rushed over the traveler, for the wick of the candle was short and the oil nearly dry. Was his life almost over? Did he have but moments to live?
He then noticed that the candle next to his had a long wick and a tin holder filled with oil. The flame burned brightly, like it could go on forever.
“Whose candle is that?” he asked.
But the old man had disappeared.
The traveler stood there trembling, terrified that his life might be cut short before he
found justice. He heard a sputtering sound and saw smoke rising from a higher shelf, signaling the death of someone else somewhere in the world. He looked at his own diminishing candle and then back at the candle next to his, burning so steady and bright. The old man was nowhere to be seen.
So the man picked up the brightly burning candle and lifted it above his own, ready to pour the oil from one holder to another.
Suddenly, he felt a strong grip on his arm.
“Is this the kind of justice you are seeking?” the old man asked.
The traveler closed his eyes in pain and when he opened them, the cottage and the
candles and the old man had all vanished. He stood in the dark forest alone. It is said that he could hear the trees whispering his fate.
He had searched for justice in the great wide world but never within himself. [2 A Year of Biblical Womanhood, “July: Justice”, Rachel Held Evans]
I suspect that many of us, if we’re really being honest, would have to admit we have much more in common with the man in this story than with Mary. I know well the experience of witnessing the death, destruction, and tragedy in the world and wondering, ‘where is God?’. Most recently, in witnessing the events at Standing Rock, I’ve frequently thought, ‘Where’s the President? Why isn’t he putting a stop to this?’. And, in the wake of last month’s election, seeing the stark division of the nation manifest in increased violence, “How could we let this happen? Why are these political figures not denouncing the cruelty being committed on their behalves?’. I’ve very clearly been searching for justice out in the world, and like the man, coming up empty handed.
However, while the man spends much of his life searching for justice in the world, Mary proclaims this beautiful song of God’s justice within her. This, I believe is what she means by ‘my soul doth magnify the Lord.’ She goes on to illustrate God’s justice in all of time.
- ‘His mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
- He hath showed strength with his arm;
- he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
- He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and
- hath exalted the humble and meek.
- He hath filled the hungry with good things,
- and the rich he hath sent empty away.’
Mary is beginning to understand that God’s promises for the future are coming to pass within her own body. She isn’t just preparing to birth God incarnate. She’s preparing to
birth God’s justice into the world. She’s preparing to magnify the Lord. And, Mary calls us to do the same.
Mary calls us to look for justice, first within ourselves. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds incredibly daunting and uncomfortable and a little scary. Mostly because I’m pretty sure I won’t like all of what I find there. But, we don’t have to go there alone! This is one of the glaring differences between Mary’s experience of seeking God’s justice and that of the man in the story. The man spends his life seeking justice alone. Mary finds God’s justice within herself in community. She sings the Magnificat to her sister-in-law Elizabeth. And, even unborn John the Baptist makes his presence known by leaping in Elizabeth’s womb.
It is in this spirit of community that I challenge you to join me in seeking justice within yourself during these last few weeks before Christmas. I challenge you to join me in paying closer attention to the ways each of us drains the oil from someone else’s candle. Perhaps by spending money on fast fashion, fast food, and other goods that are not sustainable or don’t provide living wages. Perhaps by spending too much time and energy indulging our own selfish desires and neglecting the people we meet each day. Perhaps by only using our talent to the benefit of those who are like us.
Mary’s is a song of revolution, literally of turning the priorities of the world upside down. This is the justice she birthed into the world all those years ago. This is the justice we can bear into this world if we only pay attention to what is already growing within us.
In the words of the wise, 13th century German mystic, Meister Eckart, “We are called to be mothers of God — for God is always waiting to be born.”
Go with me and seek God’s justice first within our selves, then unleash it on the world. May all our souls magnify the Lord.