Here in the U.S., Monday is Memorial Day: a day for remembering and honoring the deaths of soldiers, sailors, and pilots who fought for freedom. It is good, and right, that we do so. If you are a veteran, or if you are mourning today for a beloved veteran, thank you and God bless you for sacrificially following your calling.
But it is also right for us to remember that, in the Christian calendar, Tuesday May 31 is the Visitation of Mary, expectant mother of Jesus, to Elizabeth her cousin–also pregnant with her son, John the Baptist. The Visitation is a celebration of God’s gift of new life. It is also the occasion for Luke’s Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), often called the Magnificat after its opening in Latin, Magnificat anima mea Dominum (in the KJV, “My soul doth magnify the Lord”). Here is the whole song, from the Common English Bible:
With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.
The Magnificat (the Presbyterian hymnal has a lovely and vigorous setting of this passage!) draws freely in style and imagery on the Song of Hannah, mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10), although Hannah’s song is a bit more specific as to how God intends to upend the seats of the powerful:
The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,
but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! (1 Samuel 2:4).
The notion of God shattering the weapons of war speaks powerfully to me after these last two weeks. First, a racist massacre at a Tops Grocery store in Buffalo, New York, perpetrated by an 18-year-old white nationalist who “wore body armor, tactical gear and a helmet, officials said, and carried a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic rifle, modified to hold high-capacity magazines.” Then, another racially-motivated attack at a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods, California, carried out by a Chinese man armed with two handguns. Now, this week, yet another horrific school shooting: 19 elementary school children and two adults gunned down for no apparent reason in Uvalde, Texas by an 18-year-old armed with an AR-15 assault rifle. The same weapon was used nearly ten years ago when another gunman massacred 26 people, including 20 first-graders, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Since then, there have been over 900 school shootings: Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida; Santa Fe High School in Texas; Oxford High School in Michigan; and FAR too many more.
Meanwhile, also this week in Texas, the National Rifle Association convention continued unimpeded by these tragedies.
One by one, the gun rights activists and politicians who showed up at the National Rifle Association convention on Friday said they were appalled, horrified and shaken by the massacre of 19 children and two adults a few days earlier in Uvalde, Texas.
One by one, they then rejected any suggestion that gun control measures were needed to stop mass shootings. They blamed the atrocities on factors that had nothing to do with firearms — the breakdown of the American family, untreated mental illness, bullying on social media, violent video games and the inexplicable existence of ‘evil.’
Above all, they sought to divert pressure to support popular overhauls like expanded background checks by seizing on the issue of school safety, amid reports that the gunman in Uvalde gained easy access to Robb Elementary School through an unguarded door.
Former President Donald J. Trump, speaking at the event’s keynote session late Friday, called for “impenetrable security at every school all across our land,” adding that “schools should be the single hardest target.”
The milling cops outside the school are a strong reply to those who say the solution to mass shootings is to have more people with guns in our schools and churches, our concert venues and grocery stores. Judging from the videos posted to social media by confounded onlookers, there was no shortage of guns in Uvalde — only a shortage of officers willing to run inside and attempt to shoot a young man who was shooting back at them. “If they proceeded any further not knowing where the suspect was at, they could’ve been shot,” Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Chris Olivarez explained on CNN. “They could’ve been killed.” Realistically, how confident can we be that schoolteachers, lunchroom cooks, church ushers or produce stockers will be any better prepared to draw down and do battle than those trained professionals in Uvalde?
“Thoughts and prayers” should be heard for what it is – “thoughtless prayers.” You want to address the Divine in prayer? Good! But don’t be so thoughtless as to think the Divine has not already addressed you back. Though it is not without irony, I can assure you – as both a pastor and a Christian – that it is possible to use prayer as a way of ignoring God; to keep talking to the Divine so that you aren’t burdened with having to listen in response.
We must be willing to put feet and hands to our prayers–to be a part of God’s solution. And God’s solution, friends, is right there in the Magnificat. Our God is a God who takes sides, with the powerless against the powerful, with the oppressed against the oppressor, with the victims, and against the guns. As Hannah knew, our God’s intent is to shatter the weapons of the warriors. On this Memorial Day weekend, perhaps we can resolve at least to keep weapons of war on the battlefield where they belong, and out of our schools, churches, and grocery stores.
The statue that I have used to represent Mary and Elizabeth’s encounter is “Two Women” (ca. 1950-1960), by Charles LePlae. It stands outside the Openluchtmuseum voor Beeldhouwkunst Middelheim (Antwerp, Belgium). I found this image in Vanderbilt Library’s wonderful online resource “Art in the Christian Tradition,” which is linked to the lectionary. Also from that lectionary site comes this beautiful prayer for the Visitation of Mary: