What shall we magnify?
December 7, 2021
I listened recently to a 2019 interview with psychotherapist and author Esther Perel, featured on American Public Media’s “On Being” with Krista Tippett. Perel’s work focuses on relationships through the lens of eroticism and aliveness, and she and Tippett were considering contemporary experiences of loneliness, especially in the context of relationships or communities we presume to be spaces of intimate connection.
Perel described speaking before live audiences and asking of those gathered, “How many of you go to bed, and the last thing you touch is your phone? Okay, stand up. And how many of you, the first thing you stroke in the morning when you wake up is your phone? Please stand up. And how many of you are doing this while there actually is another person lying next to you in bed?” If I were in that audience, I would be guiltily standing up. This is true for me more often than I’d like to admit.
Beginning and ending the day connected with the outside, virtual world instead of my inner reality, or intentionally focused on God’s ultimate reality, has challenges beyond loneliness. Much of the content I absorb in these transition moments between day and night, night and day, is news—typically fear-based, “the sky is falling,” devastating news.
Central to Perel’s work is the notion that people cannot birth and release love when they are consumed with concerns about survival. While I pick up my phone with the intention of connection—with family, with friends, with knowledge of the world as someone who desires to be a responsible citizen—how often does the cycle of news…fear…disconnection take over?
Imagine for a moment the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth and the Magnificat—Mary’s song—rewritten through the lens of the anxiety that surrounds and consumes so many of us:
Would Elizabeth have said, “When I saw you, the child in my womb leapt in terror!”?
Would Mary have proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the worst of humanity, and my spirit trembles with a sense of impending doom!”?
It doesn’t have quite the same ring of the passage in Luke 1 we are accustomed to hearing in Advent, does it?
Amid bleak and uncertain reality, how could Elizabeth experience an inner surge of joy? How could Mary sing of her soul magnifying the glories of God—of a divine power who had done great things for her and for humanity? I imagine that the rituals of their religious tradition, intentionally enacted through storytelling, singing, and Shabbat, placed the realities of the world in a greater context, affirming the presence of the Divine, their identity as a chosen community, and the promise of their future.
The reality for these two women was in many ways bleak and uncertain. Elizabeth was an old woman, pregnant and potentially without capacity to safely birth or care for her child; Mary was a young woman, carrying a child under questionable circumstances and likely fearful of how her community would respond. Poverty would have been a reality among their people, and news of the violence enacted by corrupt rulers would have spread person to person on a daily basis, even without Facebook posts or tweets.
Given their reality, how could Elizabeth experience an inner surge of joy?
How could Mary sing of her soul magnifying the glories of God—of a divine power who had done great things for her and for humanity?
I imagine that the rituals of their religious tradition, intentionally enacted through storytelling, singing, and Shabbat, placed the realities of the world in a greater context, affirming the presence of the Divine, their identity as a chosen community, and the promise of their future.
My children, now young adults, love Advent and Christmas. I used to suspect this was largely about the prospect of giving and receiving gifts. What if, in addition to this, their love is sparked by the storytelling that emerges in this special season, both in worship and at home? What if their longing for Christmas is a longing for the smell of peppermint wafting through the house as I bake “candy cane rolls” in memory of the grandmother they never met but somehow know in their spirits? What if the carols we sing year after year suggest trustworthiness, constancy, and reliability in an often turbulent world? What if the ritual of gathering with family, both in person and on Zoom, lets them know to whom and with whom they belong? What if intentionally enacting Christmas reminds them that they are known, loved and deeply desired, even and especially in an often lonely world? Given this, who wouldn’t choose to sing? Who would magnify anything but the glory of God?
The rituals of this special season are powerful and evocative, in part because it is a time “set apart.” Like the glitter that lingers from cards sent and received, or the tinsel that we can never completely remove from the Christmas tree, the rituals of Advent and Christmas can persist in our daily living, though. Telling stories, remembering loved ones, affirming who and whose we are.
My hand still slides toward my phone on many a morning or night, but since listening to the podcast, I intentionally ensure it is not my first or final point of contact. I make sure to slide my finger along the bare back of my beloved. I look toward the sun’s light as it emerges through our bedroom window. I smile as our dogs sigh deeply in sleep. I truly notice the comfort of having a bed to sleep in, a safe home to live in, a trustworthy faith to rest my cares in. And I sing.
What will your soul magnify today?
Jennifer Sanborn is a teaching fellow in American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ Center for Continuous Learning.