Rachel Miller Jacobs is assistant professor of congregational formation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS). She practices Sabbath in fits and starts in Goshen, Indiana.
Many Christians read Mary’s song (Luke 1:46–55) on the fourth Sunday of Advent, right before Christmas. And as we read, we try to figure out who we are. Are we the mighty who will be brought down from thrones? The rich who will be sent away empty? Or are we the lowly being lifted up and the hungry being filled with good things? It’s so easy to assume that it has to be one or the other, especially in these days of over-the-top polarization. Everyone is either righteous or unrighteous, good or bad, right or wrong, hungry or full, right? Isn’t that the way it is and always has been?
Since at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) our semester is over before Christmas, we read the Magnificat in chapel a couple of weeks ahead of its usual place in Advent. When the worship leader invited us to put the words or phrases that stuck out to us in the chat, one person wrote, “I’m both full and hungry.”
Though I confess I’ve tended to understand the Magnificat in a way that undergirds binary thinking, I’m becoming convinced that the good news, the gospel, recognizes that a simple reversal of who’s in a position of power and privilege leaves unjust systems intact.
But what Mary has in mind in the Magnificat, what Jesus learned at her knee, is revolution, not substitution.
This revolution is both systemic and personal, both communal and individual, both external and internal. Just as an essential part of spiritual formation is right action, an essential part of systemic revolution is the smaller scale revolution we often call spiritual formation. This year, my spiritual formation has involved recognizing that I am both full and hungry.
I am a person of privilege. I have never been more aware of my undeserved good fortune than I have this year: I am in good health, have a comfortable home, never lack for food, am a member of a congregation that supports me, have financial stability, a job that I love, and family in similar circumstances. I don’t have to look beyond my own neighborhood or the AMBS community to know that there is no reason I should have any of these things while others lack some or all of them. I am full.
I also have to tell you that 2020 has kicked my butt. I am full . . . and empty. In the last nine months, I’ve struggled with loneliness, anxiety, and fear. I’ve desperately missed in-person singing, hanging out with the kids at church, and having people over for meals. I’ve felt crushed by a news cycle dominated by injustice and corruption. While the pandemic has deprived some people of jobs; for others (my husband and me included) the work has ballooned and the boundaries between work and not-work have become increasingly fuzzy. I don’t remember when I have last been so consistently, persistently weary.
Part way through the fall semester I realized that I was not doing well. I had to make myself do more and more things, and I was getting less and less successful at making myself do anything. I desperately needed rest even though my to-do list was a mile high. I thought long and hard about whether it was responsible to take several days away, since this would put me even further behind than I already was.
After consulting with a colleague, I sent all my students an email. I told them that I was profoundly tired and that I was giving myself an “extension” on my work as their professor since in our current distribution of power I couldn’t really ask them for one. I admitted that it was hard for me to let myself off the hook for not meeting deadlines. Yet I wanted to be honest with them rather than taking time off while pretending to work diligently or acting as if we didn’t both know that I was way, way behind.
The responses I received were gifts of gentleness, generosity, and grace. Many sent prayers and blessings. One wrote: “I have no authority, but extension granted.” Another wrote, “Thank you for your honesty and transparency. This type of email is exactly why I want to be at a place like AMBS.” A third wrote, “When we share that we can’t do it all, it gives everyone else permission to be gentle with themselves, and it starts to chip away at the unrealistic expectation that we are machines.” The solace of these responses was a balm to my weary soul as much as sleep was to my weary body.
In a tiny way, my students and I named the lie that we can only be one thing or another: responsible or irresponsible, privileged or in need, powerful or powerless. In doing so we also named the truth: that to be human is to be creaturely and fallible and also capable of action and responsible for it. We are both hungry and full.
Naming lies and telling truths is revolutionary in both the short and long run. It made an immediate physical difference in my life: I slept long hours and breathed more easily. Spiritually, it strengthened my commitment to practice Sabbath regularly rather than only in desperation and helped me remember why it was so important to be Sabbath-y in my relationships. Because of what happened in October, I’m just a little bit more generous, more patient, more compassionate, with myself and others, than I was before—a wounded healer rather than a wounded wounder.
The person in the chat was right: I am full. . .and also hungry. My students are hungry and also full. You’re likely hungry and also full.
Claiming this truth allows us to meet each other as the real people we are. And it allows us to take our rightful place in the revolutionary way of being Mary sang out and Jesus taught and lived: the kin-dom of God.