Monday, February 14, 2011

Ozymandias and the Magnificat A study in contrast.

By Charles Moncrief

1817, by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said--"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart....Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
The Magnificat (Mary’s Song),
Luke 1:46-55

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is His name!

His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has showed strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble and meek.

He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful, even as He promised, to Abraham and his descendants forever.

In the two texts at the beginning of this article I am moved by contrasting attitudes. Shelly’s sonnet was said to be about Ramses the Great, the Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. Both his name and his job title contain the letters “RA” to honor the Egyptian sun God. In fact, Pharaoh was understood to be a human incarnation of Ra. From such a mindset, it was easy for him to be drunk with a sense of power and to lord it over his subjects. Today, however, other than when the Ramses exhibit toured the United States, hardly anyone gives a thought to this man of great power and influence nearly four thousand years ago.

Shelly caught the essence spoken of in Mary’s song about dethroning the mighty and scattering the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. If history even bothers to mention them, it’s with a sense of mockery and ridicule.

Who would be the Ozymandias in a person’s life?

The flesh-tearing abusive spouse or parent?
The adulterous homicidal maniac elected to the position of county commissioner?
The mass murderer who falsifies autopsies in the medical examiner’s office?
The bench rodent who favors cronies over justice when rendering court rulings, letting killers go free to kill again?
The lawmakers who look the other way rather than to take action against human traffickers?
The human traffickers themselves?

Whose heads would look good half-buried in the desert sands, separated from their trunkless legs, with proud epitaphs to mock them? But to anyone whose lives have ripped apart by the fallen proud, this is small comfort. Maybe this is because a different focus might be in order.

This is why I’ve set next to Shelley’s poem the Song of Mary. A teenage Jewish girl in a conquered land received a job offer. In fact, it was for the greatest job a Jewish woman of the first century could do. After receiving Mary’s answer, the messenger left her to reflect on the significance of what she’d been offered.

Like Ozymandias, Mary begins to express a sense of greatness. Unlike Ozymandias, she never loses her perspective. Her greatness comes from someone far greater than she should ever be, and that it is from first to last due to the grace and favor granted her by God. Never does she become filled with herself, but she always directs attention to the One who blessed her. In fact, her heart would be grieved by all this elevation and adoration she receives today. Her eternal destiny is in the hands of God’s grace, no more and no less than our eternal destiny depends on the same God.

The job this humble Jewish girl took on, while the greatest in the world, was also the most heart-wrenching. She watched her son die at the hands of those who were capable of the cruelest form of savagery known to humankind in that day. And yet, she stayed humble. There is no record of her having called out for the condemnation of those who acted with such cruelty. And while she may have had some special insights granted to her about such things, maybe we do as well. Maybe if we can pray for our enemies, rather than rejoice in their ruin, maybe it could possibly help us to get by. And maybe, just maybe, in time it may help us to find healing.

Grace and Peace,

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