Most mothers are excited when they know a baby is on the way. Mary wouldn’t have been human if she too hadn’t experienced similar excitement. But the song Mary sang was not inspired by the thought of impending motherhood, but by the growing sense of wonder that God should have chosen her to play a role in his purposes. This is why Mary sang: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour – for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me” (1.46-49).
Mary was amazed that God had chosen her, an ordinary village girl, to be the mother of his Son – and rightly so. It was amazing that God should have “looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant”, one who was right at the bottom of the pecking order. From a Jewish point of view, if God were to enter the world in the way he did, he might have been expected to have chosen the wife of one of the Sadducean priestly elite, somebody perhaps well-connected with Caiaphas, the high priest, and his cronies. But as it was, he chose a ‘nobody’ like Mary. Similarly, from a Roman point of view, it would have seemed natural for God’s Son to have been born in Rome, the imperial city, rather than in some provincial backwater; furthermore, it would have made much more sense for his Son to have been born into some distinguished Roman senatorial family rather than into an obscure peasant family who were part of an odd & obstinate nation. But amazingly, God chose a ‘nobody’ like Mary.
The Magnificat came to mind when in our trip to Egypt last month we visited Cairo’s ‘Garbage City’, located at the foot of the cliffs from which stones for the pyramids were hewn. It is one of seven different settlements scattered in Greater Cairo where the ‘Zabbaleen’ (‘the garbage people’) live and work. Amongst the poorest of the poor, they spend up to 12 hours a day collecting and recycling ‘rubbish’. Amazingly the Zabbaleen recycle up to 80% of the waste they collect, whereas most Western garbage collecting companies can only recycle 20-25% of the waste they collect. The stench and the sights of ‘Garbage City’ was appalling. It is almost beyond belief that people should raise their families in such terrible conditions. Not surprisingly the infant mortality rate is much higher in Garbage City than anywhere else in Cairo, and I am told that disease abounds. And yet as we drove through the crowded streets of ‘Garbage City’ we were struck by the neatness of the Zabbaleen children as they returned home from school.
However, what amazed us even more was to see the cave church which the Zabbaleen have hewn out of the rock. Significantly, although Egypt is an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country, 90% of the Zabbaleen are Coptic Christians. In 1976 the Zabbaleen began to build a church by excavating tons of rock and rubble out of the cliff. They created a huge open-air amphitheatre with a seating capacity of 20,000 – the largest church in Egypt. Named after the 10th century Egyptian saint, Simon the Tanner it is an amazing sight – spotlessly clean (remember this is Garbage City!) it is a simple but beautiful construction. The Zabbaleen then went on to create a further six other cave churches.
As we got out of our taxi and made our way to the church, we were greeted warmly by a young man who is one of the ‘servants’ of the church, who then spent the next half-hour talking to us about the church. Even though he had never been to college or university, he spoke fluent English and, in a very gracious manner, he shared with us his faith – and wanted to know what we believed! To my amazement he told us that although since the construction of the other cave churches, the main church is only full on special Sundays, nonetheless every Thursday evening in this church 4,000 Coptic Christians come together for Bible study. Here amidst the ‘nobodies’ of Cairo God is clearly at work. In the words of Mary, God, “the Mighty One has done great thing….He has lifted up the lowly; he has failed the hungry with good things”. We left Garbage City awe-struck by what we had seen.