The song Mary sang…and Jesus repeated
December 16, 2018
Scripture: Luke 1:35-55
The reading I selected for this week is one that has always intrigued me. The reading recounts the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary. As our reading indicates, Mary sang this song upon being greeted by her cousin Elizabeth whom she had gone to visit. Elizabeth was also pregnant with a baby boy who would grow up to be John the Baptist, the prophetic forerunner of his cousin Jesus. Both of these women had become pregnant under unusual circumstances. Elizabeth had been unable to conceive and had grown past the usual age of motherhood. She and her husband Zechariah had been astounded when Elizabeth had become pregnant. The young teenager Mary on the other hand, became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, which definitely has to be the most unusual conception ever.
Both of these women were devout followers of the Hebrew faith and knew the stories of their heritage. They also were unusual women for their times in terms of their outspokenness and discomfort with accepting the social status quo regarding the role and place of women in their culture. In those days, women were just not given a voice in regular social discourse. They were viewed as ‘chattel’, or the property of their husband and were not supposed to speak out or to make waves. They were expected to care for their husband’s needs and to raise their children…and that’s all. Women who were uncomfortable with these restrictions were looked down upon if not shunned entirely for bringing shame upon their husband’s household.
The two women in our story today were just such outspoken and radically prophetic women. Elizabeth, as the wife of the Priest Zechariah was not supposed to speak out, that was her husband’s responsibility. Mary, as a young girl was even less entitled to have anything important to say due to her age and her pregnant out of wedlock status. And yet, here in the beginning of Luke’s gospel we find these two not only speaking up, but speaking out in profound prophetic utterance and prophecy. And in their dialog, they sound themes that are central to Luke’s rendition of the story of Jesus…from the prominence of the Holy Spirit to the elevation of women as important bearers of the gospel message in their own right. They came together here at the home of Elizabeth for a time of mutual love and support…Elizabeth having long endured ridicule for her inability to bear children, and Mary, now pregnant and telling a story that was most surely to be rejected by all who heard her claims of some sort of ‘divine conception’. And yet, together Mary and Elizabeth rejoiced in the grace of God and in the wondrous circumstances which had now so intertwined their lives and their futures.
Our passage is a story of both of these women; however, it is Mary who emerges as the central figure. After greeting her cousin and being told that Elizabeth’s unborn child had leaped within her womb at her greeting, Mary begins to sing a song to God…a song of praise, of joy, of wonder, and of prophetic wisdom. And so, it is to both of these women, but to Mary in particular, that we turn our attention on this, the third Sunday of Advent.
Growing up within the Presbyterian form of the Christian faith I really did not have much exposure to Mary other than at Christmastime when she played a part in the Christmas story as the ‘betrothed’ of Joseph and the mother of Jesus. Other than that, I did not hear much of her again until the next December rolled around and the story of the Virgin mother would again be told.
Others, in different faith traditions, had a much different experience of the story of Mary as she became a central figure in the life of the faith and gained a huge role in their understanding and faith practice. Unlike my own Protestant upbringing which seemed to minimize the role of the mother of Jesus, other traditions seemed, art least to my understanding, to have elevated Mary to a much more venerable position. Either way, I feel now that indeed Mary is significant and needs to be understood for the role she played in bringing us the one who was to be one day known as the Savior of humankind. Truly she is one of the most faithful and central figures in the story of our faith.
I feel that both my previous lack of understanding and the more extreme ones that elevate the veneration of Mary almost to worship status may somehow miss the mark in properly honoring and celebrating this young girl who so willingly accepted what was asked of her, and so graciously succeeded in that task. In truth, Mary does have much to offer our understanding of how God and humankind came together in a way that was to change absolutely everything. And so we ask, ‘speak to us Mary…through your actions and in the words of yours that we have here written, speak truth into our understanding for today’…speak to us…
Mary…amazingly faithful and trusting servant of God…
Mary…mother of Jesus our Lord and Savior, and Jesus the little baby boy who grew to be a man…
Mary…radical and visionary prophet…
Mary…a role-model in her day…and now.
Speak to us Mary as amazingly faithful…I suppose one could say that what Mary did was not all that unusual given the fact that she had a visitation from an angelic messenger…I mean who wouldn’t say “Yes Lord” if that happened to them too? Actually, the bible has numerous instances of individuals doubting their visions and questioning whether or not they had heard or seen correctly. From Abraham’s wife Sarah laughing at the promise of a child in her advanced age to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah doubting the same and being struck mute until the child was born and named, the biblical record is full of accounts of those who questioned and did not believe at first the messengers who had been sent to them.
Mary however received the news that she would conceive and bear the Son of God with willingness, wonder, and joy proclaiming that future generations would ‘call her blessed’, and indeed most surely have. Mary believed this most incredible angelic announcement and trusted that somehow God would work out all of the complications that were to go along with it. Now we see her as blessed and faithful, a willing servant of the Most High…however in her own town and in her own time, young women who were found to be pregnant outside of wedlock were rejected and cast out of the community…so this was no easy role for her to just say ‘yes’ to…
Speak to us Mary as the mother of Jesus. Regardless of what one may feel about Mary there is no denying that she was the mother of Jesus our Lord. I think she may lose out on some of the credit she is due however if one forgets that Jesus was as fully human as he was divine. I think that we may at times downplay Mary’s role in the upbringing of Jesus because we have so little of Jesus’ early life preserved in the biblical account. Aside from Jesus running off and hanging out in the Temple as a young boy of 12, causing his mother great fear, we have very little to go on in the gospel accounts that can tell us of the early life of Jesus. And I think it is easy to lose sight of the role of those who had a hand in the upbringing of Jesus if we focus primarily on the divinity of Jesus at the expense of his humanity.
One of the central messages of Jesus’ life among us was the fact that he came to us in a fully human and fully unspectacular fashion…aside from the issue of the ‘virgin birth’, Jesus was born to common parents, first laid to rest in a borrowed stable and given a most common name. He was born in a backwoods nothing of a town and his birth announcement was made to three shepherds, in those times hardly a reliable lot to trust with such an important message. God came to us in this way so that Jesus could and would be seen as one of us, as one of the common folk, as one accessible to all people…fully human and fully there for all to meet and come to know…not glowingly divine and fearsomely untouchable as God is so often portrayed in our day.
So if we can set aside this idea of ‘fully divine’ for just a moment and somehow really believe that God willingly chose to become vulnerable, weak, childlike and human for our sake…then we also must consider that Mary and Joseph fulfilled the role every parent is asked to fill…that of raising their young child to adulthood complete with all the challenges, joys, heartaches, mistakes, and learning that that process entails. It is important to remember that Mary did not give birth to a ‘Little God’ and then sit back while he raised himself, no; she was every bit the mother and parent one would expect. And surely Jesus was every bit the boy in need of discipline and instruction as any other.
Which makes it interesting to ponder the age-old adage that, “An apple does not fall far from the tree.” How much did the young boy learn from his mother while he sat at her knee and while he listened to her speak of her faith and trust in her God? How much of the future ministry of Jesus perhaps had its roots in the soul and passions of his mother Mary…was he much like his mother and just the latest in an ancestral line of prophets speaking out for justice and righteousness?
…Which brings us to ask, speak to us Mary the radical visionary and prophet. Mary’s song, recounted in our reading today carries a message that is as hopeful for those in need of a Savior as it is threatening and challenging to those responsible for making that need so real…a solemn word of warning for all those whose lives and lifestyles are a cause of oppression and struggle for so many others. The words of Mary’s song, which closely echo those of her ancestress Hannah found in the second chapter of 1st Samuel, are a direct challenge to those in power and a statement of absolute trust in the Lord’s ability and promise to send deliverance.
Mary did not only accept the role asked of her, she did so as one already schooled in the ways of prophecy, as one already fully prepared to speak truth to life as she saw it from the vantage point of her station and status in life, from her place as one of God’s children, sorely oppressed and unafraid to speak out in challenge and rebuke of those responsible for the afflictions of her people.
Her song, closely read, is every bit as dangerous and counter-cultural as any manifesto ever written. Fearlessly Mary speaks out saying that God, her God, the one who is faithful and able, has, “Scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”…that her God has, “Brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” She says that this same God has, “Filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away…empty.”
These are not just mere words but a direct challenge to authority and a vision of a future time when God’s justice shall be complete…words she speaks in a present tense as though they have already come to pass…for they are words of a prophet who is able to see with the eyes of God, unhindered by human constraints of time and doubt. Mary was radical and dangerous to both the established political hierarchy and the religious order of her day. So perhaps we need to consider that her young son’s mother was actually very carefully chosen by God…perhaps it was Mary alone who could have raised one such as Jesus…one who would be unafraid to continue the song his mother first sang, regardless of what it might, and in fact did cost him…
Speak to us Mary as a role model for all women. Let us not lose sight of the fact that Mary did all of this from a position largely unrecognized and almost never exalted…that she sang and taught and lived as a woman in a time when women were not given their due as absolute co-bearers of the image of our God. Sadly, this is a status still withheld in many ways from most all women, even in our own time and in our supposedly advanced culture and enlightened understanding. Mary was, and still serves as a role model for those seeking to understand the wisdom and purpose of God in creating humanity balanced and equally gifted as both woman and man. Mary offers courage and instruction to other women on how to walk unafraid on the pathways of God as much as she offers instruction and warning to men who refuse or continue to deny her that God-given calling. “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” says Mary. “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
The question then is…are we here willing to sing Mary’s song along with her? Do we have the courage in this season to stand up and proclaim the goodness of God as evidenced in the little manger in Bethlehem, as well as the goodness of God who chose one such as Mary to challenge us to the very core of our being, to the very core of our comfort asking us to stand up and speak out against a culture and society that still requires so much, from so many, in order to satisfy so few?
Are we willing to look for Christ this Christmas even if that costs us something dear? Are we willing to place our traditions of gift-giving and celebration in their proper place and perspective and to then echo the call and challenge given by Mary for justice and equity for all, even the poor and unrecognized among us? Can we stand with this young, radical, peasant girl and speak the same words as she in the present tense, believing that indeed this call to justice and fairness within God’s loving providence is the actual will and purpose of our God…and that the time for their fulfillment is truly fast upon us…and truly still our responsibility?
Speak to us Mary…speak to us as one willing to go and to do whatever is asked in the service of our Lord, even though the cost may seem more than we can bear…
Speak to us Mary…as one who is a devoted, caring, and strong parent, insistent on raising your child in a way that not only celebrates the radical goodness of God but prepares that child to meet the challenges that will surely rise up to meet him or her.
Speak to us Mary…as one who is fully woman and fully created in the image of our God…equal to all others and blessed with gifts and abilities no less than any other…show us Mary the way to honor all women, to listen to their voice and to follow as they too are called to lead us.
Speak to us Mary…as one who heard and then proclaimed the prophet’s call for justice and fairness…the call for all of God’s children to be given a share of the divine blessing and abundant provision…
Speak to us Mary…for God trusted you to carry the Word of God for nine months…surely you should now be allowed to proclaim it!