Luke 1:46b-55 (New Revised Standard Version)
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor 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, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
There's a modern parable of sorts that originated from the Middle East, and finding it amusing I thought it would be appropriate for the scene we come across in this morning's Gospel reading. It's a story that tells of a person who lost their key and was looking for it under a street lamp. Someone walking by had noticed this person was looking for something, so they stopped to help them look for it. After some time had passed, the good Samaritan who stopped to help ask the person looking for the key if they could remember the last time they had seen it, to which the person responded, "It's somewhere in that patch of grass over there." The person helping angrily replied, "Then why are you looking for it here if you know it's not here?" "Because," the person who lost their key said, "There is much more light here."
Sometimes the truth, the hope, the love, the essential things we need in our lives, lies outside the safety and the comfort of the streetlamp, but if we aren't willing to step outside the light and into the discomfort that surrounds us then we will find that we are comically standing underneath a street lamp looking for something we know isn't there. This comedy, this humor, is located in this morning's reading as we see Mary and Elizabeth exchanging greetings and blessings. This turning of the world upside down sets the stage for Christmas Eve, it sets the stage for the final scene where the Christ child will make his way into the world. But before we gather on Christmas Eve to sing "Silent Night," we have first to ask, "Are we ready to be a part of the topsy-turvy world that Mary prophecies about?"
The miracle of the entire Christmas story is that the good news, the good news that is the cornerstone of our faith, was proclaimed by two marginalized women; one who was young, poor, and unwed, and the other who was deemed too old to bear any children. Their stories must have seemed unbelievable to those around them, but nevertheless, we hold them to be essential truths… If we can believe their stories, why can't we accept the thousands if not million other stories that come from those like Mary and Elizabeth? Will we find ourselves shutting out the songs of Elizabeth and Mary? Or will we embrace them, welcome them, act on them, as we seek out God's love, justice, and peace from unlikely sources?
Mary is one of those biblical figures who seems larger than life… Over centuries, we have cultivated a belief system around Mary, surrounded her in piety, and politicized her very being… It makes you wonder if there is anything that can be salvaged about the real Mary… The Mary that we find in our reading from the Gospel According to Luke, who cuts through all our preconceived notions and stereotypes. If we listen carefully, we can still hear the song of hope, the words of the song of Mary ringing in our ears. If we take time to pause on this last Sunday of Advent, we may not only hear but also see… See what it means to be people created in the image of God, see what it means to be the Church, to see what we might look like at our very best, and we might see then a Mary who has volumes left to say after having been buried under a pile of suppressing rhetoric.
So perhaps we might understand Mary a little better if we were to take time to listen to the various parts of her song. Maybe we need to spend some time looking at how it speaks to us about community, blessing, and hope...
A Song for Community… The exchange between Elizabeth and Mary comes not long after the angel Gabriel made an unexpected visit to Mary. After being visited by the angel Gabriel, we find that Mary quickly makes her way to see Elizabeth. Mary doesn't shut herself off from the world. Mary doesn't keep the revolutionary good news of God to herself. What we should listen for in the words of Mary is that this journey of life and faith isn't made alone. We need to seek out fellow travelers who are also walking along the same path, we need to welcome those in who looks weary and heavy laden.
The gospel doesn't tell us why Mary went to go see Elizabeth. Traditionally, we have come to understand Mary's pregnancy as something of a scandal… In our usual telling of the story of Mary, we imagine her as an object of gossip, as someone who is at risk of being punished by society. Regardless of all of that, I think we would be safe in saying that Mary needs safety, affirmation, and fellowship. Who of us here hasn't gone through some challenging life experience and needed the comforting presence of another person? Could there be an any better song for the Church? Imagine what our faith family could be if we gathered in a community in like Mary and Elizabeth who found themselves getting caught up in God's counter-cultural work?
A Song of Blessing… Like I mentioned earlier, the hard part about Mary's story is just how short it is… We know from the Gospel accounts that Mary was caught off guard by Gabriel's announcement. We know that Mary says "yes" to the angel's request. But in between all the other parts of Mary's story we discover that there are so many questions, questions that we don't have answers to. I imagine that Mary had several different questions that floated around her brain as well: Will Joseph still marry me? Will my parents still love me? Will I come out of giving birth alive? Who will help me when the baby comes? Who is going to help support me if Joseph decides to leave? Who am I to give birth to and raise the son of God? Is any of this real?
But as Mary makes her way to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah she finds that she is greeted with a blessing… This blessing is one that you might have heard of before… As Mary approaches Elizabeth, Elizabeth says, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. [And] blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Elizabeth connects the dots… Elizabeth makes the connection between trust and blessing. Elizabeth lifts up Mary's blessing as she sees how Mary's blessing from God comes from her willingness to trust God. And to lean hard into God's promises and believe that they are real, that they are real and they will carry her through all of life's trials.
I wonder how Elizabeth's blessing impacted Mary later on in life… I imagine that Mary held her blessing close to her heart as she delivered her first born son in a smelly stable… I believe that she carried the blessing with her as she fled to Egypt seeking asylum, seeking refuge, from the evil of King Herod's armies. I imagine that she took that blessing with her when years later, her child would be arrested, beaten, mocked, and hung on a cross to die. God asks Mary to do the impossible… God asks Mary to live a life that is so counter cultural it will turn the world upside down… God's asks Mary to go on a journey that will require faith, real faith, faith that isn't found in the comfort of what is familiar, what is safe, what is traditional.
We don't live in a culture that encourages us to bless one another… We instead live in a culture where we find that we are the ones who want to be blessed instead, and that's a terrible shame… Shouldn't we reclaim Elizabeth's call to bless others? How would we change as a Church, as a people, if we made a point of recognizing each others pain, naming the things that need to be named, and blessing the divine gifts we see in each other? Picture the amount of joy, then the amount of empathy, the amount of love, that would flow forth from that wellspring of Elizabeth's vocation of blessing… All we have to do is pick up the mantle and bless those around us from the heart.
A Song of Hope… As Mary has found a community and blessing, she finds her prophetic voice as well. With her soul being filled, we see Mary bursting into song, the song of the Magnificat. But it's not just any old song… It's a song that paints a picture of radical hope, it's a song that lifts up the poor and places them above the rich, it's a song that mends the brokenhearted, and liberates the oppressed. Somewhere along the way we have viewed Mary as this individual who is weak, timid, and mild… But what we find in the Magnificat is a Mary who shatters all those stereotypes and preconceived notions. We see a Mary who sings a prophetic song that wouldn't sound anything like the cherished Christmas carols or Advent hymns we sing each and every year.
"My soul magnifies the Lord," Mary sings, and we hear her words go on to do just that… Mary's words seek to magnify, to draw our attention to, God's revolutionary plans for the world. A world where the unjust status quo is magnificently turned around. Mary describes a world that should make us feel uncomfortable, joyous, scared, excited, and fearful all at the same time :
"He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham, and to his descendants forever."
If we can't hear the song of hope, the song of blessing, and the song of community, perhaps we aren't listening hard enough, or maybe we are still trying to listen with our hands over our ears. If we look around and we find that our church, our community of faith, isn't an embodiment of the community of Elizabeth and Mary then perhaps we have to step out from underneath the streetlamp and into the challenging, uncomfortable darkness that lies outside around us. It's the irony, the comedy, of Mary's Magnificat that challenges us this Advent. It's Mary's song that speaks to what we know to be true, but yet we resist it with all our might.
There is no unjust system, oppressive power, or arrogant and ignorant leaders that God will not uproot and turn over. If we can hear Mary's song and believe her story, then why can't embrace this Advent truth, that God will work to change the world through us if we have but faith and trust? We may find it challenging to step out and go beyond our comfort zone, but if a young, unwed, marginalized woman like Mary was able to speak with such prophetic truth, such prophetic power, to an unjust world, then why can't we raise up our songs of hope as well? Amen.