Luke 1: 39-55
The scripture I have chosen for this morning falls outside of the suggested lectionary readings for today. Later in the service, we will be retiring our old Hymnals and Dedicating our New Hymnals. Music is an integral part of the life of the people of God. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, Moses and Miriam sang. When Samuel was born, Hannah sang. When the exiles were in Babylon, they wondered if their song was lost—it wasn’t, and they sang. The early church sang hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs, and we have been singing ever since. God’s gift of music is granted not just to those with melodious voices, but to all whose hearts are tuned to praise of God.
Listen to the words of Mary’s song as she responds to Gabriel’s news, in the first chapter of Luke.
Mary’s Song of Praise
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 arms; 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.”
I had probably driven by it a dozen times or more without noticing it. This time, however, it leapt out at me so that I nearly drove into the ditch! Perhaps I noticed it this time because of the season. Perhaps I finally saw it because I had the Magnificat on my mind. Or perhaps, because it was some sort of sign--like the rainbow after the flood, or the star over Bethlehem. It was a sign, after all! In fact, a billboard: red, white, and blue, a painting of the Madonna in all her glory. The caption read: “The Virgin Mary Speaks to America Today! Call 1-800-345-Mary.”
Throughout the years, Mary, the mother of God, the Madonna, has been depicted in artwork and yes, even on highway billboards, as radiant, virtuous, draped in blue, a golden aura around her head, her porcelain-white hands clasped in her lap. I suspect that the church fathers, the “patriarchy,” have done their part in perpetuating this image of Mary: God’s handmaid; humble, gentle, passive, unassuming; the non-threatening figure of a teen-aged girl memorialized in and singing a sweet lullaby. (Mary, meek and mild.)
As she sings of the One who has “looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant,” it is significant for us to note that the Greek word, translated (once upon a time) as “lowliness” instead signifies humility . . . but so much more than that. It is a word that implies grinding poverty.
Mary is poor, pregnant, and unmarried.
She is a wretched, indigent, disgraced girl who sings, not a sweet lullaby but, rather, a courageous and radical anthem of social justice, echoing the voices of the prophets of old. Her words in the hymn, so special, so significant that we have preserved the foreign sounding word Magnificat (Latin for “My soul magnifies the Lord”) draw from and are patterned after the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel and Psalm 113. Through Mary and her Magnificat, Luke introduces the predominant theme of his gospel.
The poetry moves us.
We imagine the beauty of Mary’s pure and innocent voice and our emotions are stirred as she sings, “for the mighty one has done great things for me.” In the midst of her lowliness, she somehow recognizes that she is favored by the One who will lift up and transform the entire world. Her song is not simply about having a baby, and it is in no way a lullaby. As she sings of a God who brings down the mighty and exalts those of low degree, who fills the hungry and sends the rich empty away . . . her song becomes an anthem of revolution. Mary describes a world that is turning . . . changing; a world where existing political systems are challenged, and power structures are shattered. She sings of a reversal of fortune; a world turned upside down and inside out.
Using powerful images, Luke presents Jesus not just as a personal savior sent to humankind, but as a harbinger whose birth is an event that will change the universe. Our moral geography is upended and rearranged as valleys are lifted up and mountains made low; as springs burst forth in the deserts and the eyes of the blind are opened. Good news is preached to the poor while those with great wealth are rebuffed.
Mary’s words imply more than just hope for the future. She sings not of things as they will be, but of things as they are changing. She does not say, “God will bring down the powerful from their thrones” but, instead, that “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” The world she depicts is not a hypothetical place to be transformed at some future date, but a world that is, now. So sure is she that God will do what is promised, that she proclaims it as an accomplished fact.
God’s power and love know no “tenses of the verb” as we human being know them.
With the great hinge that is Jesus’s birth, heaven on earth has already arrived: it has already been conceived of, and delivered, in the mind of God.
I don’t really want to delve into a scholarly discussion of the Magnificat, the fact that it was probably pre-lucan, probably composed in an early Jewish-Christian community, possibly by the Anawim, literally “those who bow down”--those very, very poor folks who are dependent upon God for deliverance. The fact that the words of the Magnificat did not, historically, come from Mary’s mouth doesn’t much matter to me, or impact my thinking, because I know the words are true.
The words may not have come directly from her lips, but they certainly came from Mary’s soul.
She sings in the past tense of a day that is yet to come. She sings of what is true: in the past, present, and future. She joins those who have sung similar songs before her. She reaches back and finds her place in the story of God. She reaches back to Hannah and the Psalms and she references Hannah’s situation, Hannah’s name, as one on whom God has “looked with favor.” Every Advent, we hear Mary sing her song of faith, her canticle of praise . . . joining all those who call out from the depths, to a personal God. Her song is heard in every season.
When I see in the nightly news images of mothers and fathers traveling thousands of miles with their children, with only the clothes on their backs, only to be met by armed men in uniform and with tear gas, I feel Mary’s sweet song of certainty stick in my throat.
When I see the emaciated children of Yemen, their eyes sunken and despairing, I feel the weight Mary’s song on my chest, and I cannot catch my breath. I realize that I am not in the best place to accompany Mary. By the world’s standards, I am wealthy, healthy, and so very comfortable. How do I identify with her? How do I, how do WE relate to the God who lifts us out of hunger, poverty, homelessness, persecution, and despair?
But then the song begins again: first pianissimo but, before long, with the words soaring up into Mary’s expectant and revolutionary aria.
I think of Malala, the beautiful young Pakistani girl (now , young woman) who survived being shot in the head for daring to attend school. Malala became an advocate for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. Malala sings Mary’s song.
I think of Emma González, the high school senior who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida and, in response to her ordeal, co-founded the gun-control advocacy group “Never Again.” Emma accompanies Mary, too.
I consider Sharice Davids, the first American-Indian, Lesbian member of the United States Congress. Sharice also joins her voice to Mary’s.
I remember, as well, Reba’s song.
Several years ago, in a rural town in the mountains of Appalachia, I was with a group of folks who had come to that poverty-stricken area to help with some home repairs. My small ensemble, which comprised, mostly, high school students, was assigned the task of dismantling the water damaged kitchen Reba’s and her husband’s pint-sized home. The dwelling wasn’t much more than a shack: leaky roof, no indoor plumbing, and buckling walls and ceiling. The first day, as we arrived to find Reba caring for her four-year-old granddaughter, whose 29-year-old father (Reba’s son-in-law) had suffered his second heart attack just the night before. Reba and the little girl huddled in the dark, grotto-like living room, awaiting word from her daughter as to her husband’s condition and prognosis.
As we worked with crow-bars and hammers, tearing out the paper-thin walls, I began to hear music from the other room. I stopped what I was doing for a moment to listen. Sure enough, it was singing . . . lovely singing. As I stepped closer to the doorway of the living room I could hear Reba on her guitar, singing about Jesus. Before long, there were two angel-pure voices joined in harmony. Reba had taught the four -year-old the song and, together, they were singing . . . a song of faith. It was a simple little song, and yet it was strong and powerful and magnificent: a Magnificat. While a group of strangers disassembled her kitchen, while she waited for word concerning her critically ill son-in-law, Reba sang.
And I knew for a fact that God’s realm had drawn near, that it was in the next room, the living room. In Reba’s song, Mary continued—continues--to sing, because God has reached so unexpectedly down to where the least and the lowly always struggle for life.
Dear Friends, here is our hope. If Mary sings today and in the advent of everyday, if Reba, and Malala and Emma and Sharice and so many others like them, like us, sing, perhaps we will finally know that their song is true and is the song of God’s future, a tense of the verb that passeth all understanding.
While they sing as if the future were already so, their God makes it so. This is the point in the dark of each and every year. This is the turning point for Mary the mother of Jesus, and for us all. When we live as though the promised future is present, that future is already here.
Songs of Faith are songs which are true, in a time out of time. What is there left for us to do but to join in the singing, to find our place in God’s redeeming work and to acknowledge that Mary’s, and ours, is a song for the whole world.
When we finished our work at Reba’s home and were packing up to leave, she presented each of us with a little cassette tape, a recording of her singing with her daughters. Songs of Faith. Sometimes, a word is spoken, or sung, and you feel its truth and you know it has always been true. In those moments of truth, you see yourself differently. Perhaps you even see the world differently because that truth takes on a power that claims you.
So sing it, Reba. Sing it, Emma. Sing it, Malala. Sing it boldly, Sharice.
Sing it, Mary. Sing to us of your God. Sing so that your song becomes our song. And heaven and Nature sing. And heaven and Nature sing.