Sermon by Jamie Howison, on the 4th Sunday in Advent
etween my first and second years at theological college, I had a summer job at a church-run storefront ministry called Stop 103, located in an increasingly depressed neighborhood in Toronto. Part food bank, part drop-in, part refugee resettlement program, my job was to run what we called an “internship to urban ministry” for four high school students. The idea was for me to spend an hour every morning with this group, guiding them in a sustained theological reflection on the nature of poverty and social justice, and then to spend the better part of each day working together on the front-line in the ministry. It was a great job, with a fairly steep learning curve for all of us.
On the day I was hired, the priest who ran the centre said to me, “You’ll need to explore of the biblical material on poverty and justice: the idea of Jubilee, the writings of the prophets, the teachings of Jesus. And of course, the Magnificat”. “Of course,” I said, wondering just exactly what he meant.
The Magnificat, Mary’s song. I mean, I knew it, or at least I thought I did. I’d been raised up for ministry from the parish of All Saints, whose building we at saint ben’s now share. In those days, All Saints had a Sunday evening liturgy very different from what we do here in the context of saint benedict’s table. The liturgy was choral evensong, in which the music was led by a very fine choir of men and boys, with the men wearing cassock and surplice and the boys sporting ruffled collars. Every Sunday evening, we sang the Magnificat in the magnificent translation from the Book of Common Prayer. With great formality – all robes and ruffled collars – in the King’s English and using 16th century settings, we sang Mary’s song. And for all that I sang along, I never really heard it.
I never heard the risk, the danger, and the deep hopefulness it represented. The proud scattered in the thoughts of their hearts; kings brought down from thrones, and the lowly lifted up; the hungry filled, the rich sent away; and poor, broken-hearted Israel restored.
Mary’s song embodies everything that torah had said about being a people that could make no room in its common life for abject poverty. It embodies everything that the prophets had sung about being a people restored.
“You have sold the poor for a pair of shoes”, railed the prophet Amos. “Your wealthy are full of violence”, claimed Micah. And touching her swollen belly, Mary sings a song that says, “but not forever, and not for always; there is hope”.
Well, we’re still learning to hear her song, aren’t we? Still trying to learn such dangerous hope in our own day.
- “You have sold the poor for a pair of shoes.” And the truth is, most of us are wearing shoes made in factories by people subsisting on near slave wages.
- “Your wealthy are full of violence.” And what is one of this world’s most lucrative businesses? The production and trade of armaments.
Amos and Micah still have much to say to us. And still Mary sings.
“The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”; so writes St Paul in his letter to the Romans. “The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now”.
And Mary still sings. Not the Mary of Renaissance paintings, looking like a royal lady dressed in her velvet dress and doing needlepoint, while an equally regal angel speaks calmly of a promised baby. No. A Galilean peasant girl, probably no more than 15 years old – a nobody – who is both bold enough and naïve enough to say “yes” to Gabriel’s words. A nobody in the world’s grand scheme of things, whose willingness to say “May it be done as you have said” is the hinge on which all of creation will turn.
And her song, not as a beautiful piece of choral music which all but hides the power of her words, but as a risky and prophetic piece of poetry which stands in the face of empire and say, “I beg to differ… the world will have a different future”.
We are an Advent people. We wait and we watch and we long for the fulfillment of this bold hope; for the day when the creation’s labour pains will bear that fruit.
But more. Just as the Galilean peasant girl said “May it be done”, and then lived the consequences and bore that baby, so with us. As the relative nobodies that we all are, we must seek ways to live this dangerous promise now. This story and this song must convict us of this: there is no act too small and no person too insignificant to be inconsequential to the way of God with the world.
Mary still sings to us her dangerous song.