A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent on Luke 1:39-55
This is the irrational season When love blooms bright and wild Had Mary been filled with reason There’d have been no room for the child
So goes Madeleine L’Engle’s lovely little poem about this, “the irrational season.” It is in these final days of Advent that we finally speak of Mary, and of the promise of a baby whose birth story will be celebrated in our liturgy tomorrow evening. Irrational because, as L’Engle points out, “Had Mary been filled with reason / There’d have been no room for the child.” And frankly, she had good reason to anxiously shake her head at the words the angel Gabriel spoke to her. She was young—probably 14 or 15—and not yet married. “How can this be?” she asks the angel. How indeed.
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There are actually two annunciation stories in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke: this one, in which Gabriel comes to Mary, and the one in which the aging priest Zechariah is told that his wife Elizabeth will yet have a child. Elizabeth and Zechariah were childless, and now that they were passed the age at which a pregnancy was entirely unlikely Gabriel has appeared to the old man and told him that his wife will have a child—one who is to be named John, and who will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” “How will I know that this is so?” is Zechariah’s answer, which Kathleen Norris hears as an utterly different sort of question from Mary’s “How can this be?”
Suggesting that Zechariah’s instinct is to seek knowledge, information, perhaps even sure proof, Norris writes that “God’s response to Zechariah is to strike him dumb during the entire term of his son’s gestation, giving him a pregnancy of his own.” “When he does speak again, it is to praise God,” Norris adds. “[H]e’s had nine months to think it over.”
Mary’s “How can this be?” is a simpler response that Zechariah’s, and also more profound. She does not lose her voice but finds it. Like any of the prophets, she asserts herself before God, saying, “Here am I.” There is no arrogance, however, but only holy fear and wonder. Mary proceeds—as we must do in life—making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.
(Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith)
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” and then right away she is off to the hill country to be with her kinswoman Elizabeth. No mention of Joseph here—he figures much more prominently in Matthew’s telling of the story—she’s just off to be with Elizabeth. According to the social conventions of the day, it would have been expected that late in a pregnancy the younger women in the family would care for an expectant mother, and so the visit makes sense at that level. But you wonder, too, as Luke sets out the story and notes the “haste” with which Mary went if she wasn’t looking to escape the gossip and the shame of being pregnant out of wedlock. Off to be with the older relative in the hill country, where no one will know her story or her status; where her belly can begin to show signs of a baby and no one will ask those questions.
Luke tells us that when she arrived at the home of her kinswoman, Elizabeth’s child “leapt in her womb.” And filled with the Holy Spirit, “Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘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.’” “Blessed is she who believed,” the older woman says to that teenager, who had been so quick to answer the angel with that irrational, “may it be done as you have said.”
And again as Kathleen Norris points out, in her assent to being the bearer of this baby, “Mary does not lose her voice but finds it.” She finds it first in that “let it be with me according to your word,” and then again here, as she responds to Elizabeth’s warm embrace. As Luke tells the story, words pour from her mouth; powerful words we now know as the Magnificat or Mary’s song. Unsettlingly powerful words, in fact, with roots deep in the Hebrew scriptural tradition.
Consider the content of this song, as it speaks of how God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [how] he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” It is all present tense, even if the child in her belly is only weeks old: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.”
According to this song, it is as good as done; in the very promise, it has been accomplished. Over the centuries beautiful musical settings have been composed for the Magnificat, for robed choirs to sing in ornate cathedrals. You have to wonder if those beautiful musical settings don’t keep the force of the text at bay. Its socially challenging message, however, has not been lost on various governments over the years. For a period during the 1980s the government of Guatemala banned its public recitation, and there was a time when the British Colonial Authorities in India prohibited its use at public church services. It would seem that while the British authorities were quite eager to see the spread of the Christian religion—it worked well for colonial expansion—they harbored some fear that the some of the Indians might actually take seriously those words about the powerful being brought down from their thrones while the lowly were to be lifted up… perhaps the British authorities had so long known the Magnificat only as something sung by choirs that they were convinced it really wasn’t supposed to mean anything…
The thing is, all one has to do is to keep reading through the gospels to see that Mary’s song was sung aright in the life of her son. In his ministry Jesus lifted up the lowly—status-less children and women were given a place and marginalized people a voice—and he pressed the proud and the powerful so hard that in the end they killed him for it. He “filled the hungry with good things”—bread and fish, bread and wine, but also his word and his very life—and challenged those with wealth and means to release their hold on it all and to follow him… and we know of one instance in which someone “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Jesus was the presence of mercy and life to Israel, yet in a manner entirely in keeping with the sensibilities of the Magnificat, it was mostly blue-collar fishermen, outcasts, and losers who recognized it.
And he pressed his followers to do the same. Part of the reason that Christianity spread like wildfire over the next two or three centuries was that the church lived like a Magnificat people. They gave status to slaves and women; they rescued and raised as their own unwanted baby girls that had been left out in the open to die; in the midst of a series of plagues they took care of the sick. They reversed social convention after social convention, effectively living out the present-tense proclamation conveyed in the song of Mary. And as with the Christ they followed, they were sometimes killed for it.
Which brings us again back to one of the core challenges of Advent, which is to seek to live the Magnificat proclamation in the present tense, knowing full well that that this world is just not there; not yet. Here I am—here we all are—may it be done as you have said. May we be that kind of people, with that kind of song, and that kind of imagination.