Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mary's Song

I’ve always enjoyed reading Luke’s account of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1. It’s one of those little advent side-stories that reveals far more than we take time to hear.

Mary, pregnant, unmarried, fresh from her shattering encounter with Gabriel, hurried off to the hills to see her much older relative Elizabeth. Elizabeth, past the time of childbearing, is pregnant with the soon-to-be-born John, the John who will become the prophet John the Baptist, the John predicted to her husband by Gabriel.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.

That little paragraph stirs up so many themes:

1.      Elizabeth’s obedience to the Spirit’s prompting. She sounds a little out there. How does she know Mary will respond well to what she says? Yet Elizabeth’s obedience in sharing what she was given to say deepened Mary’s own faith and obedience, and is handed down to us, all these years later, as an example of the Spirit’s action.

2.      The importance of rich, encouraging friendship among women (and men) of very different ages. Who is reinforcing the anti-Christian idea that we should only be friends with people our own age? How many times has God spoken through me to people much older? Much younger? How many times has God used courageous,s much younger people, faithful much older people, to nurture and encourage my faith?

3.      The spiritual liveliness of an unborn child. If John, in his mother’s womb, could respond to his unborn savior, Jesus, what does that tell us about when life begins? About the spiritual nurture of preborn children? About the potential spiritual responsiveness of even our smallest family members? Interesting to consider.

But the part of the story I’ve been considering comes next, Mary’s song of praise, often called “the Magnificat.”

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. 

I’ve always been struck by the prophetic beauty of Mary’s song. Clearly these words go beyond her own understanding, as prophetic words always do. They point to God’s faithfulness across generations, and the power of his plan.

But there’s an edge to this song, as there’s an edge to any prophetic message. As God extends his mercy, he scatters the proud. As he lifts the humble, he brings down rulers. As he fills the hungry, he sends the rich away empty.

I’ve been reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination, on the strong recommendation of our son. His insights into the announcement of the kingdom of God shed light on Mary’s song:

“The coming of Jesus meant the abrupt end of things as they were. . . . But surely implicit in the announcement [of the kingdom] is the counterpart that present kingdoms will end and be displaced.... The announcement carries within it a harsh criticism of all those powers and agents of the present order. His message was to the poor, but others kept them poor and benefited from their poverty. He addressed the captives, but others surely wanted that arrangement unchanged. He named the oppressed, but there are never oppressed without oppressors.”

Mary’s song of joy and praise was sung from the margins, on behalf of all those on the margins who wait with joy for the coming king. But her song was a threat to those in places of power: to Herod, to the Pharisees, to the rich, the rulers, the proud. In her song, Mary pictured a new reality.  According to Brueggemann, that’s what prophets do: help us see, and grieve, the present order, and help us imagine, look toward, believe possible, act in harmony with, the new reality that’s been promised.

Brueggemann returned to this theme in a later article (The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity):

As a little child Jesus must often have heard his mother, Mary, singing. And as we know, she sang a revolutionary song, the Magnificat--the anthem of Luke's Gospel. She sang about neighborliness: about how God brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; about how God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Mary did not make up this dangerous song. She took it from another mother, Hannah, who sang it much earlier to little Samuel, who became one of ancient Israel's greatest revolutionaries. Hannah, Mary, and their little boys imagined a great social transformation. Jesus enacted his mother's song well. Everywhere he went he broke the vicious cycles of poverty, bondage, fear and death; he healed, transformed, empowered and brought new life. Jesus' example gives us the mandate to transform our public life.

In our sermon today, Geof Morin talked about the cost of planting our feet firmly in the reality of the Christmas story. If the genealogical record in Matthew 1 is true, if the angel’s message to Joseph is true, if the coming of the savior, Jesus Christ, is true, how do we live that out? What does it cost us? How do the patterns of our daily life reflect this radical reality?

We’ll be singing lots of Christmas songs in the next week. Whose songs are they? Whose reality do they represent?

As I tally my Christmas spending, I find myself wondering: Am I one of the rich Mary sang about, one of those who will be brought low? Am I among the proud? Do I benefit from oppression? Do I quietly support the current regime, and turn from the oppressed?

As I plan my time for the week ahead, I wonder: how can I live more faithfully as a visible witness of a new kingdom, when I’m so firmly entrenched in the old one?

And what am I hoping for? That’s the question I find myself asking, as I prepare for Christmas, write my Christmas cards, finish my shopping, pull out my cookie recipes. At the end of the day, at the beginning of the day, what am I hoping for?

And what am I doing, now, to make that hope visible?

A friend, Chaz Howard, chaplain at UPenn, was featured this morning in an Inquirer article. His is one place to start the conversation.