The Song of Mary

These words have been very much on my mind and in my heart this Advent:

He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

the full text (traditional language from the Book of Common Prayer):

My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded *
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth *
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, *
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him *
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, *
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever.

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Being Witnesses: A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 2017

In these dark days of Advent, as the days grow shorter and the sun’s light grows dim, the mood of our nation and our world seem very much in synch with the season. It’s difficult for us to ignore all that is occurring around us and focus on the season of Advent, and the coming of Christ at Christmas. Sometimes I feel as though the festivities and hoopla, whether it’s the parties we throw or attend, or the glitz of stores and the blitz of marketing are all intended to distract us from what’s happening—global warming, the threat of nuclear catastrophe, the continuing assault on our constitutional liberties, on democracy itself.

It’s hard to find our way through it all, it’s hard for us to find perspective, to keep our faith when there is so much profoundly wrong and unjust, and the forces of good seem impotent in the face of the evil that surrounds us.

On top of it all, many of us struggle to make sense of, let alone, proclaim, the message of Jesus Christ in this context. When Christianity has been coopted by extreme nationalists and white supremacists, when there seems no connection between the message of love, peace, and reconciliation proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and the dominant voices of Christianity in America, we may want to hide our faith, to keep quiet. We fear being associated with the Franklin Grahams and Roy Moores and silence our voices, out of fear that we might be accused of supporting them. Let me just add, if you are not deeply troubled by the cooptation of Christianity by a certain political agenda in this country, you should examine your beliefs and commitments, for the very soul and future of Christianity is at stake, the gospel is at stake.

Our lessons today remind us of where our focus should be, where and how we should proclaim Christ, where and how we should work for justice.

The reading from Isaiah, the first verses of which provide the text for Jesus first public proclamation in the Gospel of Luke, offer both reassurance and command. As Christians, we read these words as promise of Christ’s coming, of the future reign of God that he proclaimed and for which we hope. We see ourselves as recipients of that good news, and of the promised healing and release.

At the same time, we must see ourselves in this story, not just as recipients of God’s grace and justice but as participants in the coming of that justice. We are called to rebuild the ruined cities—and here we might think not only of literal cities, but of all the ways that human community, the common good, have been undermined and attacked in recent years.

Even stronger are the words from the Song of Mary. It’s always helpful to remember just who she was—a young woman, likely a teenager, mysteriously, shamefully pregnant, as vulnerable in her historical context as a similar young woman would be in our day. Yet from that small, unlikely, reviled person, comes this powerful hymn that witnesses to God’s redemptive power:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

 

This familiar hymn has suffered for its popularity and familiarity. Its use in worship over the millennia has numbed us to its revolutionary power. We need to reclaim it today, sing it with meaning. We need to do more than sing it, we need to work so that it comes into being. We need to imagine the possibility that God is working in this way, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of all our fears, doubts, and despair. We need to believe that the words of a first-century teenaged single mom can inspire to see God at work in the world around us. For remember, the world in which she lived was unjust and violent as well, and for many people hopelessness and terror were ways of life.

And finally, the gospel…

We heard the story of John the Baptizer from the Gospel of John. It’s a brief excerpt of a larger narrative, and on the surface it’s rather strange, although you might not have thought anything odd about this when hearing it. In the Gospel of Mark’s description of John that we heard last week, the focus seemed to be on his lifestyle, his clothing and diet choices (camel’s hair, locusts and wild honey). According to Mark, he preached a message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Now in John’s gospel none of that is present. While some of his preaching message is consistent, at the heart of John’s portrayal of John is something else, the fact that John was a witness to Jesus Christ. In a rather odd formulation, John writes that “

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

For that is John’s purpose and role in the fourth gospel—to point toward Christ. John is a witness, the witness. And more than witness, for the Greek word behind the English “witness” and “testify” in the first few verses of the reading is word from which we get our English word “martyr.” John came to bear witness to the light, to testify about Jesus Christ. Later in the first chapter, John sees Jesus passing by, points to him, and tells several of his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The disciples then leave John and follow Jesus.

These are questions of identity and purpose. The priests and Levites asked John who he was, in a scene that is reminiscent of the scene in the synoptic gospels where Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. John directs their attention away from him toward Christ.

John offers us an important lesson, not just about who he was and who Jesus Christ is. He also reminds us that one of the most important things we do, in our words and in our lives, is point to Jesus Christ. It is in and through us that others learn what it means to follow Jesus and also learn Jesus’ message of love, peace, mercy, and justice. In this time, when so many others proclaim a different gospel, and very different message of Jesus, our witness to him is more needed than ever. May we witness, testify, and point, clearly, unequivocally, and boldly, to the Jesus Christ who stands with the poor, the oppressed, the captive, and the God who casts down the mighty from their seats and fills the hungry with good things.

 

 

 

 

 

Singing Advent with Luke and Mary: A Sermon for Advent 4, Year C

 

We are in the third year of the three-year lectionary cycle and this year, the focus of our readings for our Sunday morning Eucharistic lectionary is the gospel of Luke. We will talk much more over the course of the year about Luke’s perspective—about his particular theological interests and the way he shapes the story of Jesus in light of those interests.

Today, I want to point to offer by way of background to the gospel one of Luke’s unique techniques or contributions to the story of Jesus’ birth. Throughout the first two chapters, Luke interrupts the story and inserts a song, placed in the mouth of key characters in the narrative. We’ve already heard, and said, one of those songs—the Song of Zechariah, which he sang (Luke says “prophesied”) after the birth of his son John. There are others-the song the angels sing to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest.” There’s the song of Simeon, which the aged prophet sings when he encounters Mary and the infant Jesus in the temple: “Lord, now you may let your servant depart in peace.” In today’s gospel, there are two songs—the Song of Elizabeth: “Hail Mary, full of grace.” And there’s Mary’s own song, the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

It’s likely that these songs were not composed by Luke himself. Rather, we think that he adapted them to his purpose from songs that were being sung in early Christian worship. It’s no surprise that they have become among the most familiar and beloved songs of the church—Ave Maria, The Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis—if you say morning and evening prayer regularly, you will know them by heart. But it’s important to note that they aren’t innovations. They draw on the language and imagery of songs, psalms, from the Hebrew Bible.

Think for a moment about the singers of those songs. An aged prophet, an elderly married couple that are rejoicing in the birth of a son, and a teenaged girl, pregnant in suspicious circumstances. How old was she? Twelve, thirteen years old (that’s the age most NT scholars suggest, given what we know about marriage patterns among Jews in 1st century Palestine). Twelve or thirteen years old, according to Luke’s story, she’s already heard from an angel that she is to give birth to a son. When the angel Gabriel appears to her and greets her, Hail Favored One, she is perplexed. When the angel tells her that she will bear a son, Jesus, who will be named Jesus and ascend to David’s throne, she asks, “How can this be?” The angel then tells her that her son will come from the Holy Spirit, that he will be the Son of God, and about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Then she responds, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

She then goes to visit Elizabeth where today’s gospel picks up with Elizabeth’s greeting, “Hail Mary, favored One!” and then her final words, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Before we reflect more on this little vignette, I would like to point to another passage in Luke’s gospel, a later reference to Mary. A woman shouts out from the crowd, in language reminiscent of Elizabeth’s blessing, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” To which Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” Similarly, Elizabeth’s blessing concludes by blessing her for believing the word that had been spoken to her.

This later episode helps us to understand what Luke is getting at, for Mary, in chapter 1 is shown to be someone who hears the word of God and obeys it. She accepts the responsibility of bearing Jesus, and we can assume that the angel’s mention of her cousin Elizabeth is a gentle nudge to get her to pay a visit. To put it bluntly, Luke depicts Mary as a model disciple, one who hears the word of God and obeys it.

But it’s easy to misinterpret what Mary’s discipleship means, how she is meant to be a model. The tradition has shaped her image in so many ways that’s hard to get back to what Luke is really about. We think of Mary as a passive recipient, someone who accepts what happens to her without complaint. The tradition has turned her into a model for a certain kind of discipleship, a femininity that is meek and mild, passive, receptive, quiet.

But that’s wrong. Listen to her song again:
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

These are not words of pious sentimentality, docility, or humility. The faith Mary proclaims is a faith in a God who takes decisive action on behalf of God’s people, a God who vindicates the righteous and condemns the wicked. The God to whom and of whom Mary sings is a God of liberation, a God who intervenes for the oppressed, the powerless, the poor and hungry. These are words proclaiming in a God who saves, but the salvation on offer is not for individuals, it is a salvation for all God’s people.

Indeed, so powerful is this God, so vivid the imagery in the song, that it is hard to imagine they are the words of teenager, a young woman who has just learned she is to be a mother by miraculous means. And the fact of the matter is that Mary’s words are not hers alone. They are also the words of another woman from the history of God’s saving acts, another woman who found herself with child, almost miraculously.

The Magnificat, Mary’s wonderful song, is a reworking of the Song of Hannah, which Hannah sang when she learned she would give birth to Samuel, a boy who would become judge, priest, and prophet over all of Israel. Like Mary after her, Hannah sang in praise of her God, confident of her people’s salvation through God’s continuing care for Israel, confident that God would bring justice and righteousness to the world.

Hannah’s words were put in the future tense. Her song of praise was a song of hope that God would one day make things right. Mary’s song is in the perfect tense, suggesting that God’s liberating action has already begun to take place, but that it is not complete. God’s reign, with its promise of justice for the poor and the oppressed still lies in the future, though Mary can see signs of that reign in the world around her.

God has scattered the proud in their conceit, cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has sent the rich away empty and filled the hungry with good things. It’s hard to hear these words without thinking of our own society and economy where income inequality is greater than at any time in a century, where the elderly and the poor risk losing what few benefits they have, where money equals power and our political class seems oblivious to the deep need in our nation.

When we sing or reflect on the Magnificat our tendency is to see these words as Mary’s words, not our own. We lack the imagination and faith to make these statements ours. But if we believe in a God who comes to us in a manger in Bethlehem, it shouldn’t be beyond our capacity to believe in a God who acts in history on behalf of the poor, powerless, the hungry and the oppressed. But more than that, we need to do more than sing the song, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Luke reminds us that a true follower of Jesus is one who hears his word and obeys it. This Advent and Christmas, this year and beyond, we should proclaim our faith that God is acting in history to vindicate the oppressed, and we should do all in our power to usher in God’s reign.

 

Mary–Perplexed, Pondering, Prophetic: A Sermon for Advent 4, Year A

What comes to mind for you when you think of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ? Do you think of a painting of her, perhaps a masterpiece from the Renaissance depicting her as a young woman, clothed in a beautiful blue dress, sitting demurely as the angel announces to her, “Hail Mary, full of grace!” Do you think of her at the foot of the cross, or holding the dead body of her son? Do you think of the theological and doctrinal debates surrounding her virginity or immaculate conception? Continue reading

My Soul Proclaims the Greatness of the Lord: A Sermon for Advent 4, Year C

The familiar story we have heard today has been painted thousands of times throughout history. Two women, one young, one elderly, both of them pregnant, greeting each other. Often, the elderly one is deferring to the younger one, kneeling before her. Other times, the two are embracing. It’s such a familiar image, such a familiar story, that we tend to pay it little attention. Certainly, it does not factor largely in our devotion. Though it’s the occasion for two of the most common hymns or devotions in Catholicism—the Ave Maria and the Magnificat—we probably rarely reflect on the narrative context from which these hymns come. And really, it’s hardly shocking that we don’t pay closer attention to the Visitation, for it’s a brief episode, not more than a couple of verses (not including the magnificat itself).

pontormo3

Jacopo da Pontormo, 1528

ghirlandaio_visitation

Ghirlandaio, 1491

Continue reading

The Magnificat: The Songs of Advent, Part 3. Lectionary Reflections for 4 Advent, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

This week’s gospel is the story of the Visitation, Mary’s visit to her elderly cousin Elizabeth. The focus of the selected verses is on the interaction between the two women as well as the response of the child Elizabeth is carrying in her womb. There’s a great deal of artifice in Luke’s depiction of this scene (what do two pregnant women talk about when they get together for coffee or a visit?) and our interest is easily diverted from their conversation to the sons they are carrying.

There’s a third woman present in the scene, not physically, but in her words. Mary’s song echoes the Song of Hannah from I Samuel 2:1-10. The ties between Mary and Hannah extend beyond the similarities of their songs. In I Samuel 1:11, Hannah identifies herself as the “handmaid of the Lord” just as Mary identifies herself in the same terms (Lk 1:38 and 1:48). The NRSV translates “servant” but the word means female slave.

Again, as in the other songs Luke uses in his story of the Nativity, the resonances with Hebrew Bible language, imagery, and psalmody are very strong. Like Elizabeth, Hannah was barren. She had prayed devoutly in hopes of having a child and promised to dedicate her son to the service of God. Both Hannah and Mary sing of God’s activity on behalf of the poor and oppressed; strikingly, Mary puts God’s actions on their behalf in the perfect tense. That is to say, God has already begun intervening on behalf of the oppressed; it is not only something we can hope for in the future and (there’s something of a parallel here to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes although in this case, God’s action lies in the future:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

When we sing or reflect on the Magnificat our tendency is to see these words as Mary’s words, not our own. We lack the imagination and faith to make these statements ours. But if we believe in a God who comes to us in a manger in Bethlehem, it shouldn’t be beyond our capacity to believe in a God who acts in history on behalf of the poor, powerless, the hungry and the oppressed. If Mary and Hannah can believe it, so ought we.

Lectionary Reflections, Advent 4, Year B: Occupy Bethlehem?

This week’s readings.

Our readings bring us ever closer to the coming of Christ, and it is easy for our attention to focus on Mary this week, with the story of the Annunciation as the gospel reading and the Magnificat as an option for the Psalm. But we shouldn’t let our expectation of Christmas divert our attention from the other readings. In particular, the reading from 2 Samuel is fascinating on its own, and meaningful too in its lectionary context, with God’s promise to David that “your throne shall be established forever.”

The passage from 2 Samuel occurs just after David has gained control of the monarchy and has begun the building projects that every victorious ruler undertakes–to demonstrate their power and symbolize their reign. David has built a “house of cedar” for himself, and gets the idea to build a temple for Yahweh. Nathan the prophet supports him in this effort, saying “The Lord is with you.”

Apparently Nathan wasn’t paying attention, because Yahweh speaks directly to David, asking him where he got this bright idea and whether Yahweh had ever asked to have a temple built. In fact, the Hebrew suggests that Yahweh has walked alongside and with the Israelites. For all of the effort in 1 and 2 Samuel to offer a defense of David’s rise to power and of his monarchy, there remains in the text considerable antagonism toward monarchy in general. This seems to be one example of that.

The lectionary editors no doubt wanted to focus our attention on the promise that David’s house would last forever and that his throne would be established forever, a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. But there’s another connection between this reading and our other texts. Yahweh tells David that “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name.” In the Magnificat, Mary sings:

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Just as Yahweh lifted up the lowly David and made him king, Mary sings that God casts down the mighty from their thrones and sends the rich away empty. There’s a connection here, not just the genealogical connection with David that Matthew and Luke want to emphasize. We are invited to compare the rule of David, perhaps the rule of Rome, too, with the rule, the reign of God, and the coming of the Messiah. To put our hopes in the power and justice of human rulers and institutions is to hope falsely, for 1 Kings goes on to describe how Solomon, the wisest of all kings, oppressed the people. His son Rehoboam promised to do even worse, a promise that was met with rebellion and led to the division of the Northern and Southern monarchies.

As Advent nears its end, this season in which we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ and reflect on his coming to us in Christmas and in the Second Coming, we do well to remember that God’s power is greater than that of any human agency or institution, and that Mary’s song praises a God who upends power relationships, reverses the status of rich and poor, and feeds the hungry. These latter are especially important to keep in mind with all the news of Occupy Wall Street, the 99%, and Republican efforts to lower taxes on the wealthiest of our citizens.