24 December 2006
Advent 4C * Luke 1: 39-55
Mary’s Song For Today
One of the Gospel of Luke’s great gifts to humanity is the Magnificat, or The Song of Mary. It is poetry, and thereby it is an act of imaginative creativity. As such it is meant to move to the deepest places in our hearts and souls to inspire us – literally to breathe into us – the Miracle of the Incarnation – what the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 describes as The Definition of the Union of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ.
From page 864 in our Book of Common Prayer it reads in part, “…as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer (Theotokos)…” Theotokos – God-bearer, this young woman who so dominates our liturgy this morning and our church at all times.
There she is in stained glass standing guard over one of the entrances to our little church. She is back in the corner, waiting patiently to hear our prayers, as she waited patiently for nine months to see God’s promise made true in flesh and blood. She is cast in bronze at the base of our Paschal Candle stand kneeling beside the manger. She appears in no fewer than four of our terra-cotta depictions of the Stations of the cross, none more poignant than the scene we know as Pieta, Theotokos the God-bearer holding the crucified body of her son just as she had held him as Baby Jesus some thirty years before.
And of course in Advent, here she is among the animals in the Lenox Creche, while the entire church is adorned in Blue – the color of hope, the color of distance, the color of the sky to which he ascends, the color of the sea in whose sacred surf we are baptized into his life, death and resurrection, the color of Mary, his mother – Mary, Theotokos – Mary, the God-bearer.
There is so much that is odd and yet wonderful about this story. Mary set out – or was she sent – to visit a distant relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who like Sarah before her, finds herself suddenly with child at an age thought to be impossible. Zechariah, Liz’s husband and priest of the Temple, has been temporarily struck mute – that is he is unable to comment on the extreme social and religious difficulties presented by this Mary, a young girl who is unmarried and yet with child. Who in a less sensitive time would be called an unwed mother with an illegitimate child.
Perhaps Mary heads for the hills to avoid all the talk on the street, the disapproving glances and possible punishment back home. But Liz is six month’s pregnant and Mary leaves before the child known as John the Baptizer is born. Odd that she does not stay to help with and after the birth. Odd that she returns home just as she would begin “to show” as we say. When she returns is just when people on the street will begin to draw their own conclusions. How surprising that she stays so long and leaves so soon. How courageous to go home when she does. This is not a woman who submits, but rather a woman who is strong in the Lord – the God of her people who delivers on his promises.
After all she is named after Miriam, the sister of Moses, a prophet in her own time, a liberating leader in her own right, and primary celebrant of the Exodus, leading the women in the wilderness to dance and sing and play on their tambourines the Glory of the Lord whose mercy and loving kindness is beyond our knowing . Not only is Mary a God-bearer, but she bears the history, promises and hope of her people throughout the ages in her very name.
Put Elizabeth’s song alongside Mary’s song and we have before us two very strong women, both well rooted in their people’s history, rooted in hopes that have kept their families alive for millennia, and both well prepared to give birth and training to babies who will grow up to be leaders – leaders not just for Israel, but for all the world.
These two women bear the hope that God will turn the world right-side-up again. In their bodies they carry babies whom they will raise to carry out that task. Perhaps Mary goes home when she does because she and Elizabeth have created a foundation on which Mary can stand in the face of the very real dangers and misunderstandings that shall form the basis of the rest of her life – and that of her son, Jesus.
Mary’s song proclaims what God has done for Mary, what God does in history, that God’s mercy endures throughout history, what God does to establish justice, and a final declaration of God’s mercy as witnessed as far back as Abraham and “his descendants forever." As we heard last Sunday from John, Mary declares that through her God is acting decisively with mercy for the vast majority of the world’s population, but which is decidedly bad news for the proud, the powerful and the rich who are to be scattered, torn down and “sent away empty.” Mary’s song is a prophetic warning. One might even say it is revolutionary.
Two women, two strong and faithful women, join together with God to turn the world right-side-up again. Two women who remind us of the centrality of women in God’s story and our history – women with names like Sarah, Miriam, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Deborah, Hannah, Ruth, Jezebel, Huldah, Esther, Mary of Magdala, Martha and the assortment of Mary’s to name just a few. Under the present circumstances in our church it is crucial to remember that at key moments in our tradition’s history, the historians of our faith have placed crucial verdicts on the lips of an authorized woman. Mary continues this tradition, just as The Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts Schori holds a similar place in our tradition.
I would simply conclude with the observation that when Archbishop Cranmer put together the first Book of Common Prayer, it was by his design that we should pray the Song of Mary at least once a day in our evening prayers. Each revision of the prayer book has retained this intent. Mary, Mary’s song, and all that it represents of the reconciling desire of all God’s mercy and work, is to be for us a kind of mantra. I believe the intent behind our daily praying of the Magnificat is to make us all Theotokos – God-bearers – in a world that increasingly appears to be looking for a miracle.
Another one of God’s strong women, Maggie Ross, a hermit and modern day saint, has put it this way: “The Wrath of God is his relentless compassion, pursuing us even when we are at our worst. Lord, give us mercy to bear your mercy.”
Like the prophets and those who fear God in every generation, like Mary and Elizabeth, we have been chosen by God to be baptized into the Body of Christ. Like Mary, we too are called to be Theotokos – God-bearer. We are to bear and bare her child to the world. It is not our choice, but God’s will that we do this. Armed with just these words Mary faced a dangerous and unforgiving world. We can too. Amen.