Dr. Larycia Hawkins, from my home village of Oak Park, Illinois, currently a professor at Wheaton College, an Evangelical Liberal Arts school, has been suspended through the spring semester for explaining her Advent practice this year. A student had suggested to her that all female college students should wear the hijab, or headscarf, on flights home for the holidays to stand in solidarity with their Muslim sisters who are under increased discrimination and attack for doing so following the tragic attack in San Bernadino, CA, and the harsh campaign rhetoric that has flooded the airways. When challenged for wearing the hijab on campus her response, in part, was to quote Pope Francis who recently said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. School administrators defended her suspension saying that her actions and explanation had profound theological implications, and that, "By placing her on leave, the school says it doesn't believe Muslims and Christians worship the same God," he said. "The college had no choice."
The Song of Mary, The Magnificat (Luke 1: 39-45), also contains profound theological implications which I would argue support Professor Hawkins in her chosen Advent Discipline. An angel of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Jesus and Muhammed addresses a young Israelite woman named Miriam. Miriam, of course, was also the name of Moses’ sister and prophet who helped lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt . It was Miriam who led the sisters in dancing and singing to celebrate their new found freedom in the Lord!
Our Miriam finds herself in a profoundly awkward and yet privileged situation. Unmarried, yet betrothed or engaged, she is told she will bear a child on behalf of God. Quite sensibly she responds, “How can this be?” She is told that with God all things are possible, that her cousin Elizabeth who had been barren (much like the Biblical Hannah, 1 Samuel chapters 1-2) was already with child, and that all shall be well. Miriam says, Yes, “…let it be with me according to your word.” It is on a visit with Elizabeth that the young Miriam sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior….”
This song, The Magnificat, goes on to lay out a dramatic set of reversals such as God bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, sending the rich away empty, filling the hungry with good things, all according to “the promises he made to our ancestor Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
It helps to remember his direct descendants are Isaac, the father of Jacob later named Israel, and Ishmael, Isaac’s brother and the accepted father of Islam. That is, all monotheists, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, are “descendants of Abraham forever.” Forever is a very long time.
Our story, then, is that God chose a young woman to give birth to the beginnings of a whole new world. And, she chose to accept the responsibility to do this new thing – to work with God to change the world as we know it.
I have been fortunate to know young women like Mary. At St. Timothy’s School for Girls, I met students from Afghanistan who are actively involved in changing the world they live in. One girl began blogging as part of the Afghan Women's Writer's Project as a young teen. We are all familiar with the efforts of Malala Yousafzai on behalf of education for young women throughout the world, but what we don’t know is that there are literally thousands of girls like Malala stepping out with great courage and faith doing things as powerful as blogging and writing essays and poetry and songs calling women to claim their rights, to things as simple as riding a bicycle through the streets of Kabul which, it turns out, is a prophetic action that in itself has the power to change lives and minds and attitudes toward women.
My friend, I will call her Sharifa, writes on her blog, “Most of the girls, including myself, had always thought that the only attitude we could expect from people, especially men, about girls biking in public in Kabul would be negative. However, we were wrong.
“On our second group bike ride in Darlaman, an old man stopped us. To be honest, all of us were scared, but he told us: “You girls raise Afghanistan’s flag. Foreigners will change their minds about Afghanistan when they see you biking around. Let me tell you something, I am in charge of that park right there and I am not allowed to let bicycles inside, but today is a good day, and I am proud of you so I can make an exception!”
In our Eucharistic Prayer we pray, “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us…”
We see that in the thousands of women in Afghanistan writing at great risk to themselves and their families bringing about positive change in the world. We see that in Brittany "Bree" Newsome as she climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol. And we see that in women like Dr. Hawkins as she persists in her Advent discipline and witness to her Christ, the Jesus of the Magnificat, as she defends her her choice to wear the hijab in solidarity with those Muslim women everywhere who face danger and discrimination every day for simply practicing the traditions of some of the descendants of Abraham “forever.”
Whatever else The Song of Miriam, The Magnificat, may be about, it stands as a monument in poetry to the bravery of women everywhere throughout all time who not only magnify the Lord in word but in their everyday choices and actions.
I pray that Dr. Hawkins’ Advent practice will change the hearts, if not of her colleague administrators at Wheaton College, of people everywhere of all minds and traditions to look to the witness of young women all about us who call us to usher in a new world of justice and peace for all people – not some people, not a lot of people, not people just like us, but all people. For that is what truly will magnify the Lord and rejoice the spirits of all.
Afghan Women's Writers Project