In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
This morning’s scripture consists of two sections. The first is the narrative that sets the scene and the second is a song. The narrative sets the scene on a personal level. In the beginning of this story we are told that God gives Mary and Elizabeth two things that they each lacked: community and connection. By bringing them together, God removes their isolation and helps them to understand themselves more fully as part of something larger than their own individual destinies. Together they are known more fully, and begin to see more clearly, than they do as individuals.
The second part of this passage is what I’m going to pay more attention to this morning. Between verses 46 and 55 we are given the longest single passage spoken by a woman in the New Testament. In this moment, a young pregnant Mary gives voice to a song for the ages – a song that invites us beyond our realistic expectations and our numb imaginations. Like an aria in an opera or a duet in a musical, the Magnificat stops the action of the Gospel in order to celebrate the greatness and covenant faithfulness of God. It’s a moment where the story stops and a character breaks into song – literally.
The missionary D.L. Mayfield recently wrote an article for The Washington Post that spoke about her relationship to the Magnificat. In that article, she writes that,
“When I was 15, I was cajoled into playing the role of Mary in our church’s Christmas nativity scene. I was embarrassed, stuffing a pillow under a robe to signify pregnancy, but I felt I had no choice: I was the pastor’s daughter, and there was no one else who could play the role. My cheeks burning in shame, I remember feeling little connection to Mary, the mother of God. I was silent in the play. Mary, in our tradition, was a vehicle for Jesus: a holy womb, a good and compliant and obedient girl. Much later in life, I was shocked to discover that Mary wasn’t quiet, nor was she what I would call meek and mild.”
In all of her years in church she had never heard the following verses emphasized, both because evangelicals try to ignore them and because the lectionary keeps verses 46-55 optional for this Sunday. As Mary states, “[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Mayfield, somewhat understandably asks, “Where has this Mary been all my life?” We could, likewise, ask where this Christmas has been all our lives? As a white middle-class man, this is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Christmas and yet, this is what we get when we hear the mother of God speaking about the universal significance of her son’s birth. It’s what we hear when a woman is the longest amount of space any woman has in the New Testament.
Throughout history poor and oppressed people have often identified with this song. Oscar Romero, a priest and martyr, drew a comparison between Mary and the poor and powerless people in his own community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.” The poor and the oppressed have often loved Mary and viewed the significance of Christmas through her song. But the Magnificat has also been viewed as dangerous by people in power. Some countries – such as India, Guatemala, and Argentina – have outright banned the Magnificat from being recited in liturgy or in public. And evangelicals – in particular, white evangelicals – have devalued the role of Mary, and her song, to the point that she has almost been forgotten as anything other than a silent figure in a nativity scene.
But there are exceptions. The image that I have put up on the screen was made by the artist Ben Wildflower. I don’t know if many of you have been in Coit Tower in San Francisco, but I’ve been there often. As you may know, the inside is filled with images that depict social circumstances in the beginning of the 20th century. Although it’s essentially American there’s a similarity between the murals in Coit Tower and the works of Mexican revolutionaries from the same time period. This piece, although contemporary, reminds me of both of those styles.
The artist, Wildflower, grew up evangelical, but he had never heard the song of Mary until he started attending an Episcopal congregation. There, the Magnificat was a part of the evening prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, and Wildflower found it beautiful and profound. One day he picked up a piece of wood outside of a construction site and crafted an image of Mary that was different from all the sweet pictures of her staring up into heaven. He drew her with her fist raised to the sky, and her foot stepping on a snake. And it is now his most popular piece of art. As he describes her, Mary is, “a young woman singing a song about toppling rulers from their thrones. She’s a radical who exists within the confines of institutionalized religion.”
For many of this, this may be hard to relate to. It doesn’t seem very Christmas-y. So why would this passage be in the lectionary for the fourth week of Advent? Why is Mary speaking this way when she’s speaking about the significance of her son’s birth? Why is this the only thing we actually hear from her on the topic of Jesus’ birth? I think that answer to that is simple. Christmas is fundamentally countercultural. Well… maybe not countercultural to everyone, but certainly to a society that makes such a production out of consumerism every December 25th. If you live in a poorer part of the world, the meaning of Christmas isn’t tied to the joy of presents and an indulgent amount of food. It’s rooted in something a little deeper – a recognition of God’s faithfulness and his covenant to redeem humanity – to let two women who are both weird and outside of the norm encourage each other.
As Gustavo Gutierrez, a Dominican priest, once wrote, we will miss the meaning of the text with any “attempts to tone down what Mary’s song tells us about the preferential love of God for the lowly and the abused." It might not feel like good news to me, exactly, as someone who is neither hungry nor poor. But Mary and her song are good news for my neighbors, both locally and globally, who continue to be crushed under a world that thrives on exploitation and injustice. And as someone who is trying to take the Bible seriously, I know that loving my neighbor is the number one way I can love God in our world. And that is why this is the text assigned to the fourth Sunday of Advent – Love Sunday.
Mary is not just a silent member of the nativity, or a holy womb for God, or an obedient and compliant girl. She can be a focal point for the way that Christians should celebrate Christmas, while living in the reality of waiting for true justice to come. She can help us understand the true magnificence of how much God cares about the world – the real life tangible world – and what love really looks like in that world.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, comes singing words of wisdom. In our hours of darkness, mother Mary sings to us. When broken hearted living in the world finally agree, they’ve found the answer. And even when we’ve been parted, there’s still a chance that we will see. And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines, it’ll shine until tomorrow upon you and me.