Written by Steven Liechty
Sunday, December 15
Third Sunday of Advent
Heartbeat of Justice/Liberation's Song
O God of Isaiah and John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Mary, through all such faithful ones you proclaim the unfolding of future joy and renewed life. Strengthen our hearts to believe your advent promise that one day we will walk in the holy way of Christ, where sorrow and sighing will be no more and the journey of God's people will be joy. Amen.
And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
All Readings For This Sunday
Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:47-55
1. What would you sing in a Magnificat of your own?
2. How much do our Christmas carols resemble the Magnificat?
3. How does it make a difference that you listen for God's word in community rather than alone?
4. How do you connect your "smaller" story with the "larger" story of God?
5. Where and when have you seen the promises of God brought to fulfillment?
Reflection by Kate Huey
Advent is a time for prophets, like Jesus and John the Baptist, who came out of the wilderness speaking of world-shaking events and exhorting us to turn our lives around in preparation for what is to come. On this Third Sunday in Advent, we listen to another kind of prophet, a simple maiden who comes not from the wilderness but from her own village to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. Mary and Elizabeth are women with voices and something to say, or in Mary's case, something to sing. Women: we're definitely not at "the top of the heap," here, especially not when there's an actual priest in the house, Zechariah, an expert in matters of faith. Ironically, Zechariah is the one in this scene without a voice, literally, since he's been struck speechless during his own angelic visit; we have the rare opportunity to hear from the women for a change. And what a change they dream of!
In their beautiful book, "The First Christmas," Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan call Mary's song, The Magnificat, an "overture" to Luke's Gospel in which he sounds important themes that will appear again and again in his story. Luke's emphasis on women, the marginalized, and the Holy Spirit are all evident in the birth narratives, including this week's text. Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, gives voice to those who are lowly, like the shepherds to whom the angels later announce the birth of Jesus. Her spontaneous outburst in song also echoes Hannah's praise for God's marvelous deeds in the lives of all who are marginalized or downtrodden (1 Samuel 2). Like Hannah, Mary sings out of her own experience, her own hope, but out of the experience and hope of her people as well. The Magnificat is indeed a lovely expression of joy at God's promises kept, a celebration of the tables being turned, or overturned: the lowly are lifted up, the proud are brought down, and the hungry are fed. God remembers the people of Israel, and the promises God has made to them. What a powerful text for every heart hungry for good news at the end of another year of war, economic dislocation, and political strife!
Advent is also a time of waiting and preparation, a time pregnant with hope, and here, at its midpoint, we watch and listen as Mary and Elizabeth, two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness, tend first to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting to every woman, especially the first time around, and these two women have found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms: one past the age to conceive, and the other a virgin. So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they face first-time childbirth and motherhood. Henri Nouwen sees the larger picture here, where neither woman has to wait alone for the ordinary, personal experience of motherhood or the extraordinary, world-changing events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: "They could wait together and thus deepen in each other their faith in God, for whom nothing is impossible. Thus, God's most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community."
We in the church are keenly aware that we also wait in community for the promises of God to unfold in our lives, too. Here, in community, we hold each other up when one of us needs encouragement or support. We help one another search for meaning, rejoice with one another, walk alongside each other. Just as Elizabeth must have listened to Mary, and helped her prepare for what was to come (as much as such a marvelous thing might be prepared for), we help one another work things out. Sometimes, we just sit in the dark quiet and wait, together, trusting in the promises of God, listening for a word from the Stillspeaking God. "In a way," Timothy Mulder writes, "here is a preface for Emmanuel. We humans are not meant to go through the tough or the wonderful alone. Both need to be shared." And in the midst of our waiting, as Paul, writing from prison, encouraged the Philippians; as Hannah and Mary sang God's praise; and as Elizabeth welcomed her beloved cousin and companion, we rejoice, our hearts dancing within us. That is the way that we move with Mary's song.
Would we say today that Elizabeth is a kind of mother-figure to Mary, or a spiritual mentor? Mary seems to need both, and perhaps a protective figure as well. Barbara Brown Taylor evokes Mary's plight, alone and disadvantaged in the system: "What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, 'The child really is mine. Now leave the poor girl alone.'" But the young girl doesn't have to explain her situation to Elizabeth, or ask her questions in search of answers, or even to ask for acceptance. When Mary sees her much older cousin, Taylor imagines, she sees a "gorgeous" woman, "not gorgeous by ordinary standards, you understand, but so full of life that it is hard to see much beyond her joy." Is it any surprise, then, that in her relief and joy, Mary begins to sing?
Mary's song is music that comes from deep within her, perhaps, we would say today, from her DNA. On that doorstep, she sings for Elizabeth and both of their babies, and maybe for the bewildered priest in the background, watching the whole scene. This young girl, inexperienced and sheltered, sings about God's blessings in her life, and of God's vision of a world made right. Perhaps she gets carried away: "She is no longer singing the song; the song is singing her," Taylor writes, "and what music, what verse!" This teenager is "no politician, no revolutionary; she simply wants to sing a happy song, but all of a sudden she has become an articulate radical, an astonished prophet singing about a world in which the last have become first and the first, last." Mary's song, Taylor writes, isn't just for Elizabeth but "for every son and daughter who thought God has forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life."
A dangerous song
We linger for a moment on the meaning of Mary's song about God filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Scholars agree that this wasn't just a "My God is stronger than your god" song. It wasn't a call to violent uprising or bloody vengeance, either, then or now, even though, as John Ortberg observes in a Christian Century article, "New Testament scholar Scott McKnight notes that in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned this song" because, "[u]nlike 'Away in a Manger,' this prayer was apparently considered subversive, politically dangerous. Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot." I remember hearing years ago that in the Latin American base communities, the people got to read the Bible themselves and heard in the Good News that God did not want their children to die of hunger and disease, or their husbands and sons to be disappeared, or their daughters brutalized by poverty. All sorts of "trouble" can start when the people get their hands on the Bible, it seems. Maybe the governmental authorities of Guatemala were paying more attention than most of us pay as we sing our hymns. What, for example, does it mean when we sing this Christmas that the baby born this day "rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of God's righteousness and wonders of God's love"?
Let's compare, for example, "God's righteousness" with the way things were in Mary's time. We can better understand the deep, desperate hope of this young girl if we look more closely at her setting, in the time of Herod the Great. Again, Ortberg's reflection is very helpful, as he describes the burdensome taxes of Herod's reign, taxes that built the temple and supported Herod's lifestyle but also cost the poor their land, concentrating wealth at the very top and leaving the masses impoverished. Herod was so brutal and unpopular that "[h]e knew people would party when he died, so he supposedly had 70 elite Jewish citizens imprisoned with orders that they be executed on the day of his death so that there would be tears in Israel." Ortberg goes on to wonder with a religious imagination of his own whether Jesus himself learned "his material"–-about the poor and the hungry and the meek being blessed-–from his mother: "Did he learn from her that God has no intention of tolerating the injustice and greed of this world on a permanent basis?" What a refreshing exercise of religious imagination!
It's true that things aren't as they should be in our age, either, even without a Herod the so-called Great. People are suffering: the poor and the middle-class, too, the unemployed and the despairing (even the economic "recovery" seems to have deepened the gap between rich and poor, and eroded the middle class, and our leaders debate whether we can "afford" to feed the hungry among us). Charles Campbell hears hope when "Mary gives voice to a song for the ages, a song that invites us beyond our realistic expectations and our numb imagination." Can we imagine a different and better world? What has "numbed" our imaginations? Even though there are proportionately many more people with enough (and far more than enough) to live comfortably than there were in Mary's time, the church is still called to proclaim "God's challenge to good order," Campbell writes, wherever that "good" order requires or results in the suffering of the poor. As long as millions of children go to bed hungry or homeless or afraid each night, there are tables to be turned, that is, if we're going to mean what we sing in this year's Christmas carols. Sharon Ringe describes the righting of things, when all of God's children will have what they need, when the rich and the hungry, the lowly and the powerful "move toward a common middle ground." Ringe's claim for Mary's time is our dream, too, when "an economy marked by scarcity and competition is replaced by an economy of generosity in which all have enough."
Daring to sing the Magnificat
Wouldn't it be extraordinary if our Christmas dreaming led us to begin the new year with a new vision for our economic recovery: re-shaping it into one of generosity and abundance for all? Is that such a terrifying idea for those who have far more than enough? Eugene Peterson's translation of the Magnificat may say that "[t]he starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold" (The Message), but Stephen Cooper suggests that Mary's song is "not intended to raise violent resistance or to drive the wealthy and powerful to despair." Instead, "the well-off are exhorted to deal with their wealth in a way that brings them into a positive relation with the poor in order to partake in the same promised salvation." However, even this kind of conversion would take considerable courage. Richard Ascough asks perhaps the most provocative question of all: "I wonder whether we would dare to sing the Magnificat today. What would it mean?" Talk about starting trouble!
We long for a time when suffering will end and everyone will have enough, when nations and families will live in peace, and the earth will be restored and healed of the damage that has been done. This is a vision for the future, but we live in the present, counting on the promises of God. Interesting: Mary had the nerve and the imagination to claim such a future for herself and her people, but Barbara Brown Taylor says that "she was singing about it ahead of time--not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it--not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone." Are we capable of mixing up our tenses, too, of seeing in the past what is unfolding in our lives and what is still yet to come?
As the world goes on ahead of us and celebrates Christmas, we are still in Advent, trying to learn from Mary, Fred Craddock says, to "stand expectantly at hope's window." But we're saturated with Christmas music, calls to shop and spend, and expectations that we cannot meet. Some of us look back longingly on Christmases past, hoping to re-create better, more secure, less troubled times, and many folks are grieving or depressed or lonely during the holiday season. The church's call is to tell the story once again, to comfort and inspire and just be with those who need help in looking forward in hope. Michael S. Bennett writes, "The development of hope within community takes time. How many Marys and Elizabeths (or Zechariahs and Josephs) might there be sitting in the pews, awaiting an opportunity to connect more deeply with the people around them? How many long to connect their small story with the larger stories of God?" How much time are we spending, even in the life of the church, in quiet waiting and listening this Advent?
Yes, we're anxious to start singing our beloved Christmas carols, songs of joy and peace, music that's imprinted on our hearts and souls, just as Mary's own song was part of who she was. First, though, we might linger for a while on Mary's song of tables turned upside down, and feasts for the poor and hungry. In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of the goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, we stand by that window with Mary, expectant with hope, listening for God's own heartbeat, a heartbeat of justice, compassion, and transformational love.
For further reflection
Simone Weil, 20th century
"Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity."
Meister Eckart, 14th century
"We are all meant to be mothers of God."
Eleanor Roosevelt, 20th century
"The future belongs to those who believe in the be uty of their dreams."
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"One filled with joy preaches without preaching."
"A people is never defeated until the hearts of the women are on the ground."
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/december-15-2013.html.
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