Among the most widespread of fears, is the fear of speaking — public speaking to be specific. It’s sometimes considered to be the single most common fear, outpacing the likes of heights and snakes and spiders. But beyond the phobia, there is a related fear, or at least discomfort: a fear of our own voices.
The virtual space in which we have lived these last nine months has heightened this, for many of us now have the unenviable experience of more frequently hearing ourselves. Take church, where we record ourselves for worship, or prayer, or sermon, or virtual choral projects. It’s a vulnerable thing. A frightening thing, even. And if you’ve done it, and if you’ve heard it, then surely you’ve had the reaction, from the most experienced speaker or singer to the child sharing a reading, testimony or song for the first time: “Ohhhh, does my voice really sound like THAT?!”
In fact, cringing at the sound of your voice is so common that it has a name: “voice confrontation” — being confronted with what you sound like, which is so very often different than what you’ve perceived. A common explanation is physical, based on audio frequency, that because we normally hear our own voice while talking, we receive sound transferred internally through our bones, which lowers the sound of our voice as we receive it. But then when you receive it through a recording, without that bone resonance, suddenly you realize you sound different than you thought.
But then that’s only a partial explanation. There’s something about our own expectation in this fear, too… For example, a 2013 study asked participants to rate the appeal and strength of different recorded voice samples, and when their own voice was secretly mixed in with these samples, participants gave significantly higher ratings to their voice, when they did not recognize it as their own. (1)
It seems some of us don’t expect strength, power, beauty or resonance in ourselves. Or at least we don’t hear these things in our own voices.
Which must have been a challenge for Mary. At least at first. Throughout this season, we are acknowledging the propensity for fear, and the Advent refrain, “Do Not Be Afraid…” For Christ comes to people that know fear. These were the words that Mary first heard from the angel, Gabriel: “Do not be afraid, Mary.” And who had any more reason for fear than she?
The news from the angel was not good news of great joy, for her, not right at first. It was not a role she was expecting, or that she had imagined in herself. Saying “yes” to God’s call, in fact, put her at great risk, marginalizing her in at least three ways: she’s young, she’s a woman, and she’s unexpectedly and inexplicably pregnant. She can’t hide it – not from family or village or fiancé – so she must have been frightened when Luke describes her leaving home “with haste.” She leaves as quickly as she can. She goes to seek the comfort and understanding of an older, safer relative: Elizabeth. And as she arrives, Elizabeth becomes the first of all the generations since to call Mary “blessed.”
It’s an assurance that the Son is actually coming – here, among us, the possibilities of God realized here amidst the impossibilities of this earth. And Mary starts to feel it as surely as she feels the child move for the first times. It’s a sign of life and a reminder of what is to be. It’s reminder of who he will be, and of who she already is. She doesn’t know everything that will happen, but still she commits herself and says once again “Let it be with me according to your word.” And this time, perhaps anticipating the course and call of this child’s life, Mary starts to sing.
As Kathleen Norris has written, in that moment, “Mary doesn’t lose her voice [in the midst of fear]. She finds it.” (2)
She finds that it is not meek and mild, but strong, powerful, and an instrument of the reign and justice of God. She sings of a God who cares deeply and passionately about people and how they live, the conditions of their lives in the world. God cares a lot about those who are shut out and marginalized. God cares a lot about people who, in this plentiful world are hungry or in this active and bustling world are forgotten or in this loud world of bravado are silenced. God cares about injustice and suffering and inequality of any kind.
And with every word Mary sings, this vision is embodied in her — a peasant girl, poor, young, on the edges of the power of this world. The kind of woman who would birth the son of God and have no place else to place him but into a manger. If God was choosing someone to birth God’s own son, you might start to think God would choose someone elevated, with great social power. Unless of course who Mary is tells us something about who God is — that God comes into the world this way, works in the world this way, and wanted the Son to be born to this woman, to know her particular strength, and from those earliest moments stretching into this world in her womb, to hear her distinct voice.
How do we hear that voice today, as it booms with the imagery of a new kingdom born that will stand in contrast to the kingdoms of this world: “God has shown strength and scattered the proud… God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly… God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty… God will keep the promises God has made.”
Well sometimes this can be a kind of “voice confrontation” at Advent — confronted with the sound of Mary’s voice. It’s what Bonhoeffer once called the most revolutionary hymn ever sung. It’s the kind of song that sent Herod into a murderous frenzy, searching for this one born to Mary. It’s the kind of song that frustrated authorities throughout the course of Jesus’ life. And it’s the kind of song that provokes resistance or avoidance to this day. Yes, plenty have proven to be downright afraid of Mary’s voice.
There were places in Latin America, El Salvador, and Guatemala where within the last 50 years the public reading of the Magnificat was forbidden as subversive activity.
Or consider how when Martin Luther and his followers translated the Bible into German, they did not translate Mary’s song into the common language. We call it the Magnificat — from the Latin — and part of why we call it this is because it was primarily available in Latin. Some of Luther’s strongest supporters were sitting on thrones, and didn’t exactly embrace the Magnificat’s reversal of conventional power, so he left the Magnificat in Latin, where it was less accessible to all.
And lest we think such reactions historic or distant, we should ask how Mary’s voice falls on our ears. Mary’s voice was echoed by Dr. Martin Luther King, when he once said “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” But as frequently and freely as Dr. King is quoted in this statement, I sometimes wonder if we prefer the length of the arc to it’s ultimate bend and aim that calls for so much change and renewal.
If we’re honest, we might prefer the symbolic or spiritual aspects of Christ’s coming to all the abrupt talk of the mighty being pulled from their thrones and the lowly lifted.
And yet it’s the kind of song that some people can listen to and suddenly hear their own voices differently; suddenly believe that the promises of God are for them, and that God does not want them to suffer with hunger or disease. God doesn’t want their lives to waste away. God doesn’t want them to be lost in poverty living amidst vulnerability and risk.
My friend Rev. Heidi Neumark is a Lutheran pastor, who once was pastor of a tiny church in New York City in the poorest section of the Bronx. She wrote a wonderful memoir of her time there, called Breathing Space, and tells of this congregation composed of all kinds of people: undocumented workers, drug addicts, women who had shaken loose from prostitution. “And those were just the church officers,” Heidi says. She shared recently about how once amidst Advent worship a woman read the Magnificat aloud in a congregation filled with people, many of whom were living in poverty, and at the end the woman looked up and added, “Thank God!”
How do we hear Mary’s voice? And how might hearing Mary’s voice, help us to hear again our own?
Jesus, of course, loved the sound of his mother’s voice. The New Testament scholar, Dr. Beverly Gaventa, has reminded us that Jesus had a mother, who “nursed, nurtured, taught him, played with him, told him stories that may later have become parables… and sang to him throughout his days…” (3)
Mary’s voice first rings out before Jesus is born, but it becomes his song and follows him for his entire life.
The night he is born, Mary is joined by a multitude of heavenly hosts who pick up the theme with a song of “Peace goodwill to all.”
As he grows, Jesus follows this message to the Jordan, connecting his life to the prophet, John, not at the center of power but out in the wilderness with people who know life there.
He wades into the water there and rises up from his baptism, and traces of his mother’s voice can be heard in the parting the sky and reminding him who he is, and who we all are, as beloved children of God.
It’s there still, reminding him who he is when he’s asked one day, “Are you the one? Or should we wait for another?” And even when he wonders this himself, off by himself in the garden of self-doubt, I imagine that somehow that song of his mother echoes for him then. “Not my will but yours be done,” he says, which sounds like something you might hear from someone who had heard of how their mother once sang, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
So her song becomes his song. Her voice shapes his own. And it stays with him, just as she herself does. She follows him from Nazareth. She continues all the way to Jerusalem, and there she watches as the terrible, holy events of that last week unfold. She’s there in the crowd when he’s led to his trial, and she’s among the masses the next morning, when the world he called to renewal and sought to turn upside down finally, with all its inertia toward the status quo, turns back to the only order it knows and crushes him as it does. But still she is there. She refuses to leave him when all the others — Peter, John, James, all of them — flee in fear. But his mother stays. The Bible doesn’t tell us if she says anything at all. But I can imagine her lips mouthing the words, her breath catching as she seeks to project, her voice finding again the song about a God who, even in death, raises up the lowly.
There’s a moment early in Jesus’ ministry — his first public moment after baptism and wilderness, in fact — when he returns to Nazareth, his hometown. Luke describes it in Luke 4. He walks to the front of synagogue and reads from the scroll of Isaiah, the lectionary text from the prophets for this Third Sunday of Advent — the same words that Emerson and Autumn read for us earlier in worship: “Good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… freedom for the oppressed.”
Of all that Jesus could have read, in his first public proclamation, of all he could have declared about his mission and priorities, Luke is careful to say that Jesus “found his place.” He found his place in these words of justice and transformation, and all this world can yet be. And where did he learn to do so, but from his mother?
Some have said that this moment for Jesus was a pivotal moment of discerning and declaring his vocation. That’s “vocation,” from a Latin root that means “voice.”
Don’t be afraid of your voice. It is strong. It is powerful. It is beautiful. It is an instrument of the justice of God, as it was for Mary whose voice this Advent, might just help us to hear again our own.
“The Mighty One has done great things for me
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,
He has kept his promises for generations”
Yes, your voice really sounds like that. And thanks be to God.
- “I like my voice better” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24386714/
- In Christian Century25 (December 2005)
- Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary