Our Advent 4 Sermon concludes our Advent Sermons on the O Antiphons, with focus on “O Come, Thou Wisdom” and The Magnificat of Mary.
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Tonight the song will ring out from our congregation with candles raised against the night in a soaring, breathtaking moment. But I’m not sure it will be any more joyful than it was when the carol was sung a week ago, last Sunday evening. It was not by choir or congregation, but a small cluster of carolers. There was no grand sanctuary setting, but instead the small community room of a local assisted care facility, where members of our church gathered with a 100 year-old member, Mrs. Anne Barnes. There are things she doesn’t remember about her life and her church, but when the song was sung, it reached the heart of this former choir member. Her lips formed the words and her ears found the tune, and heaven and nature sang, as Anne sang right along. The song was deep down somewhere, ingrained in her as she had sung it all the years of her life.
It reminds me of what I heard my friend, Rev. Gail Jones, once share: “Every person has a song.” Rev. Jones is pastor of the Long Island Christian Community, and this observation came when she and I were part of a service commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King a few years ago. Rev. Jones was reflecting on the theme of legacy, and especially the honoring of the ancestors that’s so core to Dr. King and to the spirituality of the Black Church in the United States. She lifted the memory of her grandmother, and recalled a tradition her grandmother used to tell her about as a child. Her grandmother described how she had heard about a village on the Continent – Africa – where before a child was born, the mother would write that child a song. The song was sung as the baby stretched in the womb, hearing its notes and melody. The song would be taught to others in the village, so that when the child was born, the midwife and family would sing the baby into the world. It wouldn’t take long for the whole community to know the child’s song, so that if he fell and scraped his knee, someone from the village could come near singing the notes of his song. Or if she was lost or afraid, she could mouth the words to herself for calm and assurance. A child’s own particular melody, sung at their rites of passage, ringing out, perhaps, at a wedding, and rehearsed again and again in moments of self doubt and restlessness and suffering. A song that would follow a person throughout all the days of their life.
Our scripture text rings out today with what I would consider to be Jesus’ song. A song ingrained in his him, encapsulating his person. A song that before it ever echoed in the life of our Messiah, was first sung by his mother, Mary. It reminds us that Jesus had a mother who, in the words of the theologian Beverly Gaventa, “nursed, nurtured, taught him, played with him, told him stories that may later have become parables, and sang to him throughout his days…” (1)
And her song to him begins here. It’s some time after she’s heard from the angel Gabriel – perplexed and astonished, before finally saying with the voice of all those called before her, “Here am I.” Resolved as she is, this child is not good news at first. Mary now finds herself marginalized and vulnerable in at least three ways: she’s young, she’s a woman, and she’s unexpectedly and inexplicably pregnant. She can’t hide her condition – not from family or village or fiancé – so frightened, no doubt overwhelmed, she leaves home “with haste,” Luke says. 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 he is actually coming – here, among us, the possibilities of God realized here amidst the impossibilities of this earth. Mary can now 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. 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.
A professor friend of mine was giving a quiz to his religion class this month, and he wrote a bonus question on the dry-erase board: “Did Mary know?” He was drawing, of course, on the vastly popular song covered and re-covered over the last decades, “Mary, did you know?” Popular as the song is, that’s not really a question if we are listening to Mary’s own song. Mary knew before anyone knew. Her song is not meek or passive, but a strong affirmation of her self, her call, her commitment.
As Kathleen Norris has written, in that moment, “Mary doesn’t lose her voice [in the midst of fear]. She finds it.” (2) Her lips form the words, her ears find the tune. But it’s not a lullaby that we hear. As Will Willimon has said, “As the pregnant young woman looks out across the Judean hills and sings, she thinks she hears kingdoms fall and the earth rock beneath her feet. She feels the child within her move, and so she hums a song of liberation.” (3)
The strength of Mary’s song evokes imagery from Proverbs of wisdom singing out or shouting out. In Poverbs 1: “Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square.” In the Old Testament and throughout ancient literature, wisdom is personified as a woman, like Mary. “O Come thou Wisdom from on high,” we sing today, and we believe it comes in the voice of Mary, a voice that echoes throughout our public squares still and a song that can order all things far and nigh, teach us the ways to go, show us the path of knowledge.
But we also remember what Paul says, that the wisdom of God is foolishness to this world, or as Madeline L’Engle once penned, “Had Mary been filled with reason, there would have been no room for the baby.” (4) This is not a reasonable, sensible, status quo song that Mary sings, but an anthem of reversal. It’s a song of liberation and freedom that turns things upside down. “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…” These words are foolishness by most of our standards.
But Mary seems to understand what most of our reasonable standards do not: what is important to 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 personified in her – a peasant girl, poor, young, vulnerable. 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 in a way that seemed prudent and wise to us, you might start to think God would choose someone elevated, with great social power. Unless of course, the choice of Mary – poor, vulnerable – represents something important about God. Unless of course who Mary is – poor, vulnerable – 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 wisdom, and from those earliest moments stretching into this world in her womb, to hear her song.
Because Mary can see what others would miss – that the child in her womb will envision a new world, and a new way. She understands that her child will challenge the way things are, the established order of things.
Every year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there is displayed, beneath the great Christmas tree, a beautiful eighteenth century nativity scene. In many ways it is a very familiar scene. The usual characters are all there with Mary and baby in the middle of it all. Each figure is an artistic marvel of wood, clay, and paint. There is, however, something surprising about this scene, something surprising about this scene. What is strange here is that the stable, and the shepherds, and the cradle are set, not in the expected small town of Bethlehem, but among the ruins of mighty Roman columns. The fragile manger is surrounded by broken and decaying columns from a once mighty empire. The artists knew the meaning of this event: The gospel. The birth of God’s new age, was also the death of the old world, the end of the power of Caesar and his census, news foolish by the standards of this world. (5)
And yet for Mary, it’s news that swells in song, that her son will side with outsiders, feed hungry people expecting nothing in return, welcome outcasts, and model a world as it could be with hungry fed, oppressed freed, outcast welcomed, marginalized affirmed, and God’s gift of justice and righteousness ever increasing in volume.
It’s news too good for Mary to keep silent, and yet news too threatening for the world to accept. It’s the kind of news that sent Herod into a frenzy, searching for this one born to Mary. It’s the kind of news that agitated authorities throughout the course of his life, and even now.
There were places in Latin America, El Salvador, and Guatemala where within the last couple decades, the public reading of the Magnificat was forbidden as subversive activity.
Or consider how when Luther and his followers translated the Bible into German, they left the Magnificat in Latin, untranslated. The German princes who were so helpful to Luther weren’t took keen on the social and political implications of the Magnificat’s reversal of conventional power and social structures. Some of Luther’s friends and strongest supporters were sitting on thrones, so he left the Magnificat in Latin, less accessible to all.
And lest we think such reactions distant, we might ask how it falls on our ears – all this business about the mighty being pulled from their thrones and replaced by the weak and poor. It starts to sound a little like politics or economics or things we don’t want to talk about in church. I have a preacher friend who is known for, not infrequently, when he has something controversial to say, to put it in his grandmother’s words. He’ll use the phrase, “Like Grandma used to say…”
My grandma and I probably disagreed about too much for me to ever pull that. But I wonder if Jesus might have said a time or two, “My mother used to say” or rather, “My mother used to sing.” I wonder if he would invoke her words as he came to understand his purpose. I imagine him echoing her throughout his days, until eventually he doesn’t need to, because this vision becomes his own. From the time he moved to it in her womb, heard it sung over him as a boy, grew into the space it imagined and created for him, with it becoming his own commission and call, eventually her song became his song.
This song sung as he was growing and stretching in his mother’s womb of a God who showed mercy from generation to generation and was about the business of turning the world right side up. Surely this Magnificat described by Luke was a holy and breathtaking moment, but the song does not stop there.
The theme that rang out in the music that broke the silence of the night outside Bethlehem, with a multitude of heavenly hosts appearing to the shepherds picking up the song with “Peace goodwill to all.”
And as a child, still 12, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus is already setting his life to the amplification of this song, “I must be about my father’s business,” he tells Mary and Joseph, when they can’t find him on the journey back from Jerusalem and begin to sense him growing beyond them.
Notes of it are heard at the Jordan River, as he appears on the scene as an adult and connects his life to the prophet, John, starting not at the centers of power or elevated places of prestige, but going to hidden places, like out to the wilderness where people organize for change and catch God’s dream for this world.
And when he wades into the water and rises up from his baptism, traces of the song can be heard parting the sky and reminding him who he is, and the power that rests on him as beloved Son of God.
The melody continues with him, and it must have strengthened him through his moments of doubt in the desert of temptation, with all the alluring options set before him, as he needed to remember who he was.
So the song is still ringing in his ears as he returns home to Nazareth and shares his very first public words in the gospel of Luke, his voice strong as he declares what must have made his mother proud: good news to the poor, the oppressed going free.
It became for Jesus the theme – the melody – that followed him through the rest of his life.
You can hear it’s echo as he proclaimed release for all those captive to various forms of demonic, economic, social and political bondage, or as he restores sight to the blind, as he revives the prophetic vision of a year of jubilee, or as he proclaims of those who open tables to invite the poor, the crippled the lame and the blind, or as he’s asked “Are you the one? Or should we wait for another?”
And even when he wonders this himself, off by himself in the garden, I imagine that somehow it echoed for him then. “Not my will but yours be done,” he said, which sounds like something you might hear from someone who had heard of how their mother once said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
In his book, Christ of the Celts, the author J. Phillip Newell suggests that music is a metaphor for all creation, and God’s created intent for this world. “All that we know began with a sound, a note, a song from God,” he writes. A song of which like can quickly rob us. But Jesus, Newell says, came to sing the song among us and to help us learn it ourselves.
And where did he learn it first, but from his mother? She is there every day of his life. She nursed, nurtured, taught him, played with him, told him stories that may later have become parables, taught and loved him in childhood, mothered him daily in adolescence. She talked with him, through young adulthood, and he was, in all probability, the source of her income through his carpentry trade in Nazareth. She followed him from Nazareth in all that was ahead, including all the way to Jerusalem where she watched as the terrible, holy events of that last week evolved. She was there in the crowd when he was led to his trial. And she was 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, turned back to the only order it knew and crushed him as it did. But still she was there. She refused to leave him when all the others—Peter, John, James, all of them—fled in fear. But his mother stood by. The Bible doesn’t tell us if she said anything at all. But I can imagine her lips mouthing the words, her breath catching as she sought to project, her voice finding the melody again of a song about a God who raises up the lowly.
My friend, Rev. Gail Jones, said that in the tradition her grandmother told her about it was said that a song would follow a person all the days of their life until, in their death, the song was sung once more, and then never again.
True of all songs, perhaps, except one. A song of the powerful brought down, the lowly raised, and even in death the whole world reordered. That song continues. For through the power of the resurrected Christ, it can become our song, too.
So listen to Mary – a young woman startled by God, who said “yes” with a song. And let that song lead you in a different direction altogether: toward a little town, a stable behind a crowded inn, and a manger in the center of it all where a young woman comforts her child with a song against the night. May your lips form the words, your heart find the melody, your life find the theme, so ingrained deep down, that you can sing it all your days.
- Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary
- In Christian Century25 (December 2005)
- On a Wild and Windy Mountain, p. 21
- “After the Anunciation”
- Tom Long, Shepherds and Bathrobes, p. 32