One of the delights of my life these days is hearing my children learn and sing beloved carols. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night” or, of course, the childhood favorite “Away in a Manger.” It was probably the first carol I learned as a child, and I love to hear my kids sing its lullaby melody in these days of Advent and Christmas… except for the fact that my daughter, Della, sings a different version.
This is Della’s last Advent season spent in Junior Church, which means she’s not in the Sanctuary right now and it’s safer for me to tell you this story without embarrassing her. But I need you all to promise me not mention this to her (and I’m especially looking at her big brother right now), okay?
To this day, when my first-grade daughter sings “Away in a Manger” and comes to the second line of the first verse she sings the words, “The little poor Jesus.” I first noticed it a couple years ago, and I would have assumed that by now from all her time in Children’s Choir, or from the Christmas Pandora station at home, or from the wider culture of Christmas amplified around her she would have learned the words as they were written. But then the other night, singing before bedtime, she did it once again, “Away in a manger no crib for a bed, the little poor Jesus lay down his sweet head…”
Surely you don’t expect me to bypass the theological value of such a slip!
Dr. Delores Williams, a wise and influential theologian who taught for years at Union Theological Seminary, once shared a story from her formative years, growing up in church. She remembers Sunday mornings, when the minister would ask boldly: “Who is Jesus?” The choir would respond in unison, voices loud and strong, “King of kings” and “Lord Almighty!” But Williams also remembers an older woman, sitting near her, who would respond in a voice so fragile and soft you could hardly hear, singing out her own answer, “And poor little Mary’s boy.” They sang out back and forth — call and response — “KING OF KINGS” and “Poor little Mary’s boy.” “LORD ALMIGHTY” and “Poor little Mary’s boy.” Williams once said of this call and response, “This was the Black church doing theology.” Because we cannot proclaim a “King of king”s without seeing “poor little Mary’s boy.” (1)
And just as we teach and learn the words Lord, Christ, Messiah, this is also the season we must proclaim “the little poor Jesus.”
His mother, Mary, seemed to think so, at least. In her song — the Magnificat — no sooner has she magnified the Lord than she describes her own life as “lowly.” Mary is lowly and vulnerable in multiple ways in her world: she’s young, she’s a woman, she’s unexpectedly and inexplicably pregnant, and she’s among the large mass of those who were living in poverty in the first-century economy of Rome.
In Mary’s time, the great majority of people lived a subsistence-level existence. One scholar estimates perhaps 2-3 percent of the population was wealthy (2), but the vast number of people prayed “give us this day our daily bread,” because that was their basic physical need. As Madeline L’Engle once wrote in her poem, “The Risk of Birth”: “This was no time for a child to be born / In a land in the crushing grip of Rome / Honour & truth were trampled by scorn / Yet here did the Saviour make a home… Love still takes the risk of birth.”
Any birth was risky, and especially this birth. Mary is aware of the danger. She is conscious of her fear. But Mary is also resolved and says earlier in Luke: “Here I am… let it be with me according to your word.” And then, as though to steel herself against the danger and the risk; as if anticipating the course and call of the life of the child growing within her, Mary finds her voice and starts to sing. She feels the child within her move, and its though she can feel the earth move with him. It’s not a lullaby or a soothing melody; it’s an anthem of liberation and freedom that turns things upside down. It’s an announcement of a new kingdom that will stand in contrast to the kingdoms of this world. It’s a song of reversal: “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”
Mary understands those promises better than most, so she sings of a God who cares deeply and passionately about people and the conditions of their lives in the world. A God who cares a lot about people who, in this plentiful world are hungry. A God who cares about people who in this active and bustling world are forgotten; people who in this loud world of bravado are silenced. God cares about injustice and suffering and inequality, Mary claims. And with every word Mary sings, this vision is embodied in her – poor, young, vulnerable, at risk. The kind of woman who would birth the son and have no place else to place him but into a manger, nothing else in which to wrap him but the rags within reach. If God is going to choose someone to birth God’s son — a Lord and Messiah mighty to save — most of us would would expect someone powerful and lofty. Unless, of course, the choice of Mary represents something important about God. Unless of course who Mary is — poor, vulnerable, bold and hopeful for another way — tells us something about who Jesus is.
God wanted the Son to be born to this woman so he could see the world as she sees it. God wanted the Son to know the things she knows. And from those earliest moments stretching into this world in her womb, God wanted the Son to hear the song that she sings — a song that imagines a new world and a new way, and refuses to accept things as they are.
For years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there was displayed beneath the great Christmas tree, a beautiful eighteenth century nativity scene. In many ways it’s a familiar scene. The usual characters all there with Mary and baby in the middle of it all and each figure a marvel of wood, clay, and paint. There was, however, something surprising about this scene: the stable, and the shepherds, and the cradle were set not in the expected small town of Bethlehem but among the ruins of mighty Roman columns. The fragile manger surrounded by broken and decaying columns from a once mighty empire. (3) The artists, it seems, knew something of the gospel, and something of what Mary sings about: that the birth of God’s new age in Jesus is also the death of the world as it has been. This is the end of the power of the days of Emperor Augustus and his census with the birth of one who will side with outsiders, feed hungry people expecting nothing in return, welcome outcasts, and model a world as it could be with oppressed freed, marginalized affirmed, and God’s gift of justice and righteousness swells in volume.
This is the good news of great joy. And yet for this world and its powers it has often been threatening news of great agitation. It’s the kind of news that sent Herod into a murderous frenzy, searching for this one born to Mary. It’s the kind of news that frustrated authorities throughout the course of Jesus’ 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 Martin Luther and his followers translated the Bible into German, they did not translate Mary’s song. We call it the Magnificat — from the Latin — in part because it was primarily available in Latin and not in the common language. Some of Luther’s strongest supporters were sitting on thrones, and they 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 yet it’s the kind of news that some people can read and believe that the promises of God are for them. 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 Heidi Neumark is a Lutheran pastor, who once was pastor of a small 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 living in poverty and at the end the woman looked up and added, “Thank God!” (4)
I wonder, can we say that with her this morning? Can we hear Mary’s hope? Can we celebrate the vision that comes through her words?
My very favorite carol is one we will sing later in the service, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” The German carol holds the symbolic image of Mary, growing with the child within her, and it describes how she bore to us a savior, “To show God’s love a’right.” Our voices will swell with the power of our belief in God’s love a’right this Sunday as the candle of Love flickers nearby.
But if we are to sing our belief that through Mary God’s love is made right, we first have to sing along with Mary and acknowledge a world where things are so desperately wrong. That’s the much harder work of Advent, as so much urges us toward cheer and goodwill. So often we’d opt to celebrate a mighty Lord that will take care of everything for us, rather than honestly acknowledging the pain of the world, all that is wrong in the world that God so loves, and how our lives can be about the blooming of something more and the swelling of Mary’s song.
If we’re honest, we might prefer the symbolic or spiritual aspects of Christ’s coming to all the talk of the mighty being pulled from their thrones and the lowly lifted. It can start 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, when he has something controversial to say, is known to put it in his grandmother’s words. He’ll use the phrase, “Like Grandma used to say…” And I wonder if Jesus might have said a time or two, “Well, it’s like my mother used to say…” Or maybe, “My mother used to sing it this way…”
Because at some point, you know what happens: her song becomes his song. He learns what his mother knew from the beginning, from the time he was moving in her womb, to the moment he was born behind a barn against the backdrop of the night and still beyond. It’s what Thomas Merton once said, describing the world that Jesus entered as a “demented inn” that held no room for him at all, Merton wrote: “His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.” (5)
Mary’s voice first rings out with this truth 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 this song can be heard parting the sky and reminding him who he is, and who we all are, as beloved children of God.
It’s the theme that he continues to follow. You can hear the echo of his mother’s song as he proclaims release for all those captive, or as he restores sight to the blind, or as he opens tables to invite the poor, the crippled the lame and the blind.
It’s there when 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 of self-doubt, I imagine that somehow it 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 said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
Her song becomes his song. It’s ingrained in him throughout his childhood, but then 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 events of that last holy 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. 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 she once sang against the night about a God who, even in death, raises up the lowly.
So do me a favor, will you? A Christmas favor this year. Don’t teach my daughter the words as we know them. Because it might be that she knows something that I don’t. It’s something most of us have forgotten, or something we’ve found hard to hear or maybe something we’ve never quite been able to learn. It’s something this world drowns out in its constant amplification of power and might. But it’s something that Mary knew so clearly, about the child growing inside her, and about the salvation of this world.
How it comes through power in weakness and greatness in service, and in finding your life by giving it away.
How it comes in one who in very nature God, made himself nothing and humbled himself to be with us.
How it comes through a woman poor and vulnerable, who comforted her baby with the scraps around her as she laid him in an animal trough and sang for him a song to pierce all the nighttimes of a world that held no room for him.
It’s a song about how this child would grow and be the savior this world really needs. And you know who he is:
“The little poor Jesus asleep on the hay.”
- Story courtesy of Dr. Williams’ colleague, Dr. Barbara Lundblad, in “A Different King of King” (ON Scripture, November 12, 2012)
- Warren Carter, Roman Empire, p.1-15.
- Tom Long, Shepherds and Bathrobes, p. 32
- Shared by Rev. Heidi Neumark on Facebook, December 21, 2018.
- Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, p. 51