For nearly two years, we have spent a lot more time apart than together, reading and watching rather than exchanging and interacting. That being the case, in planning for the 2021 Season of Advent, I looked forward to dealing with scriptures that had real-live embodied characters, rather than more conceptual or theological passages. I was particularly drawn to the two just-forming nuclear families: Elizabeth and Zechariah and their child-to-be, John; Mary and Joseph and their child-to-be, Jesus.
What I didn’t spot in the initial planning process, was the role of “song” in all this. In week one, Zechariah regains his voice and sings a song of hope to his infant son. In week three, Elizabeth sings a song of joyous blessing to young Mary. Today, in a passage traditionally known as the “Magnificat”, Mary sings a song of praise to the God who liberates and loves. The only Sunday gospel reading that wasn’t a song as such, was the second Sunday when encountered John the Baptist, and I don’t really imagine his roaring at the crowds as a song, unless perhaps he is the lead growler of a Death Metal band.
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The Christian storytellers at SALT collective note that “Luke includes no less than four songs in his Gospel’s two opening chapters… It’s as if Luke stages the story as a kind of exuberant musical, suggesting that the joyful mystery of Jesus’ birth can’t be contained or expressed by prose alone. Again and again, the power and poetry of music breaks through”.
American Lutheran scholar David Lose wonders aloud why Luke uses all these songs, including Mary’s Magnificat, our focus scripture for today, and his answer is that “singing is [among other things] an act of resistance”.
“The slaves knew this” he continues. “When they sang their spirituals, they were both praising God and protesting the masters who locked them out of worship but couldn’t keep them out of the promise of deliverance of the Bible. The civil rights leaders knew this, singing songs like ‘We Shall Overcome,’ when so many in the society didn’t give them a chance to advance their cause of justice, let alone triumph. And the protesters in Leipzig in 1989 new this as well….For several months preceding the fall of the Berlin wall, the citizens of Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church – the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas – to sing, and over two months their numbers grew from a little more than a thousand people to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world. Later, when someone asked one of the officers of the Stasi, the East German secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others, the officer replied, ‘We had no contingency plan for song.’”
I don’t typically title my sermons, but if I did, that would probably be the title of this one: “We had no contingency plan for song.” As an aside, when I read these words I immediately picture Pete Seeger’s banjo, which had the words “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” inscribed around its perimeter. Amidst the hopelessness of the people of Israel, perpetually under the thumb of the Romans, God dares to place a song of joyous resistance in Mary’s heart and she, like her forebear Hannah, dares to sing it. Throughout this entire series of songs, and especially in the Magnificat, the gospel of Luke tells us about a God whose goal is not to reward the powerful, but to accompany and embolden and uplift the oppressed, a God who stays in the picture long enough to see the seeds of challenges flourish into blessings, and the hard soil of despair nurture a harvest of delight. Knowing what we know about Mary’s trying, desperate circumstances, having these words pass her lips redoubles their power.
In singing the liberative words of the Magnificat, Mary also expresses what it is to be blessed: to have received Elizabeth’s words of blessing and to know of God’s belovedness. One of my favourite online commentators, Debie Thomas of “Journeying with Jesus”, writes this about that encounter of Mary and Elizabeth, and Mary’s resulting song of freedom and love: “Standing together on the precarious threshold of their own unknowing, Mary and Elizabeth find a way to sing God’s praises right from the heart of their burning questions. Elizabeth [pronounces] a blessing on Mary’s fierce faith, a blessing that bridges the gap between the tenuous present, and God’s promised future…. In Elizabeth’s mind, Mary’s “favored” status has nothing to do with wealth, health, comfort, or ease. Her blessing lies solely in her willingness to trust God, [leaning] hard into the angel’s promise, and [believing] that it will sustain her, no matter what lies ahead.
“In turn, Mary finds her own prophetic voice and bursts into a hope-drenched song that soars with promise not only for the child she carries, but also for Elizabeth’s, and indeed for all the world’s poor, broken-hearted, forgotten, and oppressed. ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,’ Mary sings, and then her song goes on to do just that, [magnifying] for the world a God invested in revolutionary and lasting change for Creation. Mary describes a reality in which humanity’s sinful and unjust status quo is gorgeously reversed: the proud are scattered and the humble honored. The hungry are fed and the rich sent away. The powerful are brought down, and the lowly are lifted up. Mary describes a world reordered and renewed – a world so beautifully characterized by love and justice, only the Christ she carries in her womb can birth it into being.
“As Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor notes so beautifully, Mary describes these divine reversals as if they have already happened: “He has brought down… he has filled… he has sent.” ‘Prophets,’ Taylor writes, ‘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, maybe even God.’”
In the Magnificat, Mary bridges God’s age-old concern for those who are marginalized, targeted and abused, with this new life she carries within her. She bridges the impossibility and potential terror of her situation with a God who sustains and enlivens her and gives her this soul-sister, Elizabeth. Mary bridges the gap between our hopes for a time of equity and justice, with the activity of a God who is already building such a realm, and does so each time individuals, communities and nations step away from self-service into actions and patterns of broad-based empowerment. And Mary puts on notice all who, intentionally or inadvertently, by birth or by choice, enjoy the benefits of entitlement while ignoring the sacred commitment to the dignity of all living beings. Mary sings and indeed, the powers and principalities “have no contingency plan” for her song.
As 2021 prepares to tumble forward into 2022, much is uncertain.
- Governments and Chief Medical Officers around the world struggle to sing the right key in their response to the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
- Amidst climate change, our nations and economic systems continue to approach planet earth as a series of commodities that exists to be exploited and extracted and turned into cold hard cash, missing the opportunity to embracing the idea so well articulated over the ages by our Indigenous sisters and brothers, of the earth as interconnection and wisdom, our teacher and protector and nurturer.
- Those of meagre means continue to see how hard it is to break free from the cycle of poverty, and those with ample means find how easy it is to cushion their fall when times get tough.
As we try to find the best and most faithful way forward in these tumultuous times, where do we perceive God to be in all of it? Enthroned in the clouds, untouched by it all? Scowling, off to the side, impatiently insisting that we get it all right before offering so much as a word of encouragement? No longer in the picture at all, maybe even non-existent? No, sings Mary, God is the midwife who continues to birth a new way and a new day, in which those previously kept impoverished and disempowered are lifted up to their full selfhood. In the season of Advent, a time of waiting, we acknowledge this time of “already and not yet” that the song of Mary and the ministry of Jesus both articulate: a new Kingdom or kin-dom that is “at hand” yet still emerging, a time of liminality and struggle in which glimpses of new life are recognized and celebrated.
Nearly three years ago, when I was planning my 2019 Sabbatical, a book by Melissa Bane Sevier encouraged me to focus my sabbatical efforts on things that “made my heart sing” and as you have heard me say ever since then, that was the best advice possible. In the Magnificat, we hear the song in Mary’s heart as she sings it for all future generations to hear, and my prayer is that her song will be your song and our song, now and always. In the name of Christ Jesus, God’s liberation incarnate, Amen.
Bane Sevier, Melissa. Journeying toward Renewal. Lanham, MD: Alban Institute, 2002.
Thomas, Debie. “At The Threshold” – 12 Dec 2021. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church