I have always harbored a favoritism for Luke’s gospel, because it is the most musical of all the gospels. In addition to poetic prophecies and beautiful imagery, there are several songs in the opening chapters. A majority of the words to the Ave Maria, one of my favorite hymns as well as prayers, is found here, and indeed we hear a part of it today.
As we heard previously, the priest Zechariah is released from silence and burst forth in song when his longed-for son John is born, even though he and his wife were supposedly beyond child-bearing age. Angels will burst forth from heaven in song above the heads of shepherds at Jesus’s birth. When the baby Jesus is brought to the Temple, the old man Simeon will sing a song when he is allowed to take the infant into his arms, a song of gratitude for allowing him to live long enough to see such a day. But the greatest song in Luke is the first song: the Song of Mary, what we call the Magnificat.
And these songs are not ordinary songs. They are as much acts of resistance as they are outpourings of joy. They remind us that joy and rebellion can both be testimony of what God is doing in our lives. Resistance and glorious visions of justice for the oppressed ring throughout our gospel today.
First, there is Elizabeth’s resistance. Elizabeth is granted a child of promise, foretold to be a longed-for prophet for the people of Israel, late in her life, and the gospel tells us she not only secludes herself for the pregnancy, but apparently she keeps her condition a secret, perhaps not wanting to be turned into a side-show, perhaps to make sure nothing goes wrong in what is undoubtedly a high-risk pregnancy. Mary thus only finds out about Elizabeth’s pregnancy when the angel Gabriel tells her as part of the news of Mary’s own chosen status to be the mother of the Son of God.
Mary responds to this news by wanting to go and see her kinswoman herself, undoubtedly out of joy for Elizabeth’s coming miracle. Perhaps a small part of her wanted to see if what the angel said was true. Nonetheless, Mary goes to be with someone who will truly understand and support her in the incredible work she has just consented to do. And once she gets there, we get an idea of where Mary gets her bravery, where she gets her boldness, her insight, her resistance against oppression. Elizabeth doesn’t just respond with gladness to see her young kinswoman. She responds with a triumphant song of power. The strength, resilience and rugged faithfulness in these women runs in the family.
Once Mary arrives, it is clear that Elizabeth doesn’t just become the mother of a prophet. She becomes a prophet herself. When Mary crosses her threshold, we are told the unborn John leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is given the gift of prophecy herself. She immediately identifies Mary as “the mother of her Lord.” She immediately praises Mary for her courageous assent to the invitation of God to be a vital, brave, bold part of the work of God’s redemption in the world.
Elizabeth knows that Mary is not yet married to Joseph, and so might be expected to shun her—yet she welcomes Mary into her home anyway. She resists all social demands that would have otherwise led her to reject her young kinswoman, and instead, reacts with joy and prophetic exclamation. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” she exclaims, completing Gabriel’s greeting of Mary in the previous scene we don’t get to hear today. And Mary responds with her own resistance song.
Thus we are reminded: Singing is not just an act of joy. Singing itself is often an act of resistance. Think of it: in the years before the Civil War, slaves often sang hymns in their worship, one of the few times they were able to gather together away from their toil, songs rooted in justice for the oppressed, for the enslaved—songs of liberation such as “Go Down, Moses,” used by Harriet Tubman as a signal as she was a conductor on the Underground Railroad; “A Balm in Gilead,” often quoted by our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot;” or “Steal Away to Jesus," which obviously also could be used to communicate about escape from slavery.
Singing was an act of resistance a hundred years later, when our faithful elders in the Civil Rights Movement sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the so-called Black National Anthem included in our own hymnal, or joined hands together across racial and religious divisions and sang “Etta’s Tune,” or “We Shall Overcome.” These songs were not songs of fear, or of mourning, but songs of something that is far too rare but also necessary in our world today: they were songs of hope. Not some mushy kind of making a wish kind of hope. No, the hope in these songs dares to imagine and voice NOW what has yet to be. They are an affirmation of faith in God’s promises, God’s fidelity, especially to those who are oppressed, who are poor, who seek refuge or asylum, who hunger for bread AND justice in equal measure.
In year C, Advent is filled with people speaking truth to power. Last Sunday, John was a thundering prophetic preacher, fulfilling his own father’s prophecy that he would shine a light into the dark corners of the souls of the people, preparing the way in the wilderness. This Sunday, at long last, Mary gets her say. And she’s fierce.
This is not the meek and mild Mary we often see portrayed, the one who is throbbingly questioned in that pop song played in every mall in the land right now-- you know the one: “Mary, Did You Know?” The song that quaveringly asks if Mary knew that her baby boy was God, the one who would heal the deaf and blind and walk on water. If you listen to the Magnificat, you know this song is utterly unnecessary. Mary knew all these things, and stepped unafraid toward this miracle she was called to embody.
We’ve seen stories throughout scripture of women who have spent their lives longing for a child, whose prayers are answered with a son, taking away their shame in a culture where a woman’s worth was often measured by who her husband was and how many children she could bear for him. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Samson’s unnamed mother, Hannah, and Elizabeth. Their responses varied when given the news that they were going to bear a child that was a particular gift from God:
Hannah sang a song of victory.
Mary, though, hasn’t experienced a long period of childlessness—as a young girl, her entire life lies before her. Yet she is plucked from invisibility, is invited to embrace an unimaginable future, and responds with a battle cry of justice. Here she is, a teenaged mother, a peasant girl in a backwater of the margin of the Roman Empire, and yet she knows who she is, and that she had a choice that was hers alone. Mary responds with trust and power, but never surrender. With a crown of stars swirling around her head, she responds:
Let it be for me as you have said. And let me play my part in turning the world upside down, in resisting the powers of oppression and inhumanity.
Today, Mary goes to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, and the power that passes between these two women and the miracles they bear inside them produces a war-cry from this young girl, the first woman to preach in the Gospel of Luke. What bursts from her but power from the powerless, hope from the whirlwind, empowerment that bursts every boundary? What does she sing out in wonder and exultation, as she places herself in the hands of Holy Spirit?
A vision of a world turned upside down, where the oppressors are thrown down, and the lowly are lifted up and exalted. A world in which the mighty arm of God sweeps away injustice and oppression, where those who serve themselves will be spilled from their empty thrones. A banquet where those who hunger are satisfied, and those who have gorged themselves depart bearing the clinking chains of their insatiable greed. This God remains faithful and merciful to those who call upon the Holy Name, and will reclaim the lost in answer to promises whose memory still burns with power across generations and time, to deliver the oppressed from systems of injustice and the void of abandonment.
Mary the rebel, the righteous warrior with peace as her shield, sings a song of defiance, liberation, and deliverance. She lifts her hands and heart to God, and calls us to join in, too. Free to sing out with her our hopes for a world remade and repaired by justice. Free to offer our emptied spirits like a bowl to be filled with the promise of salvation, to respond in faith and courage with this anthem of expectation:
My soul overflows with the greatness of God,
My spirit sings unending praise to One Who Saves,
the One who lifts up the lowly servant
who dares to be the handmaiden of God Most High.
Surely, from now to time unending
All generations will see that I have been blessed.
We too can share in Mary’s courage and faith. We too can say yes to God, and allow God to work through us to transform us each and every day, and therefore to transform and restore the world. We too can bear Christ into the world.
We can sing out our yes. Mary shows us the way.
Preached at the 505 on December 22, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on December 23, 2018, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.