What do we do when life doesn’t unfold as we had planned or expected? When the dog eats the Advent wreath. When the cat climbs into the tree and breaks the middle limb. When the Little Drummer Boy gets that stomach bug just before the pageant? Or when we have to manage a serious loss, or painful family dynamics, or a health crisis during the holidays. Can we find any holiness in the unexpected messiness of life?
Today we light the fourth Advent candle of Love. This last Sunday in Advent is all about our longing and expectation, and the Love that fulfills our deepest desires. In that light, there is something wonderful about Mary of Nazareth. I am not talking about the Mary of statues and popular painting, who often smiles faintly, as if she knows a secret. Mythological Mary is completely serene, eternally demure, as she holds her baby Jesus. Statues and paintings do not capture the spirit of the Mary of the gospels. Real Mary of Nazareth is faithful and courageous and surprisingly graceful as she answers God’s call to fulfill an important and challenging role.
Today the gospel tells us of Mary’s joyful visit with her kinswoman Elizabeth. Two women of Israel, both unexpectedly and inexplicably pregnant. Both women rejoice over their impossibly good fortune, for to have a child in Israel is to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful. And Mary proclaims her praise of God in the canticle we often call the Magnificat (from the first word in Latin), which we use as our psalm today.
Mary of Nazareth is a strong, faithful woman, who has been liberated by God to do the amazing work of bringing the Reign of God to earth. “Mary’s courageous song of praise [is] a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy amid the suffering and conflicts of real life.” (Carolyn Sharp)
Do you know that the Magnificat is a subversive hymn? In the nineteenth century, the British prohibited the singing of the Magnificat in churches of India? In the 1980s, Guatemala’s government decided that Mary’s words about God’s love for the poor were too dangerous and revolutionary, because they inspired the Guatemalan poor to believe that change was indeed possible. Similarly, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War in Argentina – posted the Magnificat on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song.
Mary’s Magnificat is a revolutionary story about how God operates within the reality of a challenging human life. The Love of God is more powerful than demagogues, weapons, and even terrible loss.
The gospel relates a story of a young woman’s radical hope for the future. For Mary, this hope was framed by a harsh political reality. Rome had conquered and occupied Israel. The Jewish people were oppressed and abused. They lived virtually powerless and paid high taxes to a government that exploited their religion. They longed for the Messiah to set them free. When Mary calls God her Savior, she is expressing the sort of extravagant hope that religious people have. Hope is not based on the evidence at hand but on the faith that nourishes it.
The gospel does not reveal how things were going in the little town of Nazareth when Mary’s family – and perhaps their neighbors also – realize that she is in the family way. The Gospel of Matthew records the scandal: Joseph knows that the child is not his and he is considering breaking the betrothal. No wonder she goes up to the hill country “in haste”. Mary lives in a time when a woman carrying a child conceived in an irregular relationship could be expelled from her house or even stoned to death. This is not about the embarrassment of a birth out of wedlock, but a strict enforcement of family and property rights. When Mary says “yes” to the angel, she is taking on tremendous risk. She is a woman of great courage, doing what God calls on her to do, even though it must feel dangerous.
The gospel does not say much about Mary’s place of origin, but the first hearers of this story understood its significance. Nazareth was a small and unimportant town: a backwater. The biblical question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” may imply that the town had an unsavory reputation. According to G Luke, Mary was a distant descendant of King David. Yet it is likely that Mary’s family was poor, certainly by our standards and probably by the standards of her own time. Yet God chooses Mary to bear Jesus. Money, success, status are not the barometers of suitability with God.
Two thousand years later, this story of Mary teaches us a lot about God and about how we can cope with sub-optimal circumstances, as followers of her son Jesus.
Living out what God calls us to do often feels risky, because God asks us to embrace new life that rises out of the ashes. We may long for the predictable and the traditional, what used to be “normal” – but God has greater things planned for us, as God did for Mary and for Jesus. God invites us to begin a new life and to trust in divine guidance.
When God invites Mary to be the mother of Jesus, God reveals that those the world considers unimportant and marginalized are very close to the divine heart. The Nazareths of the world are where God prefers to operate, because the people there listen for the divine Word. (And while this place is hardly a backwater, if one more person tries to point out to me that Harrisburg is not Philadelphia, I may actually respond Thanks Be to God). God calls us to worry less about imitating the rich and the famous and to worry more about imitating a holy, courageous person like Mary, who can do great things by saying yes.
Today, our waiting is almost over. Tomorrow evening, we will begin to celebrate Christmas. And before we celebrate that miracle, today we celebrate the miracle of God’s action where it is least expected. We are all called to sing out the glory of God in our own Magnificats. Not as perfect plaster statues or as serene paintings, but in our ordinary life, with all of our poor, imperfect, and wounded selves. We are all called to be Mary: to bear Christ to the world, to bring the good news of God’s love to people who need it.
We can accomplish the great work of God in a new world.
Are we willing to say yes?
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Amy Welin at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on December 23, 2018, for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The texts for the day, which can be found at this link, are:
- Micah 5:2-5a
- Hebrews 10:5-10
- Luke 1:39-45