Luke 1: 47-55
Mary said: My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Last Sunday a group of us from Eliot and 2nd Church, the United Methodists and a couple of unchurched folks, gathered at Home Suites Inn to throw a party and lead a holiday sing along with the families who live in transitional housing there. We filled the room with the sound of music, crafts and goodies, and the joyous smiles and laughter of children.
Yesterday, another group of us carolers shared the joy of music with the residents of three assisted living and care facilities.
This is the week we light a candle for “joy”- joy in the midst of darkness as we wait for the birth of Christ. What greater joy can there be than sharing the gift of music — watching faces light up as those old, familiar carols carry them back to fond memories of Christmases past — watching children shaking bells as they belted out Jingle Bells at the top of their lungs - or add a few lyrics to Rudolf.
Catholic novelist George Bernanos once wrote, “To find joy in another’s joy, that is the secret of happiness.” We discovered that this past week. Whether it’s sacred or secular, this is a season filled with music. Last week It occurred to me, if I ever lost my hearing, the thing I would miss the most is music. And then I thought of Beethoven and how he composed some of his greatest music after he became totally deaf. Music keeps running around in our heads, even if we can’t hear it with our ears. I often wonder, what is the spirit trying to tell me when one particular song won’t leave. It just plays over and over. Ever have that happen? There must be a message there.
There’s a story that’s been floating around the internet for some time, some believe it was first introduced by the Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield. It tells of a custom in one African tribe. When a woman decides to have a child, she goes and sits alone under a tree, and she listens. She listens until she hears the song of the child who wants to come.
Once she hears the song, she returns to the man who will be the child’s father and teaches the song to him. When they make love to conceive the child, they sing the song to call the child to them.
When the woman is pregnant, she teaches the child’s song to the midwives and old women of the village so that when the birth time arrives, the people surrounding the mother sing the song to welcome the child among them.
Then as the child grows up, the other villagers learn the song. If the child falls or hurts his knee someone picks him up and sings the song. When the child does something wonderful, the people of the village sing this song. When the child goes through the rites of puberty and becomes an adult, the villagers sing the song.
It goes this way through life. At a wedding, the songs of husband and wife are sung together. Finally, when this child grows old, and lies in bed ready to die, all the villagers know the song, and they sing it for the last time.
Stop and think about how music marks different milestones in our lives: births, baptisms, birthdays, confirmation, graduations, weddings, pep rallies, marches and demonstrations, 7th inning stretches at baseball games, and yes, even death. Through it all music plays a part.
This morning we read a song that marked a momentous occasion in a pregnant teenagers’ life. Mary, flush with the excitement of an expectant mom, travels to share that joy with her cousin Elizabeth, herself unexpectedly pregnant at an advanced age. As Mary arrives, Elizabeth tells her, “… as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” - as if the two cousins began their communication in vitro.
And Mary’s response took the form of a song we call today “The Magnificat” from the Latin word for ‘magnify’ or ‘praise.’ Mary exclaims “My soul magnifies the Lord!”
Whenever I read this story, I’m tempted to imagine Elizabeth telling Mary, “Wait a minute, slow down. Let me get a paper and pencil. That was really beautiful.” We know that didn’t happen, but somehow the oral stories telling of this event, passed down through the decades, made it to Luke’s pen and paper.
As the late Marcus Borg would tell us, it doesn’t really matter if it happened in just this way. It’s the message that the stories convey that speaks to us all these years later. Mary’s song was not meant just for Elizabeth. It’s a song for us today too, and it’s not your typical lullaby.
As I read it over and over, it’s almost as if she were channeling Jesus in her womb, hearing Jesus’ song, which morphed into her own. Her words seem like a prelude to his life and ministry and message: we hear from Matthew: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first;” (Matt. 20:16) “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your servant;” (Matt. 20:26) and from James: “‘Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up in due time.’” (James 4:10)
Or, maybe we’re not giving Mary enough credit. I was raised Catholic. I had my statue of Mary sitting on my dresser, and I said my share of Hail Mary’s. But she’s gotten a bum rap from us Protestants. She must have been a good influence on Jesus. Look how he turned out! And here, in this song, we can hear her heart, as she praises God for ‘looking with favor on the lowliness of his servant’ and ‘doing great things for me.’
She was living in a town so small it was a mere speck on a map; She was betrothed, but not married, to a carpenter - and pregnant. That would have been frowned upon, to say the least. They were working class people, living in obscurity, scrapping to get by - much like many in our country today.
Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, once said, “The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.” - that means in the good and the bad, in the just and unjust, in the past and the future. Here Mary speaks for herself, in her lowly state, in a world far from just, while also speaking of God’s faithfulness to Abraham and his descendants - and to us.
It is written in the past tense, but it anticipates what God will be doing in the future. And this is why this first Advent hymn is called a great New Testament song of liberation, a song for our time as well. As a woman who has suffered and been vindicated, Mary preaches as the prophet of the poor, representing their hope for the future. This is a God she knows and praises as one who cares for the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, exploited and oppressed, just as her son was to care for them in the years ahead.
She sings: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” These words call for a moral revolution - a death to pride for all those who feel superior to others.
I attended a CMM dinner last Tuesday in our parlor. After our sumptuous pot luck we talked with those around our tables about how we felt in the aftermath of the election - how do we go about reconciliation and building trust and unity after such a divisive time? And through our conversation we began to realize that if we were to really reach out across the divide and listen to those with differing opinions, a little humility was in order. Could those of us well educated ones, sitting comfortably in the bubble of affluent Newton be the proud ones Mary is talking about?
What do we know of those coal miners suffering in Appalachia? or factory workers left without jobs in the midwest? Do we carry an air of superiority about us? - feeling because we are educated and have done well in this world, that we know it all? Who do we feel superior to? Who are we listening to? And these questions need to be asked of those on both sides of the divide.
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” Dare I say, isn’t that what many were hoping for when they voted in this election? It’s what a social revolution is all about, and it’s been happening all over the world for years now. In Mary’s time it was the Roman empire. In ours it could be any number of dictators and despots, or the arrogant and rich holding on to their money, or just entrenched bureaucrats, holding on to their own power base with little regard for those who need to be lifted up.
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” We’re talking economic revolution here, and this is where it gets a little uncomfortable for those of us who might not consider ourselves rich, but really are by the standards of most of the world. All of us would agree we want to see the hungry filled with good things. But do we want to be sent away empty? I don’t think so. I certainly don’t. So how do I reconcile my life with what God wants for the world - with God’s concern about people who have been made to feel like nobodies? God is taking sides here, not necessarily political sides, but moral ones. And we know they are both intertwined. All of our political decisions are moral ones.
I look at Mary’s Song as an invitation - an invitation to humble ourselves - to take a good, long look at how our pride might be getting in the way of our seeing and hearing others, especially those hurting on the bottom rung of society; those afraid of deportation, those being harassed and bullied because of the color of their skin, their religion or sexual identity.
It’s an invitation to hold those in power accountable for their actions and how they affect those most in need - in our community, our country and the world. We have our work cut out for us in this coming year.
It’s an invitation to look at how we might be used by God to share our resources, to build an economy marked by generosity in which all will have enough, and to pass along our many blessings to lift others up.
We each have a song to sing, a song that resides deep in our hearts, that says who we are, what we care about, who we want to become in the future, and what kind of world we want to help create. And hopefully it is a song filled with joy and praise of God for the many blessings we have been given this Christmas season.