Sunday, December 6, 2015

Blessed Among Women: The Song of Mary

Luke 1:46-55
December 6, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Luke 1:46-55
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 forever.”

You have to wonder how she could sing.

If we look at Mary, and really look closely; if we listen to Mary, and really listen closely; we have to wonder how she could sing at all. She must have been frightened and confused.

She must have wondered how she could possibly do what was asked of her. She must also have thought about the consequences, consequences that were unavoidable. It was hardly an occasion for singing.

This situation was not like our contemporary context, nor was it like any modern day story, even in the 1800s or the Victorian era. She was betrothed, to be sure, and probably most people would assume that she was pregnant by Joseph. She would not be sent to a home for unwed mothers, or pressured to give up the baby for adoption. She would simply be assumed to be expecting a child with her fiancé, Joseph. There would not be judgment for her on that score. Except for Joseph. But that would be risk enough to stop any singing.

Outside her immediate context, Mary’s world was no less troubling. Her homeland was occupied by a violent, warring empire an empire that used coercion, oppression, and torture as regular tools for controlling the populace. In Mary’s country, the government was run by those whose self interest trumped any concern for the common good, let alone any care for the poor or lowly. Her social status was very low – she was a Jew; she was female; she was young.

Essentially, Mary was powerless. The people in charge, the people who had privilege and advantage, were not likely to give up their power. The people with wealth and power were going to continue to press their advantage without concern for the poor and powerless. How, then, could Mary sing? How could she sing this song glorifying God, this song of rejoicing, this prophetic hymn of God’s power to turn the world upside-down?

With the events of recent days filling our minds and the grim sense of inevitability that now seems to come along with the news, with the frequency of gun violence and terror in our world, not just across the ocean but in our own communities, how do we sing?

How do we sing?

How do we pray?

You may have seen the headline this week on the cover of the New York Daily News:
“God Isn’t Fixing This.”

Wherever you stand politically, whatever your position on gun control, whoever you support for a presidential bid, that headline is a cry of despair: God isn’t fixing this.

As Christians, a people whose first response to tragedy is prayer, we may react strongly to the implication that our prayers are useless. As Christians we believe that our prayers, and our songs, and our faith, are the very foundation of our lives. But there it is, staring at us in huge black and white letters: God isn’t fixing this.

You can imagine that Mary and her people must have felt that way. They knew their scripture and their history. They knew the promise of God’s covenant, that they would always be God’s chosen people, that they would have a homeland, that they would know God’s favor. The promise was contingent, of course, on their faithfulness.

Mary knew that things did not go well for her people when they strayed from God’s commandments. She knew that God’s desire for them was to live with justice and mercy.

God had commanded them to care for the needy, welcome the foreigner and the outsider, to deal fairly with neighbors and strangers alike. Mary knew that God’s ideal for humanity was to live in harmony with one another and with all of creation. And surely Mary knew that this ideal was far from the reality of her life. How, then, could she sing?

And especially, how could she sing THIS song, this song of God’s power and might?
How could she magnify the Lord and rejoice in God her savior?
This song that Mary sang is so powerful, so revolutionary – how did she dare to sing it?
How could she possibly believe that God’s power would overcome the oppression, the grief, the violence, of her world?

“God has shown strength with his arm;
scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

She not only sang it, she sang it as if it had already happened!

It may seem somewhat outside our tradition, to think of Mary as a prophet, to venerate her like our Catholic brothers and sisters do. We don’t generally think of Mary except at Christmas time, and when we do think of her, we see her meek and mild, in her lovely blue, gazing at her sweet baby in the manger.

But Mary plays a huge role in our faith and in our salvation story. She is known in Christian theology as “theo-tokos,” the God-bearer. She not only answered God, “Let it be with me according to your will,” she actively participated in God’s mission of salvation.

She was a God-bearer. She carried the infant Jesus in her womb, nursed him at her breast, and raised him in her faith. And then she sent him out into the world, giving him as freely as any gift has ever been given, sending him out to a broken, violent, hostile world. And somehow, she did this with a song on her lips, the same lips that must have kissed his sweet baby toes. She could not keep from singing.

Although we are not called, as Mary was, to give birth in a literal sense, we, too, are called to be God-bearers. In this season of Advent, as we consider the gift of Jesus and what it means in our lives, we focus our attention on four themes that to some may seem ridiculous in this day and age: hope, peace, joy and love.

The world may ask how we can feel hopeful, when so much seems hopelessly out of control. The world may laugh at our words of peace, when it seems that only violence will keep us safe. The world may scoff at our joy in an event of 2000 years past, joy in a savior who seems to them to be a useless relic. The world may simply take advantage of our obedience to the call to love, thinking that we are chumps as we turn the other cheek, pray for them who hurt us, bless those who curse us, love those who would reject us, love enemies and friends alike.

In fact, there is no better time than this to sing, no better song to sing than the songs of our faith. In 1869, Robert Lowry published a little song in a book called “Bright Jewels for the Sunday School.” It has been sung over and over again over the years since, and it expresses the deepest Christian hope and peace. Perhaps you recognize these words:

“My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet , tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What tho' my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that that rock I'm clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?”[1]

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Certainly, the world we live in may no longer hear the song of Mary, nor sing the song she taught us. Certainly, the world we live in may be too cynical to sing any song of hope or peace or joy or love. But we are God-bearers, we people who follow Jesus.

In this season, we are pregnant with hope, and we sing of Christ being born anew in us and through us. In this season, even with the conflict and violence that surround us, we are people who can speak of peace. We are a people who sing, for to sing is to pray twice.

Mary, mother of Jesus, was blessed among women, and because she was blessed, she could sing, even in the face of adversity. We, too, can sing of God’s graciousness, even in this frightened, hurting, and broken world. We can sing because of the gift that comes to us in this season, the gift of life, the gift of a savior, the gift of Jesus.

God IS fixing this.
We are the candles of peace lighting up the dark night of war.
We are the voices of peace ringing out into the stillness of death.
We are God-bearers.
How can we keep from singing?


[1] Robert Lowry in the 1869 song book, Bright Jewels for the Sunday School.

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