This was my first time preaching in the parish I grew up in as a teenager. It was especially meaningful to see so many familiar faces, as many people are already home for Christmas. It was also a perk to see my college New Testament professor on the front row, which reminded me that I once wrote an exegesis on this same passage for her class… and got a bad grade. She challenged me to look for something more–and I am grateful! Only downside was my lack of voice. Despite being the first to bed Saturday night, cups and cups of tea, and lots of TLC… I could barely get out a whisper. The Rev. Tom Crittenden could not have been a more gracious host, especially under the quiet circumstances. I hope to come back–next time in “voz alta!”
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Preached at R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church, Lexington, VA
Micah 5:2-5a * Hebrews 10:5-10 * Luke 1:39-55
Oh Lord, uphold thou me that I may uplift thee. Amen.
Several weeks ago, when I peaked at the lectionary for the fourth Sunday of Advent to see what I might be preaching on in my childhood parish, I could not help but sing as I opened to Luke’s Gospel. “My soul doth magnify the Lord…” You see, where I live and worship at seminary, this is a text we sing every evening in chapel.
Immediately, I started thinking of all the cool things I could say about Mary. How Mary has been depicted in art—from the most grandiose of stained glass windows, to the simplest of roadside shrines. How Mary has been depicted in music—from Bach’s Magnificat to The Beatle’s Let it be. All the many ways we encounter Mary in our day-to-day life, and how or why that is.
But then I paused, and realized I was getting carried away. For if we look at Mary’s words in Luke’s gospel today, we see that every note she sings points not to herself, but to God. And if we consider that we are a mere two days away from celebrating the birth of Christ, and a mere nine days away from the bloodshed of innocent children and teachers in Sandy Hook—what then do the words in today’s scripture offer us in this moment, now.
We started this morning with words from Micah—a prophet before Jesus’ time. He says of the coming ruler: “he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord…and they shall live secure… and he shall be the one of peace.” Is this not what we are longing for in this season of Advent and in this time of grief and bewilderment? Do we not long to be fed, to be strengthened, to be secure—do we not long for peace? Indeed I believe this to be the cry of our hearts, even as we have cried real tears this week.
And yet, do we believe in this “one of peace” that Micah promises? We see the word “believe” a lot this time of year. “Believe” is written across Christmas cards and even across the Macy’s building in New York City. Depending on whom you ask, the word could be used to describe our desired relationship with Jesus, Santa or both. Believe.
This is where Mary comes in. This is where she speaks to us. It is her response that teaches us how to respond to the events of our lives and to the coming Christ.
When Elizabeth greets Mary she exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth explains her proclamation a bit more when she says, “Blessed is she who believed.”
You all know the story that directly precedes this exchange. There was young Mary, minding her own business, when the angel of the Lord, Gabriel, came to her and said, “Surprise! You have found favor with the Lord, and you’re going to have a son, and you’re going to name him Jesus, and he’s going to be the Son of God.”
And blessed, lowly, young Mary responded: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Wow. Wow! Blessed is she who believed indeed! Here am I. Let it be. Quite possibly the bravest words ever spoken by a young girl.
You know my favorite thing about these words? That they were spoken at all. Mary is a self-proclaimed servant of the Lord. The Greek word for servant used here is ἡ δούλη and can also be translated as handmaid or slave. In other words, Mary didn’t have to say anything at all. You could argue that she had no choice but to be obedient. But Mary speaks! She responds. She asserts her own agency in the Christmas story. Here I am, let it be. Simple, yet powerful words.
Now that we’ve reviewed why it is that Elizabeth calls Mary blessed, let’s see what we can learn from Mary’s song that follows.
Mary exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The words used for soul and spirit, ψυχή and πνεῦμά are used interchangeably throughout the bible and both derive their meaning from the idea of moving air, like breathing. ψυχή and πνεῦμά are not used to connote different parts of our being, but the whole of our being. That which animates us and makes us ourselves is that which rejoices within Mary.
It is the same beingness in Mary that magnifies the Lord. To magnify is to exult or make great. It is as if Mary’s soul, Mary’s being, is making God bigger. And indeed as Mary’s belly grows with the gestating Son of God, one cannot help but acknowledge the magnification.
While Mary realizes that all generations shall call her blessed, she immediately points to God as the cause of blessing: “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” It is God’s might, God’s deeds, God’s mercy, and God’s strength that Mary exults. This points to Mary’s humility, contrary to “the proud in the imagination of their hearts” that God scatters. If anyone could “imagine” herself proud, surely it would be the mother of God. And yet Mary says, no, it is God who deserves the glory.
So how do Mary’s responses of “Here I am… Let it be… Glory to God…” how do they inform our response in this very strange and special moment we find ourselves in?
I think the “Here I am” calls us to be in the present. It’s not a “Wait just a sec…” or “Were you saying something?” or “I’ll be right with you…” but I’m here. Right here. And I’m listening.
The “Let it be” may sound a bit passive, but it’s not. It would be passive to say nothing at all. The “Let it be” calls us to believe. It calls us to acknowledge that which seems crazy and foolish and indescribable and unbelievable—to realize the absurdity of God making Godself a vulnerable, nursing child—to realize the absurdity of a maimed and broken King rising to victory over death—to realize the absurdity of God seeking out the lowly, seeking out us, to make God’s presence bigger and magnified in the world—to look at all of that together and say “Let it be…” I believe.
To believe is a tall order. And it’s Mary’s “Glory to God” that shows us how to bridge the gap between knowledge and faith. Mary looks on her own lowliness and seems to say, “I know it’s crazy… but look at God. Look at all God has done and is doing.”
Did you notice all of Mary’s acclamations are in the past tense? She’s already living into the promises—God has done great things, God has shown strength, God has scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly, God has fed the hungry. Not “God will” but “God has.” The God Mary points to is not far off in the distance, but right there with her. Because Mary knows she needs God to be with her if she is to have the courage to believe, and we need the same. Emmanuel. God with us.
For nine days we have mourned the nonsense of lost little ones. In two days we’ll celebrate the nonsense of God with skin on. The vulnerability of these two moments is not lost on us. And it’s hard to know how to respond.
But we look to Mary today, and we hear her response. And it is my prayer that we will find in Mary’s song the courage to sing our own song of: Here I am… Let it be… Glory to God.