View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
Singing Mary's Song
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
What good is it to me
if Mary gave birth to the Son of God
fourteen hundred years ago
and I do not also give birth to the Son of God
in my time and culture?
A week ago, our Day School invited me to come and tell the Christmas story to the three-, four-, and five-year-olds. In preparation, I read several different storybook versions, hoping to discover one that was good and faithful, yet little-child friendly. And as I looked around, I remembered something that happened when my oldest child was about three years old herself. My mother gave Hannah a book about the birth of Jesus, and they immediately read it together.
The book started the story at the point when the angel Gabriel comes to tell Mary what is going to happen in and to her. The book stated, “And when the angel told Mary she was going to have the baby Jesus, Mary was very happy.” At that point, three-year-old Hannah stopped my mother. “Well actually, Nini,” she said, “that’s wrong. Mary was afraid.” My mother looked back at Hannah and her serious little face and said, “I think you are right, Hannah. I imagine Mary was afraid.”
Of course Mary was afraid. She was probably around fourteen years old, betrothed to a man, getting ready to leave her parents’ house for his house. But then, next thing she knew, an angel appeared. And the angel pronounced that upon Mary’s consent, a baby, God’s baby, was going to grow inside of her. In response to that request, Mary found herself filled with a sudden desire to say yes, and so she did. Then in the blink of an eye, she was alone again, although she quickly realized she was actually not alone at all. Her hands probably moved to her still-small belly. Yes, at that moment Mary must have been afraid.
The Gospel writer Luke gentles Mary’s fear when he writes “in those days Mary set out and went with haste.” That is putting it mildly. She got out of her parents’ house as quickly as she could and headed to her cousin Elizabeth. The angel had also told her that Elizabeth was carrying around her own growing miracle. Mary knew that if indeed the angel’s words could be trusted, then Elizabeth’s house was the only place to which she could go.
So she left. With haste. With fear. Inevitably overwhelmed by it all. And when she burst into Elizabeth’s house, her eyes traveled immediately to Elizabeth’s six-months-pregnant belly. And her old cousin Elizabeth took one look back at Mary and felt the child in her own womb do a dance of joy. So Elizabeth shouted out, “Blessed are you among women, my Mary. And blessed is that God-baby growing in your body.”
Blessed? I doubt Mary had thought of herself like that. She had only thought of the “oh no” parts of her life. She had not yet considered all this was an act of blessing. And then Elizabeth made the first Christological confession of faith in the Gospel of Luke: “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
If Mary’s fear had subsided by seeing her cousin face-to-face, then surprise replaced it. Surprise, because until that moment, Mary had been caught up in the “oh no” parts of her life. She was very young, engaged, still at home with mom and dad, and now pregnant with God’s baby. Those are a lot of “oh no’s” to handle all at once. And those “oh no’s” dominated Mary’s mind. Those “oh no’s” caused her to forget what else that angel had said to her on that day. Mary had forgotten what the angel had called her when he first laid his holy eyes on her face. “Greetings, favored one,” the divine messenger proclaimed. “The Lord is with you.”
Those were the angel’s first words to Mary, words spoken even before he told her she did not need to be afraid. The very first thing that angel did was bless this young, unmarried, terrified, poor girl, calling her “favored one.” Mary had forgotten that beginning part of their conversation until Elizabeth’s reaction of joy and confidence reminded her. Mary had been so caught up in the fear, in the haste, in the “oh no” parts of her life, she had completely forgotten the angel first addressed her as favored one, as one her God claimed.
As Mary stood in the middle of all those emotions, God once again unleashed something in her soul, for Mary discovered she could release some of those “oh no’s” and let go of some of that fear. Indeed, she felt a new clarity. For whatever reason in the divine imagination, God had chosen her. God had chosen her. Yes, she was young. Yes, she was a poor peasant who lived in an occupied land. Yes, she was ordinary. And God had chosen her. God had blessed her. God favored her.
Right there in her cousin’s house, Mary realized what we announce at the moment of every baptism. Mary realized her true identity had nothing to do with her age or her station in life or her purity of heart or anything else like that. Her sole identity was child of God. God’s blessing and claim embraced her. And nothing—not fear, not poverty, not violence, not the powerful, not any mistakes she would make, not rumors destined to fly as her belly grew—nothing could take that identity away from Mary or from any of us.
No, she was blessed by God, called “favored one,” and pregnant with God’s miracle. And apparently “her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who had chosen her would be part of whatever happened next” was enough to make her burst into song (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, p. 18). She could not keep from singing: “My soul gives glory to my God; my heart pours out its praise. God lifted up my lowliness in many marvelous ways.”
Using the contours of mother Hannah’s song as recorded in 1 Samuel, Mary sang a song of praise for all God had done, was doing, would do. The verb tenses she used indicate ongoing, timeless action that occurs in the past, present, and future. But Mary sang a song not just for herself. She sang a song of praise, a song of revolution, for all who would benefit from God’s actions. She praised God for removing kings from their thrones, for elevating and dignifying the lowly ones, for filling the hungry, and for taking away the purchasing power of the rich (Matthew Skinner, “The Most Powerful Woman in the World,” 12 December 2015, https://sojo.net). She praised God for God’s continuing mercy and work of justice-making.
Mary stood in her cousin’s house and burst out into song not just for herself but on behalf of every son and every daughter who had ever felt that God had forgotten God’s promises: God’s promise to work out God’s justice for all people; God’s promise to be with them forever; God’s promise to shepherd them in darkness and in light; God’s promise to dry every tear; God’s promise to do a new thing even if it cannot yet be perceived.
Mary stood in her cousin’s house and burst out into song for you and for me—sons and daughters living so many years later but still making a home in Advent time—in the time between God’s coming to set things right, to set us right, and God’s returning to finish the job. Mary was filled with such joy and gratitude that she could not do anything but sing a song of revolution and praise on behalf of all God’s children and for the way God was breaking out into the world through her and through the child in her womb who, at that point, was no bigger than a thumbnail.
Mary stood right there in the middle of Elizabeth’s house and she sang and sang and sang. She must have sung until her voice became hoarse and she had to sit down, exhausted. She must have sung until she felt all her joy, gratitude, and praise had been properly unleashed into the world and could now grow on their own. She must have sung until she had fully released her sense of fear and her worry over all the “oh no” parts of her life. She must have sung until she felt a deep sense of peace, holy presence, and courage descend upon her.
And when Mary’s song was over, surely she and Elizabeth started comparing notes about what had happened to them, about the angel, about what Zechariah had done and what Joseph might do. Elizabeth might have told her about the best ways to cope with morning sickness and the perils of swollen ankles. I hope Elizabeth warned Mary that you never really get a good night’s sleep when you’re growing a child and everyone’s talk of “better get your rest while you can” is actually such a silly thing to say.
And Mary, well, Mary probably spent a lot of time pondering God’s blessing, God’s claim, on her—and not just her, but God’s claim on all flesh that would soon be birthed into the world through her body. And maybe Mary hoped that her song would be remembered, like Hannah’s song had been.
Perhaps Mary hoped that, as the generations passed, the contours of her revolutionary praise song would be adapted and sung by other men and women whenever they felt overwhelmed by fear and captured by the “oh no” parts of their lives. Maybe Mary hoped her song would be rewritten by other girls and boys who felt too ordinary, too poor, or too low to count for anything or as anybody.
Perhaps Mary hoped that by unleashing her song out into God’s world that anyone who heard it would remember that God also blessed them, claimed them, and promised to grow new life in them as well. And don’t you just imagine that in the three months that followed as Mary stayed with her cousin, every once in a while the two of them would sing a stanza together?
“Praise God whose loving covenant supports those in distress, remembering past promises with present faithfulness.”
May we all learn to sing Mary’s song. Amen.