December 23, 2018, Advent 4C, Luke 1:39-55
Over the past few years I’ve been hearing about a “War on Christmas.” For those who believe there really is such a war it seems they identify it as what they see as a politically correct movement that has people working in retail stores at this time of year saying, “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” And that has Starbucks holiday themed cups being designed as a plain red color instead of being decorated with candy canes, snowmen, and tiny Santas.
I guess it was good news this week then that I heard that this War on Christmas is over. However, I wonder was this really a War on Christmas at all? Because I think if people really understood what Christmas is about, a War of Christmas would look vastly different and would take aim at the real message of Christmas and not some commercial or superficial one. I think a real War on Christmas would take aim at the message Mary sings of in our gospel reading today.
And indeed, at times in history it has. When the British ruled India the Magnificat, the name for this song Mary sings that magnifies the Lord, was banned from being sung in churches there. And during the so-called “Dirty War” in Argentina when mothers of disappeared children plastered the central plaza with posters containing the words of the Magnificat, the military junta banned their public display. What is so threatening about this message of Mary that even governments and the military see them as a threat
While we often tend to think of Mary as meek and mild, the Magnificat reveals her as someone far different. Her message is revolutionary and reveals a young woman with a fierce and fearless faith. In the verses preceding today’s gospel Mary has just heard from the angel Gabriel that she, a young teenage virgin, and will bear a son and give birth to the Son of God. Her response to that is, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I think that response gets her that meek and mild reputation. As if she is just accepting whatever the angel says as a mere vessel.
Yet, then we read that immediately after that Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who the angel said was also with child, but in her old age after a lifetime of being barren. It is likely that was a journey of about a hundred miles. A long journey for those days when people didn’t often travel far from home, never mind that a woman traveling alone such a long distance would be rare, and such a young woman even more so. This indicates that Mary is no shrinking violet and it is confirmed by the fact that though both Mary and Elizabeth would be considered the lowly and marginalized of their time, together they rejoice in what God is doing through THEM and Mary sings a song of just how extraordinary all this is of what God is up to.
She doesn’t just sing of what God’s plan is one day far off for this one she carries in her womb though. No, she sings with such confidence of what God is up to that she uses the past tense. She trusts in God’s promise to her so much that she sings her message as if God has already accomplished it! He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones. He has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty.
Mary sings of a world turned upside down and inside out by God. The world order is reversed! The lowly, those formerly forgotten or cast aside and ignored in society, like a young teenage Mary and an elderly barren Elizabeth, are not just remembered, but lifted up! The hungry are filled with good things – not just food, but peace, justice, security – all that has been lacking in their lives!
Mary does more than simply say yes to God in her song. She sings believing that the world is already made different by this one she carries inside her. She sings in defiance trusting that the current state of the world will not be the permanent state of the world. All is changed and will forever be changed by God come to earth through the child she will bear.
Mary’s response is much like we heard last week of Paul’s call to the Philippians to rejoice always. Paul didn’t call the members of the church at Philippi to rejoice always in denial of their real situations of trouble, struggle, and suffering. Instead, he called them to rejoice always in defiance of their situations. He called them to rejoice trusting that their current situation was not their permanent situation because God would not let it be, because God was with them a different reality was possible. He called them to rejoice always living as if God’s promised future for them, when their suffering and pain would be no more, was already true.
In the same way in the Magnificat Mary sings of a world changed forever because God chose to come to earth in an infant born of an insignificant young woman even though it hasn’t yet come to fruition. Mary sees that with God choosing to become incarnate among us, everything is different for us. How we know and see God and our own reality is radically altered forever. Seeing God as separate and ruling over us from afar allows us to accept the world as it is with us separated from one another – by power, wealth, color, gender, class, status. However, when God comes down to live with and among us, as that separation goes away between us and God, it frees us to end the separation from one another as well.
As pastor and professor Robert Williamson, Jr. writes, “The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ reveals all of this social stratification to be based on a falsehood. God is not above us and beyond us, ruling over us from afar. God is there in Mary’s womb, as immanent to humanity as one can be. Being made in the image of this God can no longer mean separating ourselves from others in order to rule over them. It can only mean to become incarnate with others, lifting up others, restoring our common humanity.”
This new reality is why the Magnificat is so controversial that it has been banned in certain countries. Mary’s song is revolutionary as it calls us to live into God’s reality of incarnation and not the world’s of separation. And we see in the Magnificat that the real War on Christmas isn’t the one that is about what is printed on Starbucks’ holiday cups or how a cashier at Target greets you in December. Instead, it is the cultural message that tells us our divisions – by race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, immigration status, education, or privilege – are justified and are how it has to be for us. Mary and her song dare us to trust that because God is with us we can believe otherwise and we can live as it is so even as God is still at work making it our reality. Mary and her song dare us to live into God’s way of abundant possibility as our reality instead of the world’s myth of scarcity that tries to convince us such a world is not possible and never will be.
Living with such a faith as Mary can seem far from anything we could imagine ourselves capable of. However, I’ve been reading the book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, by Methodist pastor Michael Mather and I think his approach to ministry offers a way to think about this that isn’t quite so daunting. In the book Pastor Mather shares how when he and the two congregations he has served in Indiana began seeing in a new way, their way of ministry changed as well. Because when they began to see not what was missing or lacking in places where they met the poor and marginalized, but instead saw the abundance that was already present there, they and their communities were changed as they began to live into the abundance that was already at work there.
Like Adele who came to receive help from his congregation’s food pantry. When in addition to asking what she needed they asked what she could do, they discovered a talent for cooking that led her to catering events at the church, then for organizations in the community, and then to the opening her own restaurant.
Or like young fourteen-year-old Aaron whose parents wanted to keep him safe and off the violent city streets in the summer. Pastor Mather’s congregation asked questions of him and discovered he was an artist so they hired him to teach an art class at the church. As the children of the class drew pictures of their neighborhood focused on the good things – like people singing in the neighborhood park, trees and flowers, and beautiful buildings – and not of the violence, trash, or leftover drug paraphernalia that that they were known for in the wake of a recent shooting in the area. The children saw their community in a different light in its goodness and they were inspired to do a neighborhood cleanup. In that clean up they picked up over one hundred pounds of broken glass that Aaron then led the art class children to use to create a mural from the pictures they had drawn of the beauty they saw in their neighborhood so others could recognize that beauty found among its brokenness as well.
Or like teenage Adrian whose mother was worried he was about to get kicked out of school, but by asking what he was good at Pastor Mather discovered Adrian and his friend liked to repair bikes. Connecting them with a friend of the congregation who fixed bikes as well and using the previously empty garage of a parishioner they got a grant and started a bike repair shop that allowed them to fix bikes for bartered goods, cash, or free as necessary for their neighbors dependent on bikes to get around.
If, like Pastor Mather and his congregations and their communities, we begin to see ourselves and others in the way of God’s abundance and what God is up to around us instead of that of scarcity and what is missing, what might change in how we do ministry with our congregation and community? How might it change how we see the world and one another? What might change in what we think is possible and how God can use us to achieve God’s purposes and the building of God’s dreamed new reality for us?
I think, like Pastor Mather and his congregations discovered, everything can change for us. How we see the world will change when we discover what is possible is more than we ever thought as we open our eyes to God’s works in progress and hidden in plain sight in our midst. Others will be changed as well as we begin to live in confidence that God’s promised reality for us all is real here and now and not one day far off. And we will be changed as Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries says in the introduction to Pastor Mather’s book because, “We don’t go to the margins to ‘make a difference.’ We go to the margins so that the folks at the margins make US different.” As Mary dared to magnify the Lord and was made different, may it be so for us as well. Amen.