a sermon on Luke 1:26-56 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
preached on December 23, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Music is an integral part of this time of year. We’ve been hearing holiday songs for most of this month already if not longer, and there is incredible variety in style and subject. Nearly every popular music artist makes an album of holiday songs, but the subjects of holiday songs stay pretty much the same. The secular songs talk about winter, cold weather, snow, family, and friends, and the religious ones tell popularized and shortened versions of the various Christmas stories from the Bible along with some material from legends and history.
One of the greatest and most common subjects of these songs is Mary, who is also the main subject of our reading this morning. While we may not hear these songs quite so frequently on the radio, these songs about Mary are some of the best holiday music out there, if you ask me. They take a lot of different forms and focus on many different parts of the story. A lot of these songs are settings of the Magnificat that we just heard read and will sing ourselves in a few minutes, and at our Taizé prayer service the other night, we sang another very simple setting of it that managed to show the spirit of joy in Mary’s song in only a couple lines. Other songs about Mary simply attempt to tell the story of how Jesus came to be born, like a well-known carol from France that tells the story of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel or the song I just sang by John Bell from the Iona Community in Scotland. Still other songs reflect on Mary’s reaction to the news that she would bear God’s son, with one I heard this year even taking a very earthy view of Mary’s encounter with the angel as it depicts in word and song the strangeness of this very intimate encounter between an angel and a young girl.
But as much as I love all this music about Mary, this year I have realized more than ever before how difficult it is for me to identify with Mary. I haven’t been visited by an angel, so I can’t know what it was like for her to experience Gabriel’s presence as she did. I am not a parent, so I can’t go into Christmas drawing connections between the birth of my own children and the birth of Jesus. And since I am not a woman, I can’t imagine what it is like to carry new life of any sort into the world, let alone a son who would be so special and transformative!
With all these limitations, I think it is very easy for me to miss important things about this story—but all of us stand at a disadvantage here because this story has almost always been told through male eyes. The gospel writers were all men, and although Luke tells this story so beautifully, no man could fully capture the feelings and challenges of a story that is so closely connected to a woman’s experience.
We in the church have too often quieted the voice of women over the centuries. While there have been a number of notable women who have contributed their scholarship and spirituality to the life of the church, it has only been in the last one hundred years that women have been given voice in pulpits in many churches, and those who have a closer experience to this key figure of our faith remain locked out of leadership in so many traditions even today. There is something very much missing when half of the human race is not allowed to offer their own perspective on such an important moment in the story of our faith.
And yet amidst such quiet for women, Mary spoke up—even if we have to hear it through the voice of Luke. Mary spoke up when no one seemed to care, when she faced exclusion from society for getting pregnant before she was married, when her story of divine parenthood for her child just wasn’t believable. Mary spoke up not just to claim something for herself, not just to reclaim her personhood, not just to announce that she too had a voice, but Mary spoke up so that others might hear, so that others could understand what she was going through, so that others could join her in praising God for this new thing that was taking shape in her.
This wasn’t an easy thing for her to deal with in general, let alone for her to talk about—her acceptance of it wasn’t a given. God didn’t ask Mary to sign up for a special trip, give up an evening to go to a sales presentation, or even to make a big donation to a favorite charity. Instead, through the angel Gabriel, God asked Mary to give up nine months of a relatively normal life for the pain and struggle of pregnancy. God asked Mary to take on the responsibility of raising a son at a very young age when it wasn’t entirely clear if she would have to do so alone. God asked Mary to stake her reputation as a virtuous woman on a visitation from an angel that she alone witnessed and that others had no incentive to believe.
But the reality is that Mary didn’t have much else to give—or much else to lose. She herself points out her own lowliness, and it seems that there is not much else she could do to be a part of what God was doing in the world around her. Yet in spite of all the obstacles, all the pain, all the ridicule it could bring, she somehow welcomed the angel, listened carefully, and responded hopefully, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
But her acceptance was not the only way that she spoke up. As she sorted out what all these things meant and talked to her relative Elizabeth, another woman who faced pregnancy in an unusual circumstance, Mary suddenly figured it all out. In talking with Elizabeth, she moved from a meek moment of submission and acceptance to a joyous offering of praise and thanksgiving. As she recognized more of what this child would mean, she was ready to praise God, not just for the gift she had received but for this child who would change everything for everyone.
What is our Mary moment? What sort of request in our lives would bring us to wonder and reflect as she did? What could God ask of us—male or female, rich or poor, young or old—that would challenge us and bring us to this kind of new life? What would make us confront our fears and our challenges and speak up with a word of hope and praise?
Because as a man I can’t know the full meaning of what it would be to give up as much as Mary did, I suspect any comparison I might offer would fall a bit short of the incredible offering that she made. But the great medieval mystic Julian of Norwich wrote of what she learned through her own visions of Mary:
I was not taught to long to see her bodily presence whilst I am here, but [instead] the virtues of her blessed soul, her truth, her wisdom, her love, through which I am taught to know myself and reverently to fear my God.
Perhaps then our words and actions can live out this truth, wisdom, and love of Mary each and every day. We can join in Mary’s commitment to opening ourselves to God’s work in us just as she did—not just being virtuous but living in faithfulness, truth, peace, justice, and love with one another and modeling these things for our world so that God’s new way might take hold in our world. And we can offer our own words of praise for what God is doing in us and around us, for mercy that transforms lives and hearts, for strength that scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, and lifts up the lowly, for generosity that fills the hearts and minds and stomachs of those who are in need, and for promises kept that show us how God has been, is now, and always will be at work in our world.
So as we bring our preparations and waiting to a close and join in celebrating this Christmas, may we do our best to be like Mary, opening ourselves to whatever God may be asking of us, speaking up to call others to join in God’s transformation of our lives and our world, and singing out in joy for God’s wondrous gift of new life born in a manger some two millennia ago and taking hold in our hearts once again this Christmas.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.