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John 1:1-14, 16
All her young life Mary had heard the stories: how her people had been saved time and again through this incomplete woman or that flawed man. She learned of burning bushes and holy silence, of dreams and signs, of liars and cheats, murderers, adulterers, and prostitutes who were called by God to do extraordinary things. She could cite the places and times when God had brought down the mighty, lifted up the lowly, and made the impossible imaginable.
More than that, all her life Mary had been told that God wasn’t finished yet, that God’s Anointed One would be coming soon. Everyone Mary knew—and everyone they knew—had spent their lives longing and looking for God’s Chosen One.
Still, despite having been taught to live in faithful expectation of God’s deliverance, despite having a heart filled with love and a head thick with dreams for the future, Mary had never thought God’s salvation would come through her.
Until it did.
Until an angel showed up and told her she had found favor with God. Until the angel told her the most amazing things about a baby she would have. Until, when Mary said she didn’t understand this at all, the angel simply assured her that nothing was impossible with God.
And so she said “yes.”
Yes. Yes, I will. Here I am. I will make room. I will live in hope. Yes, thank you for asking. Yes, I will be the one. Let it be.
This is the “yes” that changes everything. This is the “yes” that prepares the way of the Lord.
As for us—well, we get so taken by Mary’s willingness to be the one, we get so caught up in wondering what we would have said and done, whether we could ever be the one, we get so excited about the next part of the story that we rush on toward Bethlehem and that beautiful little baby, all but forgetting about Mary.
But Mary will not be forgotten. Mary will not even be reduced to “meek and mild.” Because just to survive in her time and place as an unmarried pregnant girl Mary had to be cunning. To endure the final months of her pregnancy alone and give birth in a barn without the benefit of midwives or the support of family and community, Mary had to be fierce.
Because Mary sang her faith for all generations to hear. Because Mary, a poor woman, believed God had already done great things for her and her people. Because Mary, though she lived under Rome’s brutal occupation, trusted that God’s love would yet bring down the powerful oppressors and lift up lowly people like her. Because Mary, whose life had been turned inside-out, believed that her son would turn things upside-down.
There is something about singing that enlivens the soul. There is something about music that touches the heart in a way nothing else can. We’ve heard a lot of wonderful music this morning, sung beautifully and lovingly by the fabulous First Church Choir.
A few nights ago, a small group of us went Christmas caroling—to a nursing home and a couple of different residences for older folks. Oh, we didn’t sound half as good as the choir, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter at all. Some people began weeping almost before we’d sung a single note. Residents of a dementia unit who barely know their own names any more nevertheless sang every word of the carols.
Christmas carols touch us deeply, especially if we associate them with happy times, especially if those times seem long gone. And so the tears flowed, manifesting not only the power of song but the power of this particular story, revealing both the depth and the longevity of our longing for love and joy, peace and hope and wonder.
Mary’s song was something else yet. The Magnificat, as it is called (Latin for “magnify”), is a protest song, a song of resistance, a song of defiance, a song of holy reversals, a song of joy. It praises the God of deliverance and justice, liberation and mercy, the God who favors the lowly, the hungry, and the seemingly forgotten.
It both declares and rejoices in the promise that, by the tender mercies, never-failing love, and ever-saving strength of our God, the world is about to turn. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”
Is it any wonder that its words have been prohibited by the powerful? Argentina’s military junta banned the Magnificat in the 1970s after the Mothers of the Disappeared wrote its revolutionary words on the posters they carried in marches outside the presidential palace. In the 1980s, the government of Guatemala, homeland of our brother Lucio Perez, recognized the subversive nature of the Magnificat and forbade all public recitations of it, even in Mass. That brutal regime didn’t want poor people getting any ideas—about God, of all things.
Is it any wonder that in our own country, where many Christians march in lockstep with the powers that be, authorities need not fear that Mary’s song will stir people to action? In a piece for the Washington Post, a writing colleague of mine reports that 43 percent of evangelicals say their churches never read or discuss the Magnificat; 21 percent say they have heard it just a few times, and 28 percent say they’ve never heard the term “Magnificat.”
Given that, perhaps it is no wonder that they support the Trump administration’s separation of immigrant families, its detention of thousands of children, and its denial of asylum to people fleeing violence and poverty. And yet they celebrate Christmas, which marks God’s breaking into our world as a poor, brown-skinned baby whose parents had to take him to another country because of the violent persecutions of a despotic ruler.
Perhaps we should begin inviting these Christians to Bible study. Perhaps we should sing Mary’s song to them.
I like to think that Mary taught the Magnificat to her kinswoman Elizabeth during those months they were sequestered together in their blessedness, one woman far too old to be pregnant and the other so young and unprepared. I like to think Elizabeth taught the song to John the Baptist, and that John hummed it to himself when he was eating bugs for lunch, and sang it loudly in Herod’s prison. I like to think Mary sang it to Jesus as a lullaby, that Jesus taught it to his disciples, and that they sang it together in that upper room when they shared a last supper together.
I would like to think that our children are learning about Mary’s song in worship and in Sunday School, that with our help they are encountering the love of God that transforms not only us and our lives but also the whole world. Entire systems. I would like to think that we adults are also taking Mary’s song to heart, that we are seeing Jesus in the lowly who need lifting up, that we are sacrificing some of our own privilege, as Christ did, so that the oppressed might know justice. I would like to think Mary’s song informs our church’s vision, and that we rejoice in partnering with God to turn the world around.
Meantime, a very special baby is about to be born. Tomorrow night, if we listen closely, we might hear angels singing good news of great joy for all people. We might even see the Light no darkness can overcome when we sing “Silent Night” by the glow of those antique candelabra. We will feel love’s sweetness and joy.
Until then, let us sing of love’s fierceness. Let of sing of love’s justice and strength. Let us sing Mary’s song—all four verses. For hearts willing, and by God’s powerful love indwelling, the world is about to turn.