A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on December 20, 2015.
That’s a heck of a greeting Mary gets from her cousin. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
Still, you don’t meet a lot of people who would respond even to that by crying out “My soul magnifies the Lord!”
If you tried that, people would smile pacifically and back slowly away.
On the up side, you’d have that seat on the bus all to yourself.
Seriously, though, did you ever wonder what kind of person Mary really was? We know so little about her, and we have so many agendas. Growing up Methodist I didn’t hear much at all about Mary; we didn’t have pictures of her hanging up in the church, she barely got a mention. Except at Christmas — when suddenly she’s everywhere, loitering on front lawns with her husband and the kings and the lone representative shepherd that came packaged with the Wal-Mart crèche. It’s hard to learn much about her from most of these setups, and those you can… well, let me give you an example.
Take the people who used to live next door to me in my old neighborhood. I knew they were churchgoers, because the bumper sticker on their car said so. They had the polite but stern and unhumoring quality I had learned as a child to associate with certain classes of evangelical Protestant. They had a perfectly maintained lawn that they never, ever used, not even the clean white porch swing in the side yard. And every Christmas they put a crèche out front, a simple one: Mary, Joseph, Jesus in the manger, and a tiny shelter representing the stable. There may have been an angel; I don’t remember. What made this display noteworthy was that all of them — Jesus, Joseph, and Mary — were represented as babies. It was the complete inversion of the Medieval practice of representing the infant Messiah as a miniature adult, with adult proportions and an adult expression. Out on my neighbors’ lawn, even Mary and Joseph had disproportionately large heads, like babies of almost any mammalian species—it’s how you can tell Charlie Brown is a little boy and not a balding old man, and how the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind were made to look safe and innocent instead of weird and scary. Worse, they wore the placidly idiotic expressions of baby dolls. They were cute, like pandas or someone else’s puppy. If they hadn’t been made of cheap plastic they might have been cuddly.
When my former neighbors bought that house and I saw their crèche for the first time, I was not a Christian. I was coming out of a long atheist interlude, drifting in a direction people call “spiritual but not religious” — sensing that something was missing, casting about for it, open to ideas and suggestions and potentially convincing narratives.
What I saw in my neighbors’ front yard was not a potentially convincing narrative.
At best, it was nice. Pleasant. Polite. Sentimental, yes. Safe? Very safe. But I didn’t need pleasant and polite. I didn’t need sentimental. I could find those things elsewhere, plenty of places — and they weren’t enough. I didn’t need a god who was merely pleasant. Although I may not have recognized it at the time, I didn’t need a god who was safe. I needed a god who could shake things up — who could change things — who could change me, who could save me. I needed a god who could kick some butt — mine, when necessary. And that was going to take more than a really super nice guy. It was going to take more than a god who would pick a babydoll to be his mommy.
Now, having been raised Christian, having been exposed in my collegiate singing career to Latin masses and the works of Thomas Tallis, and having studied and written about the Old Order Amish, I was aware that Babydoll Crèche did not represent the full breadth and depth of the Christian experience.
Nevertheless, when I saw that crèche… well, I thought, if these people don’t take their god seriously, why should I?
When, years later, I walked into St. Joseph’s one evening and one of the first things I heard was the Magnificat, I knew I was onto something.
Because this God Mary is talking about and giving thanks to and for — he’s not a nice guy! He’s not polite. He doesn’t care about your middle-class propriety and your neatly mown lawn. He’s turning everything upside down! He’s casting down rulers from thrones and scattering the proud and kicking the wealthy to the curb and generally making a mess of things. It’s a song of revolution, every evening at 5:30. And revolution is not a polite affair. The proud, the rich, and the mighty are not going to go quietly, and if you need a reminder, you can check the 6:00 news on the way out the door.
This God Mary’s praising is a God you’d better take seriously.
And her song of praise— well, it’s not a simple poem. It wraps up a lot of ideas in a small amount of space — that’s what a poem is for. That’s why the Magnificat is so great. That’s why it’s been used in daily prayer for a thousand or more years. It offers something to almost everyone.
It’s a cry of deliverance. The last lines ring with joy at the coming of the Messiah: He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, / The promise he made to our fathers. The long-awaited savior is about to arrive; God has fulfilled his covenant with his people.
It’s a proclamation of social justice:
He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their imagination of their hearts. (Isn’t that a great line? I’m reading from Rite I, now, if you’re following along in the pews.)
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the humble and meek.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
It’s a thanksgiving for mercy: He has mercy on those who fear him — and it’s a hope for future mercy as well: in every generation.
But although the Magnificat echoes Old Testament prophecy, although Mary talks about the saving of Israel, about mighty thrones and strong arms and the rich and the hungry… this is not a worldly revolution. We know that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. It doesn’t arrive by worldly means. And St. Luke, who gave Mary these words, knew it too.
Many of the words in this song of revolution have double meanings—especially the ones we struggle to translate, the ones that change from one rite and rendition to the next. Mighty may mean powerful, one who has might; and humble may suggest humble means — the poor. But those words also refer to states of mind. Think of someone who is high and mighty as opposed to someone with humility. And what about meek? The Greek word the Gospel writers used has far richer and deeper resonance than our English substitute. It can refer to a good servant; in fact I’ve seen it described metaphorically as the quality of a good horse who’s been well broken and is ready to serve its master. (Maybe you underestimate the value of a good horse in a preindustrial society.) But it also suggested the quality of a good ruler — someone who demonstrated power without undue harshness, who exercised strength within control. Someone who recognized that, after all, to lead meant, truly, to serve. And so when Jesus says “take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek,” and tells his followers that the meek shall inherit the earth, he’s not suggesting they be mouse-like and take whatever’s given them; he’s urging them to serve God and their fellow men and women, and to lead when necessary, gently and with humility, exercising God’s strength under disciplined control.
Those are the people Mary is saying God has exalted. She might have said “He has put the high and mighty who lord it over us in their place, and raised up those who are ready to serve him humbly and gladly.”
That’s a revolution right there. Imagine what the world would look like if it were ruled by those who are willing humbly to serve!
The presidential debates would have a lot of empty podiums, I’ll tell you that.
But this isn’t only prophecy, after all. It’s what’s just happened to Mary. She opens not by thanking God for saving Israel but for saving her, for the great things he has done for her — not to her, but for her. And while it’s true that Mary was presumably humble in position and in means, quite likely lowly in the eyes of the world, what’s crucial to the story is that she was ready to serve God humbly and enthusiastically. She was ready. She was prepared. (Maybe she’d been listening to all those Advent sermons about waiting and watching.) We don’t know why she was ready. Maybe she was what we’d call a good girl, who did her chores and spent her spare hours praying, though without letting her goodness to go her head. Maybe she wasn’t. Maybe at her tender age she’d already managed to make a mess of her life and was looking for a fresh start. Maybe she was just a typical teenager who was waiting for somebody, anybody, to take her seriously.
We know she was engaged to marry this carpenter, who according to tradition was much older than she—probably a widower, already with kids of his own. A safe choice, but not an inspiring one; the sort of match parents would be happy to make for their daughter when they had limited means and she had not a lot of options. And Mary, certainly, would have known that.
My favorite image of Mary is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Annunciation. A young woman, barely more than a girl, sits on a bed in the corner of a modest room, bathed in light, contemplating its source. She… is… afraid. Her hands are clasped, her posture is meek, her head turned away and slightly bowed in reverence or prayer, her lips are pursed and seem almost to tremble—but her eyes are looking straight at that incandescent angel.
Because when God came calling in all his glory, she was ready. And she was ready for more than “let it be done to me”—I have to believe God made sure of that. After all, He wasn’t just asking Mary to bear His child; He was asking her to be his mother. And motherhood only begins at conception. Conception is, I can assure you, the easy part. Actually raising the kid requires a bit more work. And it requires… humility? gentle rule? strength under control? All that and more.
She may not have known she was ready — may not have thought she was ready. But God thought she was, and she chose to believe him.
When I read the Magnificat in the light of what just happened to Mary — bearing in mind that she’s talking first about herself — this revolution God is bringing starts to look a little different to me. Even the line about the rich and the hungry can be read another way: the spiritually hungry also will be fed, while the self-satisfied — as the rich usually are — will be sent away with the nothing they think they need. When the Messiah needed a mother, God didn’t turn to the daughter of a priest or a scribe; he turned to a young woman who simply longed to serve him. Those who might have thought they deserved the honor? The proud? He has scattered them in the imagination of their hearts.
This revolution is about justice, yes. But it’s a revolution that begins in the heart.
This revolution is about pride.
It’s about God sweeping aside our own fool opinions of ourselves and reminding us that his opinion is the only one that matters. He’s not impressed with how wonderful we think we are or with how wonderful everyone else thinks we are. He’s also not impressed with how pitiful and lowly we think we are, or with how pitiful and lowly anybody else thinks we are. All that is only the imagination of our hearts — or of someone else’s.
Notice that Gabriel didn’t say, “Mary, do you think you’d make a good Queen of Heaven?”
There’s no good answer to that question. If she says no, she’s out of a job. “Oh, gee, uh, no, I mean, gosh… no, I really couldn’t…” At that point God’s moving on to the next candidate.
On the other hand, would you hire someone who said yes?
We do it with Presidents, but God doesn’t work that way.
Gabriel didn’t ask that. He just said, “God’s going to do something wonderful, and he wants your help.”
He just said, “God thinks you’re the woman for this job.”
And Mary, who until that moment had for all worldly appearances been precisely nobody, to whom it had never occurred that she would be chosen for such an honor, to whom it surely never occurred that she could possibly be worthy of the honor or capable of the responsibility it demanded—but who had heard and believed all that ancient prophecy, who took God seriously enough to believe Him when He took her seriously—Mary took God’s word for it and said, “Yes. Please. I’m ready.”
And that’s why I hate seeing Mary portrayed as a babydoll. To be honest, I’m not all that crazy about her being portrayed as merely meek, in the way we too often use that term — mouselike, letting things be done to her, the model for good little girls (and boys) who are seen and not heard, who stay out of trouble and do just what they’re told. We need Mary as a role model, yes — but not that kind of role model.
We need good mothers. We need good fathers. Good teachers, good friends, good neighbors. We live in a culture that encourages great deeds and bold self-expression when, really, what we need are faithful service and humble craft and gentle leadership and — well, decent people. Don’t think for a minute that these are small things: they’re far harder than what we think of as heroism. They’re how God accomplishes great wonders.
And they require, for all but the luckiest of us, a revolution in the heart.
We may not be inclined to think of this in terms of revolution. We may not want to think of it in terms of revolution — of power and glory, of mighty arms and casting down and scattering. Those words may make us uncomfortable. They may scare us— for any one of a hundred perfectly understandable reasons.
But let me say this.
The people who walked in darkness — remember them, from Isaiah? — they’re still out there. They’re still walking. And that darkness is as thick as ever.
They’re poor, they’re sick, they’re old, they’re out of work… or they look for all the world like they’re doing just fine. They’re lonely professionals who find themselves in middle age without families or friends or a place that feels like home… They’re quiet people who have never, ever felt like they fit in, anywhere… They’re successful, wealthy people who woke up one morning and realized that the American dream of shopping and sex and 24/7 entertainment does not add up to a fulfilling life.
And they’re wrestling with the conclusion that their lives have no purpose, no meaning, and that they themselves are of no value whatsoever — to themselves or to anybody else. They are desperate to give their lives meaning. They’re looking, though they may not know it, for someone or something to serve, someone or something where they can sink the tired selves they’re sick of having to prop up and start living for something greater.
And most of them are looking for it in all the wrong places.
Because Babydoll Creche certainly isn’t a viable alternative.
These are the people who walk in darkness, and they need a great light. They don’t need a warm and fuzzy glow. They need a fifty million watt halogen bulb to blast that darkness to hell.
These are the people locked in the prison house — in prisons of addiction, depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-pity, anger or just dumb choices. And they need a mighty arm to smash the walls of those prisons.
They need a revolution. Not a political one, though they may seek refuge in just that sort of fantasy — but a revolution all the same.
They need a God they can take seriously. Whose strength they can safely lean on instead of feeling they can have to trust their own. Who gives them the confidence to serve, and in whom they can have enough confidence to serve humbly, and with restraint. A God they can trust enough to risk hope, and peace, and joy, and love.
A God who has his own world-changing agenda, and who wants them to be a part of it. A God who has a serious, meaningful, important job for them.
Maybe not Queen of Heaven. That one’s already taken.
But important work nonetheless. For you, for me — for everybody. If, like Mary, we take him seriously enough to believe him when he tells us how seriously he takes us.
He can do it. He will do it. He has done it.
That’s the God who’s coming Thursday night.