Sunday, December 15, 2019 – Advent III
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
“Oh! You better watch out, You better not cry, You better not pout, I'm telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town! He's making a list, Checking it twice, Gonna find out who's naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town! He sees you when you are sleeping, He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, So be good for goodness sake! Oh! You better watch out, You better not cry, You better not pout, I'm telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town!” (John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie)
As a kid I hated that song! It always sort of creeped me out, this notion that there was an old man in a red suit who lived all the way at the North Pole and still could somehow manage to see everything I did. Everything. And not only did he see what I did, but he judged me accordingly. I didn’t like that song because, quite frankly, it reminded me of my version of God.
God was likewise an all-seeing old man. God knew when I had been naughty or nice and was fully prepared to reward or punish me in kind. As a child I lived under the constant threat of the all-seeing eye of God. I didn’t need Santa Claus to do that too. I was already neurotic enough.
Well, obviously, I didn’t stay there in my concept of God. Instead I grew into a relationship with God. Through the hard knocks of life, I learned, first-hand about mercy and grace. And I came to depend, body and soul, on that marvelous affirmation from I John 4:8: “God is love.” I still believed that God was watching us. I still believed that I should be nice instead of naughty. But, I thought, in the end everything would be OK. It was sort of a “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach to Christian faith.
I found a new spiritual home where those “I’m OK, you’re OK” values were affirmed. In that new home, the religious concepts with which I had grown up were largely absent. One almost never heard the H word (hell) or the J word (judgment). Instead we heard a lot about the L word (love). We heard the P word (peace). And we heard a great deal about another J word (justice). And all of that seemed very nice. And all of that seemed the way it should be. And all of that was being said from an ivory tower. But the more I lived, the more I understood that one J word actually required the other. Justice and judgment walk hand in hand. And those who easily dismiss the judgment of God have probably never really needed the justice of God.
But Mary did. Blessed Mary, the mother of our Lord, needed the justice of God because she was a poor, uneducated, unmarried and pregnant teenager. She lived under the oppression of a government bent on her subjugation. She had watched her parents and relatives and friends suffer the constant humiliations of a police state.
In Mary’s world, the divide between the rich and the poor never seemed to narrow because government policies favored the rich. Mary never had a chance at full Roman citizenship with all its rights and privileges because she was the wrong kind of person. She was destined to be part of the visible but largely ignored underclass.
But Blessed Mary was not only shaped by the dominant culture of Roman Imperialism. Mary was also steeped in the traditions of the Jewish people, who believed that God would one day set this world right. She had heard the stories of the great prophets, who called the people to live in hope and expectation despite their circumstances. And she knew that some of those prophets were women like her: Miriam the sister of Moses, Deborah one of the great judges of Israel and the childless Hannah, who longed for and received another baby of promise. Mary lived, like we do, in that in-between place of the world as she knew it and the world that she hoped for.
One day, pregnant and afraid, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant with John the Baptist. And when those two faithful and strong women met each other, the moment was suddenly charged with the power of the Holy Spirit. And Mary, like Miriam and Deborah and Hannah before her, began to prophesy. First she talked about the incredible thing that God had done for her. She sang that despite her lowly position, God had looked on her with favor and chosen her for special purpose. And she prophesied that all the future generations would call her blessed. I sometimes wonder how we Protestants fulfill that prophecy since we so remiss in speaking about her at all, let alone calling her blessed.
Blessed Mary sang about the shape the world was in. And then she sang about what God was going to do about it. She proclaimed that the wicked and the selfish and the corrupt would get what was coming to them (judgment); and that God would give to the oppressed what they needed (justice).
Her prophetic song is called the Magnificat, and although we might read or sing it at Christmas time, most Protestants don’t pay it much mind. And besides that, its basic premise messes with our images of the Mary of Christmas pageants - silent and serene and utterly harmless – a womb without a voice. But I have sometimes wondered what a Christmas pageant would look like if we allowed Mary a speaking part that was more in line with what she actually said. Can you imagine your daughter or niece or granddaughter coming center stage, lifting her head and voice, and thundering the words of a prophet calling out for justice?
Thundering Mary said that the One coming into the world through her own flesh would change everything. Forget “Silent Night, Holy Night.” This child, she sang, would turn up the volume and raise a ruckus. Through this baby, God would scatter the proud like sawdust in the wind. Through this Jesus, God would bring down the powerful from their thrones of arrogance. God would fill the hungry with good things, but the rich would go to bed with their stomachs empty. The coming of Christ would be good news for the “have nots,” but bad news for those who have because they took it from those who didn’t. -- And that, in essence, is the message of Christmas. That’s hard to wrap in bows and feel sentimental about, but that’s exactly what Blessed Mary sang.
And her powerful song has never stopped. Every time people see their worth and demand justice, Mary’s sings. Every time the poor demand their place at the table, Mary’s sings. In the protests for freedom that are currently rocking our world, Mary’s song is heard above the din. When people put their own bodies on the line for what is right, it is her holy song that inspires them.
Mary put her own body on the line. She said yes to the angel. She said yes to the unbelievable. She said yes to an incarnational faith. Blessed Mary literally gave birth to justice. And in that regard, she is not exceptional – because that is exactly what we are all called to do.
The medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, once famously said that we are all called to be the mothers of God. Now don’t get lost in those words, dear Protestants. What Meister Eckhart meant was simply this: in each of us, in every reaction to injustice, in every act of kindness, Christ is given physicality through our own flesh. And each time that happens, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, and judgment and justice walk hand in hand.
So, sing Blessed Mary, sing! And teach us your song. Sing about how Christ longs to be born through us. And sing it until we learn it. Help us to sing it, until the Kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.