Sunday 21 December 2014
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
A young girl named Mariam, from a town called Nazareth, in the northern province of Galilee. That’s about all we know about her, except that she was engaged to a man named Joseph, who was a distant descendant of King David, and she was some relation to a woman named Elizabeth, who was the mother of John the Baptist. Other than that, though, we don’t know anything about her family, who her parents were. We don’t know how she grew up. We don’t know how she met Joseph, or how their relationship was. But we are told that this young girl had a vision of a heavenly messenger, an angel, named Gabriel, who told her she would be the mother of a holy boy whom she was to name Yeshua, Jesus, which means, “God saves.” And, as Luke tells it, after accepting this God-given commission from Gabriel, she travelled to visit her older relative, Elizabeth, and, being overcome by the Holy Spirit, she broke into song.
It may not be obvious at first glance, but the whole first part of Luke reads a bit like a cheesy Hollywood musical. People are constantly breaking into song for no apparent reason. When we read Psalms and Canticles together each Sunday morning, we usually just speak them. But in truth they are songs, pieces of ancient poetry that are meant to be sung, though the original tunes and music have long since been forgotten. The song that Mary sings, the Canticle of Mary, sometimes called the Magnificat after its first word in the latin translation, tells the story of God’s redemption of the people of Israel, of the fulfillment of God’s promises of long ago.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And why? Why does Mary rejoice in God? Because God has turned the tables. God has upset the social order. God has caused a great reversal of fortune. God has chosen her, a young girl of humble means, now bound to be the object of whispers and rumors from her neighbors, to be the mother of the Messiah, to be the Mother of God.
After all, who is she? Just a unimportant peasant woman from an unimportant town in an unimportant territory in an unimportant province on the edge of the civilized world. She was engaged to an unimportant laborer from a family whose glory had faded centuries before. And now she was going to be an unwed mother, a fate that carried far more social stigma in her day than it does in ours. It would have been in Joseph’s legal right to stone her to death. But somehow, she, over all others in the world, was chosen to be the mother of the savior of the world. She, a nobody, was going to be the Mother of God.
And that’s not all. Mary continues to prophesy about God’s liberating action in Jesus Christ. God is not just lifting up one lowly girl to a place of prominence. God is turning everything upside-down and downside-up. “God drags the powerful off their thrones and raises up the humble,” she proclaims. “The Lord fills the starving and lets the rich go hungry.”
Now, these are hard words for many of us, who are used to living relatively comfortable lives, who enjoy the power and the privilege we have inherited. Life has been pretty good up until now. Sure, we may face our own troubles and burdens. We may have challenges to deal with. But compared to the majority of people in the world, we have things pretty good. We have safe places to live. We have shelter from the weather. We have plenty of food to eat. We may be in the bottom 99% here in America, but if God turns the whole world upside down, we might just find ourselves in that upper crust that God is about to tear down. And that is something we would likely rather avoid. Mary’s prophesy about God’s justice might sound more like a threat to our ears than it sounds like good news.
But these are wonderful words of salvation for those on the underside of society. These are words of liberation for the oppressed, words of hope for the beleaguered, words of promise for the destitute. This is food for the hungry, jobs for the unemployed, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, release for the captives, justice for the targeted. God is the champion of the poor and needy, the benefactor of those who suffer, the healer of those who are diseased, the comforter of those who weep. For the Ebola orphan in Africa, for the starving widow in India, for the dispossessed native in the Amazon, for the poor youth in the urban ghetto, for anyone who has been pushed aside or profiled or counted out, this is good news. This is gospel.
And this is the good news that Mary sings. She sings a song of liberation. She sings a song of mercy. She sings a song of justice. Justice for all those who have failed to receive justice at the hands of our human society. This is not the kind of justice that is meted out down the barrel of a gun or by a remote-controlled drone or a laser-guided bomb. It is not the kind of justice that is executed in an electric chair or a jail cell or an interrogation room.
No, God’s justice is something else entirely. God’s justice makes things right, it does not stop simply at punishing those who have done wrong. God’s justice gives power to the powerless. It cannot be bought, nor can it be bribed. God’s justice sees to the heart of things. It does not let something pass simply because the only people being hurt are people who have not been granted a voice to air their grievances. As Mary so boldly proclaims:
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
To Mary’s mind, God is a powerful warrior, a mighty champion, who fights on the side of the poor and lowly. God is like a sort of divine Robin Hood, who sets right the things that powerful people have set wrong. That is the God to whom Mary sings her praise, a God who has chosen humble little her over so many other more prominent choices.
And when it comes right down to it, what greater love can we sing than of an Almighty God who humbly takes on human form, of a God who cares the most for those who have the least. That truly is good news. That truly is gospel.