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2011-12-18 sermon“My soul doth magnify the lord”. What wonderful words that we just read from Luke. The words are well known to many of us. The words come to us in Advent just as surely as Advent comes at all. The words are words of hope. The words are words of faith.
These well-known and well-loved words are sometimes called “the Song of Mary”. They are also called the “Magnificat” because in the Latin wording of the text, the first word is “magnificat” - magnify. The fact that the text is named at all tells us that these words have been part of church life and church liturgy for a long time.
But - at the same time - this focus on Mary is not quite so simple. In Protestant tradition, Mary is not given much space in our minds and our hearts. Of course, Mary is a dominant character in Christmas Pageants, and young girls do clamor for that role every year. But I was raised to believe that thinking of Mary as someone really special was a job that we left to the Catholic church. Mary was a part of our pageants, but she was not a part of Protestant theology. In fact, I remember growing up being suspicious of Catholics mainly because of their reverence for Mary. And even today, Catholics are still accused of worshipping Mary, which is an incorrect and misleading interpretation of Catholic theology and liturgy.
For Protestants, Mary has often been seen as simply a vessel. A container. A container that carried something important - Jesus. But Protestants consistently emphasized that Jesus was the important part - not the container itself. On the one hand, I understand that position. Clearly, Jesus is important to us. On the other hand - many of us are parents, and we know that the many ways that we contribute to the lives of our own children go far beyond being a birthing vessel - they go far beyond providing food and shelter to a child. If we limit our understanding of Mary to simply “a vessel”, then perhaps we miss deeper possibilities.
In any case, the lectionary gives us two readings about Mary this week, so it’s a good chance to reflect on what Mary means to us - and on what Mary might mean to us.
In our first reading, Mary was approached by the angel Gabriel who told her some news. But let’s be honest - the news was not only a surprise to Mary, it was probably not even possible that she understood the news. She certainly could not have understood the implications of the news. Gabriel did not give Mary an advance copy of the New Testament after all. Even in the text it says that Mary “was much perplexed by the angel’s words and pondered what sort of Mary pondered. Well of course. How could she not ponder news that was so radical, so unexpected, so hard to understand, so hard to believe. You may recall that Mary ponders at other times too - she ponders after the shepherds visit and make their own statements about Jesus. Understandably, Mary had a lot to ponder.
In our second reading, however, Mary does not ponder. 10 verses after she “was perplexed by the angel’s words” she sings a song that is complex and deeply theological. She sings a song of clarity, of certainly. A song of being at peace with what was happening to her.
When I read these stories together as we just did I feel like someone flipped over too many pages at once. There must be a piece missing. A part in the story where Mary spent time reflecting on the news and reacting to it. But instead, an angel comes to Mary with news that the spirit will put a seed inside her and she will give birth to the son of God and she basically says, “. and? .”. She takes it all in stride.
And what are we to do with this image that we have of this perfect Mary - the one who understood the incomprehensible - the one who could be calm in the face of total chaos and uncertainty - the one who in a time of deep stress wrote the Magnificat instead of reaching out for a bottle of Prozac like you and I probably would have done.
I’m sorry to tell you this - but I cannot relate to that Mary. In fact for many of us, that image of a “perfect” Mary is a barrier. It’s a barrier to getting down to who the real Mary might have been. The angel came to Mary and took away her innocence. Then the church came to Mary, and wrote her story in a way that denies Mary her basic humanity, her frailties, her insecurities, her fears. And so, instead of a story about a scared unmarried teenager dealing with pregnancy - someone we might actually be able to relate to - we have been given a story of the perfect Mary who understood everything and felt truly blessed to be chosen by God for a particular task. I feel like the real, human Mary is in the story, but that she has been buried in it.
But of course we can choose how to read this story. We can choose to read the story in a way that honours and remembers that Mary was young. That Mary was afraid. That Mary was uncertain about her own future as well as the future of her unborn child. That Mary was perplexed by her own situation. That Mary needed time to reflect and to ponder. A Mary that was not perfect. A Mary that did not have to be perfect.
If we read the story of Mary in that way, then we just might have to accept the fact that we can relate to Mary ourselves. We know what it is like to feel fear. We know what it is like to face an uncertain future. We know what it’s like to be on a path that our friends and family do not accept. We know what it is like to feel fear for our children. We know what it is like to be perplexed, to feel the need to get away and reflect on things.
In fact, if we read the story that way, we might relate a little too well to it. We might even end up asking ourselves if we are open to hearing messages from God. We might even end up asking ourselves how best we should invite God into our lives, and let God lead our lives in new But we want to resist that. We don’t want to imagine that we have the capacity to do amazing things for God. We’d rather believe that those action come to particular, special, people - the Mary’s of the world. We’d rather put her on a pedestal as final proof that - of course - we can’t do God’s work ourselves. It’s so much easier to simply imagine that we have nothing to offer. We are small. We are poor. We are powerless. Surely we are not expected to begin new things. Surely we are not expected to bring the Kingdom of God to earth here. Surely, not us.
The Australian comedy team the “Axis of Awesome” actually have a song about that - well, it’s not about Mary, it’s about Jesus, but it speaks to our desire to believe that we are too powerless to contribute to God’s kingdom. It’s a song that responds to the whole “What would Jesus do” movement. I won’t sing it, but some of the words are, “You can’t do what Jesus can do. there are 3 of him and their’s only one of you. So next time you’re in trouble, thinking “what would Jesus do”. Try not to forget he’s a million trillion billion times better than you.” Now that’s a de-motivational speech.
The good news of Advent is that Jesus came. But the even better news of Advent is that Jesus came as a helpless baby, not as a rich powerful warring king. The even better news of Advent is that Jesus came to an unwed mother, not to the matriarch of the village or the matriarch of the synagogue. The even better news of Advent is that Jesus came in a time of poverty, not a time of wealth. The even better news of Advent is that Jesus came to a land of impoverishment, not to a land of indulgence.
For all that we might argue that Jesus went on to do great things, we cannot deny that his beginnings were very humble indeed. The stories of Mary remind us that good things - even the good news itself - come to us from small, humble things. From little things that happen all around us. From little things that happen in our lives, and in this community. From little things that - if we pay attention - we just might discover happening all around us.
What might that look like here? Are we willing to take the chance to follow on the leading of the spirit in this place? Or would we rather hide behind the argument that we are too small, too poor, too old, or too low on energy to respond to God’s grace in this place.
Like Mary, we are not perfect, and we do not need to be perfect. We just need to be sensitive to the work of the spirit in little ways, and then to follow wherever that leads. We are not asked to do amazing things. We are only asked to respond. As Advent continues, and we continue to wait, let us all be sensitive to the small signs of God’s grace that are already here. If we look, we will find those signs in this community, and in
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