Sunday, December 18, 2011


Below is an excerpt from the sermon I preached for the Fourth Sunday of Advent at St. Francis. The full text, and audio, will be posted on the St. Francis Church website.

Mary's Song—the Magnificat—is about what is possible for all human beings, female and male, young and old—with God’s help. Her soul magnifies the Lord. I think it means something like, with God we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. I think it means that when we do a little thing in the name of Christ it ripples out to change the world, magnified to the nth degree! Mary is deeply rooted in her Jewish tradition, drawing for strength as she sings a new song to the Lord on a very old song, Hannah’s Song. (That song can be found in I Samuel 2:1-10—sung at the birth of Samuel, who was a gift from God, as every child is a gift from God.)

Rooted in the tradition, she also points us toward the future, prefiguring Pentecost: that day when Holy Spirit breaks down all walls that divide. For the Holy Spirit there is never “them” and “us” - only us beloved children of God. Mary models for us what it might mean to let the Holy Spirit blow through our lives and make us new in spite of the dominant culture’s expectations. She knew (as her forebear Hannah knew) that God cares about justice and cares especially for the poor. She knew that the deck is stacked and that in this world kids attending inner-city schools or growing up in the third world do not have the same opportunities that a kid going to a school in the suburbs has. That shouldn't inflict guilt; it's just a reality check. God loves us all, but God wants the playing field to be more even, and so somebody has to take the side of the underdog. That is what the liberation theologians mean when they speak of God’s preferential option for the poor and I think Mary is doing liberation theology in the Magnificat.

When Mary riffs on Hannah’s Song, she stands in a long line of Biblical prophets, male and female, who know this. God knocks the proud and arrogant and powerful down a few pegs and brings up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, not because God hates the rich but because God really does love the poor, the ones who in the Bible are called God’s anawim—God’s little ones. In this dog-eat-dog world the anawim need God on their side because the rich do pretty well taking care of themselves. Mary will teach her child, Jesus, to love the poor as God loves them; and as she loves them. She will teach him how to read the prophets, so that when his public ministry begins his first words will sound a lot like the song we heard his mother singing today.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

This text is unmistakably a call narrative. Mary is called by God through the very same pattern that we find throughout the Old Testament whenever God needs to have a job done: from Abraham to Moses to Samuel to Isaiah with his “unclean lips.” The angel says, “I’ve got a job for you.” Like those who have gone before her, she is initially fearful and confused. “How can all this be?” she asks. The angel insists that it can be because with God all things are possible. That’s when Mary sings: I am fully open to the will of God for my life.  

Like all call narratives, including the calls that come to us in our own lives, Mary has a choice. I love the lines in Denise Levertov’s poem, The Annunciation, which go like this: 

…we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent. God waited.
She was free
to accept or refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Like all of those men, Mary is free to say, “get lost angel!” Like those others, she instead chooses, freely, to say: Here I am! Send me! In so doing, she is the first and model disciple. She is bold and courageous and strong in this moment, and not this one only. She will have to be bold and courageous and strong to raise a son like the one she raises. And she will have be bold and courageous and strong when her son walks the Via Delarosa some thirty years later, as her heart is pierced and her son dies on a tree. Mary has to bury her child, something no parent should ever have to do.

There is nothing passive or submissive about Mary. And while she may not have a starring role in the Bible—her role is crucial in the deeper, wider, tradition. Roman Catholics perhaps say too much about her, but Protestants have not yet said nearly enough. Mary says “yes” to God and the world is changed. She is Christ-bearer, which is precisely the ministry that you and I are called to: to make room in ourselves for Christ to be born; to take on our flesh.

The life of faith is not without its questions, struggles, uncertainties and fears. But with God, all things are possible. God comes to us, as to Mary, not because we are perfect, but because we are willing to open our lives to the radical transformation that the Spirit brings. As we prepare our hearts for Christmas we look to Mary as one who shows us what is possible, even now. May Christ be made manifest—and even magnified—through us, for the sake of this world.

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