Pastor Rick Danielson
Last Sunday afternoon I decided that I couldn’t put off decorating our home for Christmas any longer. Leroy was complaining that ALL of our decorations are in Colorado, and I figured that I at least owed it to him to put up some of what we hauled here from New York so it would look like Christmas when he gets here on Christmas Eve. So I went down to our little storage room off the parking garage. The room is packed floor to ceiling with large plastic, labeled totes. I haven’t looked inside since the day we moved in. I discovered that the Christmas totes were placed on the bottom by the movers, with the labels facing the wall, which meant that I had to empty the entire storage room to locate and remove them.
As I unpacked the totes, I began to feel more of the Christmas spirit and decided to venture out into the snow and sleet to get a real tree instead of using the old, small, hand-me-down artificial tree we brought from New York. I was inspired by the tall ceilings in our condo, and I eventually found a ten foot Frasier fir that the tree farm workers managed to squeeze into my little Kia Soul. The spindly top was wrapped around the luggage compartment a couple times in order to close the hatch. Getting it into the elevator was another challenge, but soon it was proudly standing in our home.
I might have started decorating as a Christmas grump, but once all the familiar decorations and family holiday treasures were in place, I felt more at home than I have felt since moving into that space in July.
Traditions and family treasures are important to most of us during this season. The classic Christmas films are broadcast over and over. Stories are read again from well-thumbed books with brittle pages. We come to church for pageants like the magnificent production last Sunday and for the lighting of candles on Christmas Eve. Our faith narratives root us in something mysterious. All of this gives us a sense of belong; that we are truly at home. And at the center of our most treasured stories is a young woman named Mary.
Maybe you’ve noticed that if it’s not the Advent season or Christmas Eve, we tend not to talk much about Mary in church. Mary in fact seems to have become the property of the Catholic Church. We are Protestant, not Catholic, although an increasing number of us certainly have been Catholic for some or most of our lives. The point is that many place a very high importance on Mary, and truth be told, we all have much to learn from this young woman. She is part of our Christian heritage, regardless of whether we identify as Catholic or Protestant.
I was intrigued a while ago by a colorful piece of artwork. It depicts New Orleans during the flooding after Katrina. A family is being airlifted from a small home, and in the front yard, partially submerged in water, is a “bathtub Madonna.” Do you know what I’m talking about?! A statue of the Virgin Mary ensconced in an old clawfoot tub upended and planted in the ground. They are especially popular in the south, but they were also very common where I spent most of my life in Western New York.
Mary is a part of our folk culture in America, as well as a very important figure in the New Testament. I wonder sometimes why Protestant churches have been so squeamish about talking more about her. I imagine it’s because we’re afraid that someone will accuse us of ‘worshipping’ her, and so we throw the baby out with the bathwater… or the bathtub.
Thankfully, Christians of all varieties are rediscovering her for who she is – a model of devotion, humility, obedience, courage, and faith.
Today’s Gospel reading is like the filling in a sandwich. It’s stuffed between the announcement of Jesus’ birth and the arrival of Jesus in a manger. Mary is recovering from the shocking news of her impending motherhood. She has gone on a little trip to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who herself is pregnant with John the Baptist. Travel was difficult in those days, of course. Mary must have been wondering if her engagement to Joseph was in jeopardy, and I imagine the prospect of being an unwed teenage mother was on her mind every minute.
There were no reality shows then like “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant”, and Mary was keenly aware of the public shaming she was likely to face.
So faced with all this stress and uncertainty, what does Mary do? She breaks into song! The fact that she’s singing at all says a great deal about Mary. And the song that she sings says a lot about God. It is filled with bits and pieces of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it majors on the character of God.
Mary’s song is known as the “Magnificat” because of the first line which says “My soul ‘Magnifies’ the Lord.” If we use a magnifying glass, it makes the appearance of something larger when we hold it up against an object. In Mary’s heart, God is getting bigger and bigger as she considers what God is doing in her life.
The song answers questions like:
“What is God like?”
“What does God do” and
This is what Mary says God is like: “God is merciful and strong. “God’s mercy, she says, if for those who fear God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God’s arm, God has shattered the proud.”
This is what God does: Everything is turned upside down! The powerful are brought low, and the lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled, and the rich are sent away empty. Many years ago when I was preaching at two different churches every Sunday morning, I left the 9:30 church to drive down the hill to the 11:00 church. As I drove into the village, I noticed that our metal church sign on the Chamber of Commerce ‘welcome to our community’ billboard had lost its top fastener and was now hanging upside down. I thought that was a great illustration of that morning’s sermon on how the values of this world are upended – turned upside down in God’s realm. So I talked about how our sign and how symbolic it was for it to be upside down – and the trustees had an emergency meeting after worship and went out and fixed it. I think they missed the point. Jesus meant for his kingdom, his realm, to be upside down, and Mary sang that message loud and clear.
Mary can’t contain herself – she is so thrilled with her understanding that God is going to use meek and lowly her as part of a world-altering revolution of love that she can’t help but sing.
Several years ago, Sue Monk Kidd’s novel “The Secret Life of Bees” was made into a movie. It’s set in South Carolina in the 1960s and tells the story of a girl named Lily who runs away from home and takes an African American housekeeper named Rosaleen with her. One of the most fascinating aspects of this movies is the presence of a black Madonna in the living room of the family that took Lily and Rosaleen in. This Mary was five feet tall and carved out of wood. Originally she had been the masthead of a ship that washed up on the shore of Charleston during the days of slavery. Over the years, this wooden Mary had become like a mother to the slaves, bringing comfort and inspiring them toward freedom.
In an interview about the movie, Sue Monk Kidd told about an experience that helped her to create the black Madonna in the story. One day on a trip to the Island of Crete, she visited a Greek Orthodox convent where she saw a 12th century icon of a dark-skinned Mary. The painting itself was draped in chains. She found an English-speaking nun who told her this strange story: Long ago, the icon was captured by the Turks and taken away to Turkey, but soon after the kidnapping, the icon miraculously on its own accord returned to the church. The Turks came back and captured it a second time, this time chaining it up. The icon, however, escaped yet again and returned to the church still wearing the chains, at which point the Turks gave up. The nuns in the convent left the chains around it as a reminder.
In the novel and the movie, the black Madonna statue – the ship masthead – is confiscated and chained by the slave master, yet she was said to always escape back to the ‘praise house’ where the slaves kept her. She’s named “Our Lady of Chains”, as one character says, “Not because she wore them, but because she broke them.”
Mary, whether seen as black or white or any other shade, is in fact a universal mother figure. The mother of Jesus, but one who cares fiercely for all those God loves and protects. She has played a central role in God’s action of throwing down the corrupt powerful and lifting up those who are innocent and lowly. She has broken the chains of injustice and bound up the wounded. She has understood the fearful, broken hearts and served God’s people with unconditional love. Those who are on the outside because they don’t have the right ethnicity, the right education, the right income, the right abilities or attributes – the right whatever – have a friend in Mary.
Mary had a song to sing, and I want to ask you if you have a song. A song that keeps you going no matter what and reminds you of who God is, what God is doing, and who God loves. If God can use the voice of a simple, unwed, pregnant teenager to shift the balance of power and bring about justice in this world, then surely God can use your voice and your life in amazing ways.
Thanks be to God for the magnificent song that never ends!