Yesterday morning I traveled with Judi Kleinman to the United Church of Christ conference office in Denver. Judi and I were there to support two of our CUCC members, Karen Howe and Julie Kies, during interviews related to ordination. We left so early in the morning that I didn’t get a chance to eat breakfast. By the time we pulled off I-25 downtown, I was seriously hungry. As we pulled up to a stop sign, my stomach formed the thought “I wish I had a donut.” I spoke it out loud and then immediately saw a large sign across the street: “Donuts.” There was a donut shop at that very corner! I couldn’t believe the coincidence. I parked and went inside. The clerk asked what I wanted, and said “I just want a donut.” Right then, a stranger paying for his order turned to me and without a word handed me a coupon for a free donut. It was a Christmas miracle! It was as though God and the universe had intervened to give me what I needed most at that moment. It was like Mary sang in the words of our text: “God has filled the hungry with good things.” But then I thought, why would God want me to have fat-saturated, sugar laden circle of dough? As I ate the donut, I actually wondered if the universe had instead conspired to take me down with a lethal dose of cholesterol.
How do we know if a sudden, surprising gift or unexpected turn of events is for our good or harm? And how do we know what role the divine has in any of that? Imagine you are Mary, the mother of Jesus. An angel appears to you in a dream and tells you that you are going to have a baby. Is that a good thing or a very bad thing? I imagine that Mary’s circumstance of being unmarried and very young caused her to think the latter. She essentially objected and shared why the whole idea was impossible. The angel had a great come-back, of course: “With God nothing is impossible.”
Mary left quickly from the place of the dream to the home of her cousin Elizabeth. I wonder if she was still trying to figure out if this unexpected revelation was something good or something that would seriously ruin her life. Another supernatural moment occurred when Elizabeth’s own unborn baby jumped inside her when the baby heard Mary’s voice. Elizabeth explained that Mary’s own baby was so special and so important that Mary just needed to believe that what God had promised would bring Mary much joy. That seemed to be all Mary needed to hear, and from that point on there is no question that she understands the unexpected gift of motherhood to be something very good.
And so she sings about it.
Speaking of singing, I’ve noticed when trying to find Christmas songs about Mary that traditional carols do not say much about her. There are some passing references in what could be considered the ‘top ten’ carols, but even those don’t usually mention her by name, speaking instead of “round yon virgin” and the “offspring of the virgin’s womb.” The apparent reason for Mary, such an important figure in the Christmas story, being so conspicuously absent in the hymns of the season, is that most were written by Protestant Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when there was little cooperation between Protestants and Catholics. Mary was unfortunately viewed during that time as more or less the property of the Catholic Church, so she rarely made it into the carols of that era. Thankfully, some of the newer songs in our hymnal have tried to correct that.
Mary apparently liked to sing, too. You would think she’d just be tired out from the journey to Elizabeth’s house, from her first trimester pregnancy, and the stress of an angelic appearance. But according to the gospel-writer Luke, Mary chose the moment of Elizabeth’s confirmation that Mary’s baby would be a blessing to break into song. Her song is known today as “The Magnificat” because of the first line which says “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
I like that phrase; the idea of “magnifying” God. One Christmas when I was a child, I got a magnifying glass in my stocking, and I spent much of that afternoon examining words in books and small, ordinary objects that suddenly became very big and more interesting when magnified by the glass. In Mary’s heart, God was getting bigger and bigger as she considered what was happening to her and how her child’s life would be good not just for her but for many.
Mary’s song isn’t just a pretty ditty and its challenging message is not contained in any of our familiar Christmas carols. While it starts with some beautiful and inspiring words about rejoicing, it quick becomes much darker and even subversive. It explains that Mary’s God is powerful and how that power is shown in ways that are both wonderful and terrifying.
If we were to break Mary’s song into sections, we could see that it addresses some important questions about God. Such as, “What is God like?” Mary sings from her heart to proclaim that God is merciful and strong. She says that God’s mercy stretches from generation to generation and that God has shown strength by scattering the proud. That probably reflects Mary’s own questions of whether she would still be respected by peers in her own generation and whether her unborn child would be accepted by those of his generation. She believed that God is faithful always and would show mercy regardless of how others responded.
The song of Mary also addresses the question, “What exactly is God doing?” Mary insists that God is not sitting in heaven engaging in thumb twiddling, but instead is busy turning everything familiar upside down: “The powerful are brought low and the lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled, and the rich are sent away empty.” That’s where the message become subversive and why it’s not mentioned in our popular Christmas songs. Mary’s description of how God works is at odds with how our world usually operates. She says that the powerful are toppled from their thrones and the lowly are exalted. In our world, the powerful usually become more powerful and the lowly are kept in places of subservience. That’s not God’s vision for a just and generous world, and Mary wants people to know that. And she wants to be sure her unborn son is identified with God’s movement of justice for all people.
“The hungry will be filled by God with good things, and the rich will be sent away empty.” What do those words mean in a world where the rich become richer and the poor become poorer? If nothing else, it means that the patterns of our society which marginalize the poor and reward the wealthy are of great interest to God. The same message was repeated over and over by the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s anger burned red-hot over the abuse of those kept in poverty. The public ministry of Mary’s as-yet unborn son began thirty years or so after this song as he spoke the words “I have come to preach good news to the poor, to release the captive, and to let the oppressed go free.
Mary’s song majors on the majors. It cuts to the heart of God’s grand purpose in penetrating human history at a particular time: the Roman occupation of Palestine; and a particular place, a small town near the seat of Jewish worship in the temple. Powers of government and powers of religion were being called to a new and high standard of serving the people that God had created.
Christmas calls us to acts of mercy and justice. We see an increase of that during this season. Yesterday I drove by the Gift Share site and saw the families able to shop for gifts for children because you and many others from our community have been generous. You’ve done this and expressed kindness in many other ways in this season because God cares for all people, including the poor as we heard in Mary’s song.
How do we extend that spirit beyond the season and beyond individuals so that we see Mary’s song fulfilled? I gave money to a woman yesterday who asked for my spare change while sitting in a wheelchair on a sidewalk in my neighborhood. It was easy and didn’t require much of me. Changing systems, even toppling powers as Mary said, so that the poor receive greater opportunities and better health care requires much more. Lifting up the lowly is our work as people of faith. Not just because we are do-gooders, but because we are rooted in and fueled by God’s own vision for creation.
This week as you rehearse the stories of the nativity of Jesus, remember that the one whose birth we celebrate is far more revolutionary than we might expect, that his message is intended to turn our systems and even our own lives upside down; not to harm us, but so that we might rejoice like Mary in a life of goodness intended for all, and not just for some.