There is something profoundly remarkable about today's story – the inspired words of Mary's song, the powerful and world-altering promises she sings, the inutero-greeting, we hear from Elizabeth, the first person to utter the words “my Lord” referring to a fetus inside a barely pregnant stomach – it is all quite remarkable. And yet, there is also a lot about the story that is notably unremarkable, barely worth time and attention, the setting of our story should not capable of grabbing world-wide attention. The story begins in Nazareth, a tiny little village known for nothing in particular in that general region over yonder. The story centers in on Mary, a young teenager, like all the other young teenagers – not yet married, not yet worth much because she has not been attached to a man. An unremarkable young woman in an unexciting little village.
Even though her social status is low, and being an unmarried and pregnant teenager casts her out to the fringe of society and marks her worthy of no help, no forgiveness, no security to speak of...Mary could be considered an unremarkable teen from an unexciting little village – but something in this story changes all of that, a song is sung and the world is different. Mary is remarkable, not because of who she is, but because of the song she sings. Mary's song is integral to the Christian story, she echoes the words of her foremother, Hannah and Mary riffs on Hannah's song, singing words familiar to people of faith all over the world. And, of course, these words are particularly close to the hearts of those who have been around Holden Village for awhile. Mary's song, the magnificat, is the song we sing most Saturday nights as a part of Vespers '86.
But we would be foolish if we thought the magnificat was something just for us or even if we held the song so dearly to our hearts that we forget its power and magnitude for churches, communities, nations. Mary's song is special to us, but it is integral to a voice in theological conversation that comes from a people who experience life much different than you or I do. Mary's song is considered the song of liberation theology – a theology that was born in Latin America, a theology that comes out of community base organizations and speaks to the gospel promise from God to the people who suffer in poverty or oppression. Throughout my time at seminary I was drawn toward the study of liberation theology. I find the conversation so compelling because it is first and foremost – practical. Liberation theology is the study of God that can only be done in community – no ivory towers or solo deep thinkers here. Liberation theolgoy is the study of God that makes room for the voice of those living below the poverty line, those who suffer inequality, those who know injustice on political levels and who know abuse and hate in their nations, towns and home. This context is one we do not deal with every day, so our voices do not get to be raised first – rather we listen to the Word of God and the experience of these communities first. And finally, liberation theology takes seriously the promises of Mary's song that the lowly will be raised up, that the mighty will be cast down off their thrown. The words of Mary are big, worthy of our attention and pondering as they paint broad, sweeping strokes of promise that cover the whole world, from the lowest of the lows to the highest highs.
Mary's song sounds like a practice in opposites. The high being brought down, quickly and finally pulled off of their throne of power and pride. And the lowly, those who stoop with hunger and hang their head under the weight of societal dead-ends are brought to their high and safe dwelling. The big are made little and the little are made made big and these are the promises of God. These promises are huge, life changing, world altering promises that are inclusive in that way that maybe we would rather they were not so inclusive. If there are people being dragged down...I want no part. And if there are people who are already low because of actions and decisions of this world...I pray I had no hand in it. The inclusion of Mary's song is so encompassing that if we approach with Mary's humility we can see that we are the ones who are both being cast down and we are the ones, by the grace of God only, who are being raised up too. We all have lofty places within us that distance us from God and one another –these places need casting down. And we all have lowliness within, too...lowliness that hurts and aches and causes a different kind of separation – these places need lifting up. Mary's song is so deep and so wide that all humanity is caught up in the huge promises.
So we sing the song of Mary and are swept in to the waves of justice and swirling of compassion. There is more to Mary's song than simply turning the world over and having everyone do a societal fruit-basket upset. This song Mary sings is full of God's justice and truth, it is also full of God's compassion and presence among us. So, instead of casting down the proud and powerful in the name of justice and instead of bringing up the lowly in the name of equality – perhaps God is not create opposites, rather God is cultivating common places. When the mighty are brought down and the lowly raised up – they do not pass like ships in the night, but rather they meet in the middle, in a common space where God is waiting, where justice and compassion dwell, were nothing stands between God and humanity and nothing stands or divides one person from another.
Yes, grand and sweeping promises that change lives and alter the world...but how? How does God enact such promises? What one might expect are grand, sweeping actions to match the grand, sweeping realities of Mary's song. No. Intimate, lowly, unassuming – these are the pathways of God's justice and compassion. The song is sung by a young, vulnerable and mostly unremarkable girl – Not grand, humble. Not sweeping in all of humanity, but feeling and carrying these promises in her very core. God's ways do not travel far above our heads or out of arm's reach. The pathway of God's justice and compassion arrive within us. As dear as a supportive relative, as intimately as a life growing inside, as strong as a leap of joy...this is how our God changes us and alters our world, this is how we know and live God's compassion and justice.
Two years ago I had the challenge and honor of working as an intern-chaplain at a hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was assigned to provide pastoral care and spiritual support for two units: Ante-Partum, caring for women on long-term bedrest with high-risk pregnancies and the NICU – neonatal intensive care units, caring for premature and very sick babies. The NICU was the more intense unit with patients improving and declining in health many times a day – where the care, support, urgency and need was felt in the air and seen on the faces of young parents and talked about in hush voices by care team members in nurseries and hallways. However, it was on Ante-partum where deep relational connections were made...where we had nothing but time, so much time, the more time the better because time meant the baby was staying in another week, another day, another hour and every minute was counted a success. On Ante-partum we hoped and prayed for big things, for a health deliverable, for the peaceful passing of time, for patience and endurance, for motherhood to be easier than pregnancy, for sanity and care and safety for the most vulnerable one of all – the tiny baby we could not see.
Yet, while we were praying these grand and heartfelt prayers...we knew that where we needed God to act and be known was in the flesh. We needed God to lower heart rates, to still the stomach muscles, to close the cervix, to ease the mind. The brave and mighty women on that Ante-partum unit needed God to show up in the flesh and bones of their bodies...and even more intimately than that...in the flesh and bones of their babies. We were waiting and expecting God to come to the lowly place, to the vulnerable one, to those who needed God's intervention for the gift of life! We were singing Mary's song – grasping onto grand, sweeping promises and encountering God in flesh, body, womb and heart.
Mary's song is for us to sing, too. We sing with Mary, the unremarkable teenager...we sing with and listen to the voices of those who are poor and suffer oppression...we sing with the most vulnerable in our communities who long to be heard...we sing because of the pride of our lofty places...we sing with hope of healing for our lowly places. Mary's song is for us to sing, for ourselves, our communities, our nations, our world.
God's pathways lead us to the places of the vulnerable, the unremarkable, the forgotten. This is where the angel of the Lord arrived with the promise of hope and joy and change like the world had never seen. And there is where God remains especially still today. So, we sing and follow the song to the vulnerable, the poor, those who feel lowly – so that we too can be changed; brought down, raised up to see Christ in our world, urging us to justice, compassion, and singing the song of Mary wherever that may lead.
May Mary's song be the song of our hearts this night of humble expectation, waiting for the Christ child who comes to the lowly places. Amen.