Song of Mary
I don’t know that I have a favourite Choir Anthem of all time, but if I do, the one that the choir sang today might be the leading contender.
Song of Mary.
We have sung it many times over the years here at First Church and Harry keeps recommending it to Marnie and Joachim each Christmas season.
I like the music and I like the words of the anthem.
Strangely enough, the anthem is nothing about what I learned of Mary when I was a boy growing up in Church.
I don’t know about you, but we had Christmas pageants in church, and even at school when I was a boy. And we all knew about Mary the mother of Jesus.
We saw pictures of her and usually it was the prettiest and smartest girl who got to play Mary in the pageant.
And Mary was always in blue. Don’t know why but that is how I remember Mary. Always in blue.
Mary was kind and good and pretty. She was obedient and said “yes” to God without question.
She didn’t go to work and stayed home and was a good wife and mother. She didn’t make waves. She was the perfect obedient, wife and mother.
I now can see that she was the epitome of white, western, patriarchal, middle-class culture of the sixties:
A stay-at-home mom who does what she is told and never complains; and does all the cooking and cleaning and most of the parenting, is obedient to her husband and is always nice.
I also don’t remember including her song, what is called the Magnificat in any of our Christmas Pageants and to tell the truth, I don’t think I even heard about the Magnificat or heard a sermon about the Magnificat until after I became a minister.
I can’t prove it, but it seems to me a lot of Sunday School lesson and sermons for children were pretty much the same thing as what we thought of Mary. We were to be good little boys and girls. Work hard, accept your lot in life. Don’t complain. Be nice. And implied in all that is this: Don’t buck the system.
There were enough hippies, and rock and roll singers and flower power, and people dropping out of society, and all kind of social upheaval in the sixties, and probably the message of the church was not countercultural.
Be good and don’t buck the system. Work hard and don’t complain.
The Song of Mary which is probably our first Christmas carol didn’t fit into the church’s message that I heard as a kid.
And when I became a teenager and moved from the United Church of Canada into evangelicalism, it didn’t fit in either.
That message was all about being born again and being saved and getting all the non-Christians saved, which included not only non-Christians but most of the mainline Christians as well, because, well, they weren’t really Christian because they weren’t born again.
And so, I didn’t hear about the Song of Mary in the Baptist and Pentecostal churches I attended in my teens.
And yet, these words of Mary, this song of Mary is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament.
They have been sung for centuries in the church. There have been lots of beautiful musical settings for the Magnificat or Song of Mary.
We sang one today and we will sing a different one on Christmas Eve, the one we sang in out Advent Choir concert.
But what is remarkable is that this song is anything but the song of a docile, subservient, obedient woman, who is the perfect mother and wife.
This is the song of a revolutionary.
Maybe some of you remember the musical film, sound of Music where there is a different Mary. The lead is Maria played by Julie Andrews who is trying to become a nun, but is a free spirit.
The nuns sing; “how do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Maria?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!
Well, the church has handled the problem of Mary the prophet, Mary the revolutionary, most of the time by focusing on the nativity and the birth of Jesus but not talking about the Magnificat.
Yes, there has been lots of choral arrangements of the Magnificat but fewer sermons. Mary was silenced a lot of the time. And I mean that literally.
Did you know that when Britain ruled India that the words of the Magnificat were outlawed?
Guatemala’s government discovered Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor to be too dangerous and revolutionary. The song had been creating quite the stirring amongst Guatemala’s impoverished masses. Mary’s words were inspiring the Guatemalan poor to believe that change was indeed possible. Thus, their government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words.
Similarly in Argentina, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War—placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer recognized the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song. A dozen years before being executed by the Nazis, Bonheoffer spoke these words in a sermon during Advent 1933:
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
The important point to make is that before Jesus is born in the manger Mary sings this fiery justice song, showing that she is no recalcitrant, timid mouse, but a prophetic voice crying out for change.
And this will frame the ministry of Jesus. What Luke tells us in his gospel and what Mary sings about, is that the ministry of Jesus is about great reversals in societal life.
The mighty will be brought down and the lowly lifted up.
For many years I believe, that message was lost as it was spiritualized…
Because many of the theologians and interpreters of scripture and church leaders were European, or Western, white, powerful men who were part of the cultures of Europe who dominated and colonized the world. They were part of the powerful who wanted to keep the status quo, part of the system that actually oppressed the poor, and non-Christians, and non-white cultures, and non-European cultures and women.
And so, for years or centuries the message of Mary, was given a spiritual reading. It was not about radical changing of the socioeconomic culture or class structure; it was a spiritual message of how God lifts up the lowly in spirit and saves us.
We all know the story of Jesus’ birth, how Mary and Joseph were required by the Emperor to walk seventy miles to Bethlehem for the Roman Census.
And while lots of pictures put her on the back of a donkey, the scriptures don’t include a donkey, so it is very possible she walked.
Bethlehem was small. A few hundred people and so likely there was no room at the inn. Maybe there was only one inn.
But when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they would have been able to see Herod’s palace only about 4 miles southeast of Bethlehem. You could hardly miss it because it sat on top or a human made mountain twenty-five hundred feet high,
At the time of Jesus, it was the largest palatial complex in the Roman World.
When Mary sang her song, about 2 or 3 percent of the people were wealthy and they controlled pretty much everything.
She knew about the mighty, the powerful and how much they controlled people’s lives and how much of the wealth they took.
She knew that the rules didn’t apply to the rich in the same way. She knew that a lot of the rich didn’t work and made their wealth off of the backs of the poor, the indebted, slaves, servants etc. who did all the work.
She knew that the rich didn’t pay for their crimes, like the average person. The rich could kill the poor, rape the poor, steal from the poor because the poor didn’t count.
Good old King David could have an affair and kill the husband, and repent and be forgiven and no punishment.
But Achan, a poor man who took some loot during the battle of Jericho, not only was he stoned and burned, but also his whole family and all his animals.
Mary wasn’t just singing that the hills were alive with the sound of music. She was also singing that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. That’s a Shakespearian Hamlet quote by the way, and pretty much means what is says.
There is something not right with the way things are. Mary is not saying that all rich people are bad, but that the system they live under is not fair…
….but God know about it, God sees it, and Jesus’ ministry is about letting us know that we need to change it.
And the amazing thing is that God sees her, knows her, values her and has a place and a role for her.
And this in spite of the fact that she was a poor peasant girl who is unmarried and pregnant.
As a young woman she is vulnerable in a culture that didn’t treat women as equals, or sometimes even persons.
As an unmarried and pregnant woman her cultural law said that she could be stoned.
At this stage she did not know if Joseph would stick by her. We don’t even know that Joseph knows yet. Maybe she has gone to her cousin. Elizabeth’s place to get out of town and be safe.
As a poor, female Jew living under brutal imperial Roman rule, any rich Roman or Roman soldier could hit her, violate or pretty much do anything they want without much consequence.
In a world where she was devalued, God noticed her, loved her, cared for her, and in a very real way lived in her…
And when she starts singing it is a song of joy, that even though the odds are stacked against her, she believes what is happening to her is God’s doing and that her body is infused with the very presence of life, love and God.
Do you ever imagine God, looking at you that way? Finding favour in you, loving you, infusing your life with his presence.
May I suggest to you that you lean into this. That God cares for you, notices you, loves you, lives in you, is born in you and your story is not a story of some nobody in a big world, but the story of God’s child, whom God speaks to, visits and lives in.
And when Mary sings of the upheaval of the world, she sings with joy. While it is obvious that women, the poor, those of differing cultures and skin colour, and many other who are differengm have little value in the world in which she lives, she sings her song as if it is a present reality:
God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Prophets hardly ever get their tenses right, because they have a vision of the world as God intends it to be.
Can you lean into this? Imagine a world without scarcity, without hoarding, without need.
Mary isn’t thinking of a world where everyone has exactly the same, but that the economic disparities don’t get in the way of our fundamental relationships of being one human family and being all children of God.
All people will have food, and clothing and shelter and medical care, and education and jobs. And maybe dental care, prescriptions and child care.
A world in which not only the rich, but the poor have good things.
This is what it means to follow this baby. It not just having a relationship with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, but also with our human brothers and sisters.
What would it be like to live as if that heavenly kingdom of love and equality were actually here?
What would it look like, if we insisted that is the way our world should be?
That everyone is valued, everyone is loved, everyone is made in the image of God, that everyone is God’s child, that everyone is your brother, and everyone is your sister.
And consequently, you don’t let your brother or your sister be in need.
That everyone has a right to the necessities of life. That everyone has a right to good things.
I think if you started living that way you would be pregnant too. Pregnant with God’s life in you, just waiting to be born any day.