Happy Fourth Day of Christmas! I hope everyone is enjoying a well-deserved rest over these holidays.
Advent ended for me in a whirl. I had grand plans this year of doing so much holiday baking, of discovering new cookie recipes, of wandering aimlessly through the Plaza lights, reveling in the scenery….absolutely none of that happened.
Instead, as my parish admin put it, “People just people-ed all over everything” as is wont to happen around major Church feasts, and I did absolutely no baking whatsoever. I managed to ship off my family’s presents on the absolutely last day possible, and I did no aimless wandering anywhere.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent is always one of my favorites. We get to read the Magnificat and talk about Mary, Mother of Jesus, who is easily one of the most kickass women in all of scripture, and a good model of the priesthood**
So despite the fact that my brain had reduced down to mush, and I was amusing myself making lists of biblical mascots for the deanery***, I wrote this. See what you think.
December 19-20, 2015
So, I, like the rest of America, has been obsessed with the musical Hamilton for a few months now. It’s the story of Alexander Hamilton–American founding father–as told through hip hop. Believe me when I tell you that it works.
One of the central themes of the show–all of which: book, music, lyrics, everything, is written by a young Puerto Rican man–is that who tells the story is important. Easily the most important thing. The show is narrated by Aaron Burr–who shot Hamilton, but it’s sort of meta-narrated by Hamilton’s wife…who, in history, survived to tell Hamilton’s story….never mind. Just go see it.
Here is why I’m telling you this. There are two stories about what happens to his parents before Jesus is born–one in Matthew, one in Luke. Two versions of the annunciation.
Matthew tells it from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph is hanging out, minding his own business, when he hears that Mary, his fiancee is pregnant. Joseph decides to be nice about it, and break up with her quietly, rather than make her go through the (literal!) public stoning which would otherwise ensue. Sweet guy.
Then, he gets an angel appearing in a dream, which tells him, not so fast. “Do not, in fact, be afraid to marry Mary, because she’s having a special kid.” So, Joseph changes course, and all is fine. (Until the magi and Herod, and that’s later.)
But Luke is another story. Luke’s gospel tells us about the angel that appears to Mary, informing her of the coming birth. It’s Mary’s story here, rather than Joseph.
And that makes a difference.
We see, from Mary’s perspective now, as she hears the news of the angel, processes it, consents to her role in this weird little adventure, and immediately, as our story kicks off today–races off to see her cousin.
And it’s detours like this one which are instructive. Mary could be heading off to see her cousin for any number of reasons–we aren’t told why she’s going exactly–she misses her, she just likes visiting Elizabeth, she wanted to empathize with another relative who was also pregnant, she wants to fact-check the angel, who told her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy…but it’s worth noting too that there’s also a less cheerful possibility for her trip. Like we saw in the Joseph story, there was a harsh penalty associated with young women turning up pregnant out of wedlock. So Mary just might be following the age-old tradition of heading out of town until the scandal had died down, and her life was no longer in danger.
Regardless of whether this was the case–the stakes were higher for her anyway. She was involved in this story in a different way than Joseph–she had more to lose. No one’s going to be hurling rocks at Joseph because of what they assume about his life choices any time soon.
Perhaps this is why Mary plays twenty questions with the angel once she hears the news. The angel tells Mary she’s blessed and highly favored, and Mary wants to know what on earth this means. The angel tells her she’s about to have a baby, and Mary wants to know exactly how. Mary, in other words, is not going into this blind or uninformed. She’s doing her homework. She’s asking questions, taking notes, voicing opinions.
So when she says that she’ll do it, it’s not passive–it’s the furthest thing from it. Mary’s obedience here is active. She actively engages with what she’s been tasked with. All right, I’ll do it! And we’re off to the races.
Because as soon as she sees Elizabeth, Mary takes the opportunity to sing out the news of what has happened. My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
Mary’s song recaps what has just happened to her, but it also goes a bit farther. Mary’s song–and you can think of this as Mary’s own Broadway style show stopper, where the character becomes so filled with emotion that they have to start SINGING–basically sums up the whole gospel that she, Jesus, and the disciples will spend the rest of the gospel trying to live out. This is the gospel message Jesus preaches. This is the good news the apostles later tell. But it starts here–with Mary’s agreement. It’s Mary’s “I will” that starts the ball rolling–her consent to be an active partner in this unfolding plan.
God, after all, isn’t all that interested in passive obedience, in passive followers. God wants us to think, to question, and to figure it out as we follow in the way. Our relationship with God is a two-way street, founded on our free will, and our ability to engage with God’s mission in the world.
When God lifts up the lowly, when God casts down the proud, and feeds the hungry, that requires our engagement. That requires our participation.
When Mary says that her soul magnifies the Lord–that means that she’s doing something. So when we echo her language, we’re committing to the same thing. Both that we would be willing to be lifted up, fed and used in such a way, but also that we would give ourselves to take on this mission as well. That we would promise to be co-agents of this mission along with God.
There are, after all, enough puppets in the world. There are enough idols begging for blind faith and obedience. God doesn’t need any more. What God wants isn’t puppets, but Marys. People willing to be bearers of good news on the mountain. People willing to risk for the sake of the gospel, and participate in God’s plan of a new world. God needs us to birth a recreated world as a teenaged girl did so long ago.
FURTHER IMPORTANT AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is where my original sermon ended, as given. However, my rector commented, in the 10:30 announcements, that while he had never, in over 30 years of ministry, corrected nor challenged a fellow cleric’s preaching, wouldn’t it have been better if I had ended with “as a teenaged girl did, a long long time ago, in a Galilee far, far away”?
So I promised that I would make the addendum on the blog. Because Star Wars fandom is JUST AS VITAL as the Hamilton fandom.
**And it’s not just me saying this–it’s the pre-1920s Vatican saying it as well. Long story–I will unpack in a later blog post.
***A real thing! When I get punchy, I get creative and punchy. Occasionally, the entire clergy of the metro KC area bears the brunt of it.