There is this moment when I’m listening to a song or singing a song when something peculiar happens. I have learned over the years that it’s really not all that strange an experience – many people go through something similar. It’s this unbelievable moment wherein time slows, and the little hairs on my skin prickle up, and this shiver passes through me, and I feel alive, and aware, and an incredible sense of wonder and beauty.
I don’t know if it’s true for everyone, but I believe that songs can put into words so much more than we might be able to express otherwise. I have always been likely to sing, or hum, or whistle, or put on some music when I am scared, or sad, or trying to help my brain get through a particular event or feeling. There is something to this vocalization through music that seems to affect me so deeply in my being – at the very root of me. I like to think that, somehow, in those moments I am better connected to God.
Today’s reading in Luke strikes a chord for me that resonates in this peculiar musical place, and creates another kind of moment where something peculiar happens.
Our story begins quite simply: Mary goes to see Elizabeth right after the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is going to have God’s son.
Some, like the writer of Luke, say that Mary is the first prophet of the New Testament: the first to proclaim the will of God to the world. I think one could easily make the argument that it is in fact Elizabeth – but that argument is unnecessary as it doesn’t really matter who is the first. To the writer of the Gospel of Luke: Women – who are often cast aside, ignored, and displaced in favour of the male population – suddenly take this incredibly prominent role in the early chapters of this particular book. And this is important because it highlights that this story of God’s action and involvement in the world is already overturning the expectations and staid historical social construction of the world as it is known.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, something peculiar happened: the child in her own womb leapt. Now, I have now come to know a number of pregnancies through friends and family and I can say that that particular leap of joy would have gotten enough of a reaction from Elizabeth to have been noteworthy. But it’s the something else that happened that I find so interesting. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and instantly knew something. We might not know what it was but we do know this. A wonderful prayer/blessing/song comes flying out of Elizabeth’s mouth:
“God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honour, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
She certainly suddenly knew a whole lot out of the words of Mary’s simple greeting.
I wonder if the hairs on their skin was prickling and standing up? Were they suddenly experiencing that connection to God that I was talking about earlier?
Elizabeth’s song-words of prophetic blessing are just the beginning of a series of prayer/blessing/songs that almost seem to heighten and build up the joy of the arrival of this Jesus baby. Mary will add to it shortly; Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah will add to it once their baby John is born; Angels in the sky, Shepherds, and Magi will add to it in their own time; and Simeon and Anna, prophets in their own right, will add to it when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple for the first time. So many people along the journey of Jesus’ life will add to this prayer of blessing, and I can’t help but wonder if it is because this news is such a different story about God.
I think Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary is especially poignant because of this prayer-song of blessing. Mary is a young, unwed, pregnant woman who could reasonably expect ridicule, hatred, shame, ostracism in the place where she lives. She could easily expect that from a family member. It was the norm.
But, like Mary, Elizabeth isn’t of the norm.
Elizabeth knew something that even the Holy Spirit didn’t need to share with her. Elizabeth was a much older family member, married, but unable to conceive (for whatever reason), and living in a fairly remote area. If life for this woman was categorized and valued only in her ability to provide children, then she would have been quite familiar with ostracism and shame.
Through Mary’s presence, Elizabeth experiences a real understanding of the true reversal of her own status. She is no longer alone or insignificant: in part because she is pregnant, but also because she feels deep honour by the presence of Mary (and that connectedness to God). And Elizabeth is filled with joy instead of shame or sadness. She welcomes Mary and celebrates her and Mary’s ability to trust in God to look after God’s promises, which in turn gives Mary her own sense of joy and honour – instead of shame and sadness.
God’s connectedness to each of them is suddenly deeper and there is a tangible understanding of the very real relationship to God and to each other. I wonder if the hairs on their skin was prickling and standing up? Seeing the reality of God’s radical love in the midst of their particular stories and the difference that love creates to their particular context, these women discover prayer-songs of blessing welling out of the very being of each of them.
So, Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting of blessing and prayer with a prayer/blessing/song of her own. This is no simple tune hummed by a shy, timid, meek, young virgin. This song, that we call The Magnificat or Mary’s Song, stands the test of time alongside generational statements of other strong biblical women like Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, Sarah, Rebecca, and Esther. Mary’s hymn points to God’s radical love – not just something that will happen in some distant future, but something that IS ALREADY happening and will bring about incredible change. Mary sings a song of protest and resistance. Mary sings a song of radical love.
We have some idea through the writings of the New Testament what this radical love will do to the world – in short: God will turn the world upside down. The ultimate path of love means:
The rich and powerful will be brought low;
the arrogant and the proud will get scattered;
the lowly and cast out will be given prominence;
the ignored and marginalized will have a voice;
the hungry will be fed;
the stuffed will get nothing;
God’s mercy will know no human limits.
I wonder if that makes the hairs on your skin prickle up just a little bit, like it does mine.
God’s radical love is an anthem that will continue to grow in scale and sound until it reaches these incredible crescendo points with Jesus, the Son of God, crucified, buried, and risen as God’s gift of love to a world full of injustice, inequality, and insignificance. This radical love seeks out the darkest and most unsavoury of our society’s places to lift out the forgotten who dwell there. This radical love is an earworm of hope that weaves in and our of the Gospel story, much like the compositions of those epic movies and theatre productions. It is a tune that sits in the back of the mind and surfaces from time to time as we all need that little reminder through those prayer-songs of what it means to live in the love, and joy, and hope, and faith, of God.
I think it’s pretty incredible that all those moments come bring people to this place of hope that we see illustrated in today’s reading, shared with us, bursting from the lips of Elizabeth and Mary as a prayer-song of blessing. These prayer-songs that surround us and shows us what God is not only doing for each of us, but also through us for those around us. What’s even more incredible is that God’s love chooses each and every person, regardless of importance, or station, or role in society.
That’s a lot of hope in all those times of shame or isolation.
That’s a lot of lights shining in the midst of the darkness of life.
That’s a lot of reason for incredible joy.
As we grow ever closer to the birth of the Christ child, may prayer-songs of thanksgiving, celebration, blessing, and prophecy well up and burst from each of our lips. “May we, like Elizabeth and Mary, trust that God is coming to save and free us. May we, like them, give thanks that God has taken away our shame and then respond to God’s love by welcoming the shameful. May we, like them, become a community that supports each other as we hope and wait.” May we also learn to live fully into the radical love of God as we work toward Mary’s incredible vision of the restoration of the entire human family.
Sermon Inspiration from:
- Alan Brehm. “Song of Hope,” The Waking Dreamer.
- Mark Davis. “Two Prophetic Women, A Lord, and a Leaper.” Left behind and loving it.
- Karl Jacobson. “Commentary on Luke 1:39-45, (46-55),” Preach This Week. Working Preacher.org
- David Lose. “Advent 4C: Singing as an Act of Resistance,” …in the meantime.
- Anna Shirey. “Love’s A Many Splendored Thing – And Advent’s Greatest Challenge,” The Labyrinth Way.
Image borrowed and modified from: http://favim.com/image/627889/