the Fourth Sunday of Advent
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Luke 1:46-47
My friend Ginger is the mother of four children, including ten-year-old twins. Yesterday she noted that an objectively factual statement can produce very different feelings – a statement like “There are only ten days until Christmas!” As she observed, “In a ten year old’s voice, this is a statement of great joy and anticipation. In my voice, not so much.” Maybe you feel that difference this morning as we’re down to nine days until Christmas. For some there is eager anticipation, but for others there is mild panic.
There’s another statement that can prompt many different feelings, depending on the circumstances. It’s the statement “I’m pregnant.” The two women in today’s gospel can tell you that. Each of them knows that those two words spoken aloud will bring consequences for which they may not be prepared.
When Elizabeth tells people that she is pregnant, she does so as someone who had given up expecting a child. She is old, she has been barren for decades, and she had long ago decided that her dream of being a mother would not come true. Elizabeth doesn’t even get the news of her miraculous pregnancy directly. An angel messenger tells her husband Zechariah first. But we hear earlier in this first chapter of Luke that Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months after she became pregnant. I can well imagine that she wanted to avoid the whispers and stares of her neighbors, although it seems they have already been gossiping about her for years. Elizabeth says about her pregnancy, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” No one wants to feel disgrace from others. It eats away at confidence and contentment.
For Mary to say the words “I’m pregnant” raises a different set of fears. She is, unlike Elizabeth, quite young. Engaged to be married, preparing for a life with Joseph. When we encounter her today, she has just heard the shocking news of her pregnancy from the angel Gabriel. “How can this be?” she has wondered out loud. For her the consequences are potentially more grim. Mary has every reason to believe that she will be cast out in shame, at best left to fend for herself in a world that has no place for a single mother and at worst put to death for what will be seen as a betrayal of Joseph.
Faced with her perplexing situation, Mary sets off to a town in the hill country. She seeks out Elizabeth. Isn’t that our deepest longing when we are trying to make sense of something that has knocked the wind out of us? We want someone who will listen to us without judgment.
When Mary and Elizabeth find each other, notice that they don’t even have to say the words out loud. Neither one has to say to the other, “You are never going to believe this…” They just know. And they express joy for one another. The neighbors may whisper about them behind their backs, but this is not a time for whispering. This is a time for singing.
Elizabeth sings of promises kept, God’s promise of a messiah who will at long last be born. She sings of the role that Mary now has in God’s plan, a role whose fulfillment will make her forever blessed. Even before Elizabeth sings, the child within her jumps with joy. Remember that Elizabeth’s child will grow up to be John the Baptizer, the one who will point people to Jesus and prepare the way of the Lord. It’s clear that he learned to do that in part from his own mother’s faith.
Mary in turn sings of her part in God’s unfolding plan of mercy and justice. She cries out in confidence that God will turn the world upside down. Mary sings of a God who is not interested in giving the rich more of what they already have. God is much more concerned with lifting up the lowly and feeding the hungry. God’s mercy will not be contained; it demands a fulfillment that has been a long time coming. Mary makes a bold proclamation for a young unwed mother who is preparing to face the worst shame of her life, but what a song it is. A song for the ages.
It’s impossible to understand exactly what Mary and Elizabeth are experiencing in this moment. But we do understand what it feels like to fear the judgments of others. We do it all the time. We look around and imagine that everyone else’s family, everyone else’s job, everyone else’s mental health is somehow better than our own, and all of the people around us would look at us with pity if they only knew the truth. So we keep everything close, hiding those parts of our story of which we feel ashamed and letting them eat away at us.
Instead of hiding, what would it be like to sing? What if we could sing in the midst of our fear that others are judging us? I don’t mean that we literally have to sing, although that would be fine. But what if we could speak with courage of a trust in God’s purposes for us and for the world? A trust that God loves us all the more fervently when we are overwhelmed. A God who invites us to take part in the feeding of the hungry and the lifting up of the lowly.
Maybe it’s hard to find our own words to sing. Then try singing Mary’s. Speak her words of promise out loud each day, and you might find yourself – slowly, over time – believing them for your own life: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Today the choir is singing one of my favorite anthems: “Mary, Did You Know?” Among the verses we hear:
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.
I’ve often wondered how much Mary knew at the beginning. Given her song, we know that she trusted in God’s power to overturn every injustice in the world. She knew that the baby she was carrying was part of a story that had been unfolding since the creation of the universe. I bet she did know that this baby would be the source of her own deliverance – and everyone else’s – and perhaps she even knew that the path to that salvation would be a painful one.
The question for us, for those of us who live on the other side of the manger and the cross and the empty tomb, is: Do we know? Do we know that Jesus has come to save us and the whole world?
Are we able to sing with Mary a song of joy and justice, a song of hope for what has been and what has yet to be?
I pray that we can. It is, in the end, what Christmas is all about. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ