Scripture: Luke 1:39-55
Originally given at UPC of Amsterdam, NY on 12/23/2012
As the distance to our final destination grows short and we more fully prepare our hearts for the arrival of the Christ child I think it is important to look at the stories that preceded the arrival through the lens of Jesus’s mother, Mary. And It’s hard to know what exactly to make of Mary. Much of what we know and believe about Mary is through the tradition, her veneration by our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, and what we know about her at the manger, the one who treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. But before we reach the manger, before she is able to be a vessel for the love of God for the world, she was a young, poor, Jewish girl who found herself with child and without husband. She was young. While scholars disagree somewhat about what her age probably was, the general consensus is somewhere between 12 and 15. They entered into betrothal very early in life and began to bear children when they were still very much children themselves. And her age, her young age, speaks to the experience of the angel coming to her and telling her that she would bring the child of God into the world. She begins to be seen in a new light when she is a scared 12 year old barely out of her own parents’ house when she is called on to bear the weight of God’s child. She was poor. We know that Joseph and Mary were poor because of the sacrifice offered the first time they go to the temple together. They are poor in a time in history in which the occupation of Judea by the Roman Empire left even the most well to do Jews struggling. And she was Jewish. She was Jewish in a time and place in which Roman occupation made life hellish for Jews. At any given time their very way of life could be disturbed by Roman soldiers seeking to flex their power over the conquered Jews. At a time when rebellion by the Jews was a regular occurrence just as having rebellions put down violently by Roman forces was. It was a chaotic time for Jewish folks living in Roman occupied Judea. They were second-class citizens, abused and held down and Mary must have experienced much of this herself. And perhaps most important, she is a woman. She is a woman at a time when women possessed very little power, very little agency in their lives. The social hierarchy of the time left women somewhere near the bottom rung with little hope for ever advancing. And into this world, into this experience, into this person God chose to enter into creation again.
In our scripture for this morning, we are given a glimpse into the world of Mary as she visits her cousin Elizabeth who is also with child. We are told that Mary, soon after discovering that she would be bringing the child of God into the world went “with haste” to the house of her cousin. And you have to wonder if this was her respite from the storm, if this was the one place that she wouldn’t have to answer questions about her ever growing belly, where there wouldn’t be the constant whispers that would follow her everywhere. “That’s Mary, did you hear about her?” “I did, such a pity. I wonder what her mother must think of her.” You have to wonder if this was where she could be herself, where she could take a load off. We can understand that, can’t we? We can understand needing somewhere to go to where we can be ourselves, where no one will judge us, no one will expect us to be perfect, expect us to be anything but present. Where we are wrapped in the love of family. And so Mary gets there as quickly as she can.
And upon getting there, she is welcomed as only family can welcome you after you have been gone for a long time. We are told that upon seeing her, Elizabeth becomes filled with the Holy Spirit, til she cannot contain herself any longer. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Ah, relief. Acceptance. Finally. You have to know that Mary needed to hear that. That Mary needed to be where someone else got what she was going through, where someone understood. Because, let’s be honest. If someone were to come to you today and tell you that they became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, you would either think they were trying to hide something or that they weren’t completely stable, or both. But here, Mary didn’t have to worry about that. Here Mary knew that she was safe and understood. And Mary can’t contain her joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Joy, pure joy. joy that almost can’t be contained in words. Joy that extends beyond the confines of the house of Zechariah. Joy that extends beyond the confines of the broken world in which she finds herself. Joy that gives her eyes to see and ears to hear and a mind to know the will of God. At that moment, she sees, maybe for the first time, the whole picture. She sees, maybe for the first time, the movement of God throughout all history. Offering mercy from generation to generation, scattering the proud, and taking the powerful out of their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. Feeding those who hunger and sending the rich away with nothing. From the beginning to the end, God is in control and we have nothing to fear. We have nothing to fear. Nothing in this life can thwart the path that the Spirit chooses to take and in that she has joy, we have joy, the whole world may have joy. She sees it and she can hardly contain it.
The last week was exceedingly hard for me. As anyone who saw me last Sunday knows, I was quite ill and that continued until Wednesday afternoon when I finally had the strength to lift my head off the pillow for extended periods of time. However, just as I was getting over whatever it was, Lesley got it and she took my place in bed. Then Jameson. And beyond the physical limitations that I and we experienced, the emotional toll of the events of the previous week continued to tax us significantly. As news came of each funeral that took place for each of the children and the adults, as more details about both the actual shooting and the situation that led up to the shooting came to light it was clear that a collection of broken systems had come together to form this one moment in time and each of these systems within the nation need to be fixed and fixed soon. And by the time last night came, I wasn’t feeling like I could feel anymore joy in this holiday season. I was convinced that the spirit could not move in me because the season had been asked to bear too much of the weight of the brokenness of the world over the last week and how can we forget all that, how can we move past it to experience Christmas with the innocence and the magic that is required to really experience the Christmas season? How can we survey the world in which we live and arrive at joy. And then it happened. While looking for a video to use in worship this morning, Lesley found the Ode to Joy flash mob that I just showed you. She watched it first and then passed it on to me. And at first I didn’t see it. I had allowed the sadness and the frustration of the past week to blind me to the beauty that was unfolding before me on my computer screen. As the familiar sixteen bars of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy began to swell as more and more instruments and players and singers were added I was for a moment swept away in the beauty of the whole thing. In the music, yes. But also in the little girl climbing up the light pole and conducting the band, by the folks mouthing the words in the crowd, by the kids dancing with joy, the couples smiling at each other, the director giving everything he had to direct the growing band, the way everyone stopped whatever it was they were doing for just a moment to be transfixed by the beauty of the music and the beauty of the moment and by the end of the video when the band erupts for a final blistering push, tears were streaming down my face. It was so beautiful that all I could think to do, the only way I could respond was by crying. Joy.
Joy had come to me. In that moment, in that place, in a mystical experience in which the spirit of God moved through the music and imagery of a video on youtube, joy had come to me. The shell that I had built up of frustration at my illness, at the state of the world, at the sadness being experienced by a small town in Connecticut, all that burst away for a moment in sheer joy at the beauty of the world. And Mary’s Magnificat made sense. Her life wasn’t perfect, far from it. She was still a member of a despised class of people. A poor woman in a world that abused poor women. A woman who would soon be forced to give birth to the son of God in a stable because she and Joseph didn’t have the economic might to get a room in an inn for Mary to give birth. Her world was just as broken as ours, just as screwed up as ours, just as dark as ours, and yet. And yet, she had a moment in which the beauty of God, the goodness of God, the assurance of God was able to crack through the shell of frustration that she must have been feeling and she was able to exclaim her love for God in that moment.
We live in a time when it is easy to get discouraged. There is lots to get discouraged about. We live in a time when it is easy to despair, there is lots to despair over. We live in a time when, if you are like me, it is much easier to let the awful way that people treat each other bring you down than it is to have an ounce of hope in the future. But then there are times when beauty interrupts what you expect out of the world. There are times when you can still be surprised by joy, surprised by hope, surprised by love. There are times when the Spirit still blows where she will and all we can do is go along for the ride. There are times when the world seems irredeemable and there are times when it is completely amazing and that is exactly why we need to hear Mary’s excited utterances when she becomes so swept up in joy that she cannot do anything but praise God and love God. We need Mary because we need to see that even when the world seems completely hellish that God’s power remains, that sin does not get the last word, that evil does not get the last word, that even death does not get the last word. And that is exactly why we need Jesus to be born. And to live. And to reign. We need to know that out of the lowliest of circumstances in the midst of barn yard animals and a cold night. In the midst of the oppressive Roman empire and and in the midst of poverty in an otherwise unimportant town in Central Israel, God can quietly, So quietly so as to be missed by virtually everyone, slip into creation again. And because of that, we can feel joy. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.