If I asked you to talk about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, what might you say?
Maybe you’d say that she was very young? She was probably only about 14 when she discovered that she was unexpectedly pregnant, pregnant with the Savior of the world.
Perhaps you’d wonder about the mysterious matters attributed to her story. A visit from an angel. A pregnancy without a husband. The activity of the Holy Spirit.
And if I asked what she was like? I wonder if words like “demure,” “modest,” “retiring,” and the ever-famous “meek and mild” – would those words come to your lips? I imagine that you have Christmas cards in your house right now that depict Mary as a quiet, unassuming girl, gazing peacefully at her newborn baby boy. Am I right?
Well, today, I want us to consider together what she was really like. Let’s start by setting the stage for our passage today, the passage known as the Magnificat.
Mary has received a visit from the angel Gabriel, who has made his announcement of God’s plans, God’s hopes and dreams for her life: That she will become the mother of the baby Jesus, the baby both divine and human, the child come to set things right, to inaugurate the beginning of a new reign, a new creation, in which all that is broken will be restored and all who are estranged from God will be reconciled to God.
And now, bearing this unexpected child in her body, Mary has headed for the hill country, to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth is also unexpectedly pregnant, although in her case the unexpectedness has to do with her advanced age, and the unlikehood of her ever mothering a child at her age.
So here they are, these two women who find themselves in rather surprising predicaments. And they are so happy to see each other! Of course they are. Any woman who has ever been pregnant can recall the camaraderie she felt with other women in similar circumstances. Other women who will understand the bewildering combination of joy and sadness. Other women who know what it’s like to complain about newfound aches and pains while simultaneously marveling at a body expanding with life. Other women with whom to share stories and experiences and plans.
But this encounter goes beyond the usual. As Mary approaches Elizabeth with words of greeting, Elizabeth feels her own child leap for joy within her. We know that Elizabeth’s child will become John the Baptist, the man who will someday head for the wilderness to herald the coming of Christ and to urge the people to prepare the way of the Lord. We know that ~ but at this moment in the story, this moment of mutual greeting between two expectant women, all of that lies in the future. What they know is that something extraordinary has begun to unfold, something that stirs a response of joy within each of their hearts.
And then: and then Mary begins to speak. Mary begins to speak in words that debunk any notion that she might be a shy and retiring girl, a meek and mild mother-to-be. Oh, no – it’s time to erase those images from our minds. For Mary: Mary speaks the words of a prophet, of someone called to proclaim the future reconciliation of the world to God. The world in which the lion will lie down with the lamb. The world in which water will surge forth from the dry and dusty desert and fill the land with flower blossoms. The world in which those who are lame and speechless will not merely walk and speak; they will leap like deer and sing for joy.
Last week The New York Times published an article on homeless children in America, focusing its story on a young girl named Dasani who, with her parents and younger brothers and sisters, lives in a room in which mattresses and clothing are piled on the floor, in a crumbling, roach-and-and-rodent infested shelter in Brooklyn. The article tells us that “One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania.” In Cleveland, the school district served over 3,600 homeless students last year. Children! Some of them kindergarten children who live wherever their parents can find a bed, or something resembling a bed, for them. Elementary school-aged children, many of them supported by working parents, but even more of them struggling because their parents have fallen victim to drug use and have become unemployed and turned to crime as a means of support.
Do you hear Mary’s words, as she proclaims to her cousin Elizabeth that “God has lifted up the lowly?” Do you hear what she is telling is about God’s priorities, about the coming reign of God? Do you hear what gospel joy means?
Dasani, the young girl in the article, lives in a city in which tremendous renewal has taken place over the past decades: new high rises, new parks and bike paths, new businesses. And her plight is due not entirely to her parents’ inability to function, but also to policies enacted in that city, policies which have cut benefits and housing opportunities with the goal of making the poor homeless more “self-reliant.” Policies which have left huge cracks in the system through which families like Dasani’s fall. Policies made by well-dressed and well-fed people in comfortable offices and board rooms.
Do you hear Mary’s voice, announcing that “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts?” This is not a timid girl; this is a woman prepared to speak truth to great power! This is a woman who knows that joy in God leads to justice among God’s people!
Here in Ohio, the number of those who are literally, physically, hungry continues to increase. Around the world, especially in areas in which droughts have taken hold, or the disruptions of warfare and internal national conflict have displaced people onto the road and into refugee camps, hunger and starvation are prevalent. And what are the consequences of chronic hunger? Higher maternal and infant death rates. Higher rates of infection and illness. Depression and other mental health issues. On a global scale, extreme vulnerability to crisis.
And what does Mary declare? That God has filled the hungry with good things. As the reign of God pervades the earth, the hungry will be satisfied, and starvation will be no more. Joy and justice will abound.
Do you wonder about these claims, these promises? Sometimes it seems as if they will never be fulfilled. And yet here, at BPC, in just a couple of hours, the kitchen and the fellowship hall will be filled with food and our guests will have arrived for our monthly community meal ~ a small but significant step in God’s filling of the hungry with good things.
As the new girl in town, I’ve been listening and reading and learning, and one of the things I took a look at last week was the several pages of instructions for the community meals. Wow! That was my response. Do you all know what goes into offering those meals each month? The Food Bank contributions, the trips to the grocery to purchase what’s still needed, the organization of the preparation and cooking and serving, the clean-up, and the plan for the next month ~ it’s all an enormous undertaking, involving many, many people. I wonder . . . when Mary exclaimed that God would fill the hungry with good things, could she have imagined that 2,000 years later her words would take effect in the form of meals prepared all over the world ~ because of her son?
The low lifted up, the hungry well fed ~ that’s what Mary preaches. And the powerful shall be brought down, and the rich shall be sent away empty. What does it all mean? Does God really mean to reverse all that exists as we know it? Is Mary really telling us that our goals and priorities are not God’s goals and priorities? Is Mary telling us that God will bring us joy in ways completely different than those the stores and commercials tell us to seek?
I teach an introductory religion course at JCU, and one of the topics my students and I have explored together is justice. Just day before yesterday, they were raising questions about their own goals for future success, especially future financial success. They and their parents have invested a great deal in their college educations, and many of them have told me in no uncertain terms that they are in college so that they will be able to make good living. Yet yesterday, and in weeks past, they have come face to face with questions about what justice means in God’s way of seeing things. What does it mean to be an advertising executive using the media to manipulate people into buying your products? What does it mean to sell products that have been manufactured in developing countries by factory workers who make less than $100 a month when huge profits go to the corporations employing those workers from afar ? Is becoming rich and powerful the goal God has set for us?
Do we still think of Mary as meek and mild? Do we still think of her as the silent, adoring mother whose task is to raise a son who will know his scripture and be prepared to help others?
Or do we see her for who she really is? Do we hear hers as the first voice in the gospel narrative proclaiming the joy of a creation restored to justice? Do we hear her fearlessness? Do we hear in her the kind of joy and courage that comes with the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives?
Do we hear her voice, in the intimacy of a family moment with her cousin echoing down the centuries and crying out that the words of the prophet Isaiah will be fulfilled? The weak will be strengthened. The deaf will hear and the blind will see. The lame will leap, the speechless will sing, the desert will become a lush and verdant land, all the earth will be restored, and all people will know the healing hand of God.
The next time you look at Mary, quietly seated in a manger scene, remember that this is a young woman who proclaims both justice and joy. When you struggle to understand poverty and homelessness and hunger, when you wonder why a young lady like Dasani, a girl with a quick and creative mind and a resourceful spirit, is trapped in the cycle of homelessness in New York, remember that God is even now among us as Jesus comes again, lifting the lowly and filling the hungry. And when you prepare to serve a meal in just a little while, know that you are responding to the words of that very young and courageous Mary, two millennia ago, and that the Mighty One is doing great things!