In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“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. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
How interesting for us to be here – to hear the lessons for use on the fourth Sunday of Advent. A Sunday on which, in a few short hours, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. The waiting of Advent, is about to end. The fourth Advent candle, lit only a few minutes ago, will be soon be accompanied by a fifth, and the wait will be over. We will sing O, Holy Night. And Joy to the World…but for now, we prepare to wait with Mary, who has just been told by Gabriel that she, a virgin, is to bear a child and that he will be called the Son of God – a startling prospect really, since this title was, at the time, reserved for Caesar alone – the Roman emperor. But Mary wasn’t just waiting around, as quickly as she could she heads for the hills, to find her cousin Elizabeth to tell her the news. And Elizabeth has news of her own, because her household had also been visited by an angel promising a son named John who would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. At the greeting of these pregnant cousins, the child John leaped in his mother’s womb. So we’re waiting, but there is still a lot going on. No sooner have Mary and Elizabeth exchanged greetings and blessings and felt babe’s a-leaping when Mary breaks into song. This part always seemed to me straight out of a Broadway musical. Mary and Elizabeth are talking about their babies, the backdrop is the Judean hill country, and suddenly Mary, accompanied by backup singers and a complete orchestra, starts belting out the Magnificat …But listen to the lyrics. This isn’t the frivolous love song typically found in the other Madonna’s latest dance tune. But neither are these the words that you might expect from the mild, agreeable, passively compliant Mary that has become part of the popular conception of the mother of Jesus.
This song that Mary sings rests uneasily with the image of Mary’s peaceful servanthood. Mary, who gives birth to the one later generations will call the Prince of Peace, proclaims a vision of a world whose realization seems unimaginable through peaceful means. In her song of praise and thanksgiving, Mary proclaims the greatness of a God who has “scattered the proud in their conceit, cast down the mighty, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry, and sent the rich away empty.” This is a song of a peasant girl, filled with the expectation of a better life for her son… than she knew herself. You really couldn’t get much lower than Mary was, a Jew living in Roman occupied territory, a woman in a patriarchal society, poor in a land of abundance. But this woman was promised a son who, if the angel that had appeared to her could be believed, would be great, would be called Lord, and would inherit the throne of King David. Like any mother, she had high hopes for her son. But if we are to take seriously the words of Mary’s song, this kingdom that her son would inherit is based on hopes grounded in a belief in a God of justice – a god for whom the peace of the Christmas season, isn’t fulfilled in the serenity of a manger scene, but emerges from a rearrangement of the social order, the rich and powerful brought down, and the poor, the hungry, the lowly lifted up.
This Song of Mary, had its origins in the Song of Praise that another surprised mother, Hannah, sang after giving birth to Samuel, “The Lord raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.”
You know, images of the Virgin Mary abound. Madonna, the iconic pop singer I mentioned earlier, has made a career of creating startling images of Christ and of Mary, and painting an incongruent portrait of herself as, “like a virgin.” Oftentimes using religious imagery that seriously offends the church and that rocks our conception of the agreeable Mary.
For a few years, I lived and worked in San Antonio, Texas. Images of the Virgin Mary appear so regularly in San Antonio, that I am convinced that Mary must have a strong preference for Margarita’s and mole enchiladas. I read in the news this summer of a San Antonio man who proudly displayed images of the Virgin Mary that had appeared in the hamburger grease that had drained to the bottom of his George Foreman grill. And not long ago, on Ebay, you could buy from another San Antonio resident, a ten year old grilled cheese sandwich, on which an image of the Virgin Mary can still clearly be seen emerging from the lightly toasted surface of thinly sliced bread.
But the image of Mary that emerges from Luke’s portrayal in today’s readings is not an image of Mary with downcast eyes, a halo above her head, appearing always obedient and submissive. Remember this was a woman who later, while nine months pregnant, was strong enough to walk or ride a donkey, the entire 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And this conversation between Mary and Elizabeth isn’t just a sweet story of close friendship, but a story of mothers who gave birth to harbingers of social justice and peace….The promised peace on earth was not the Pax Romana, the peace through victory imposed by Imperial Rome, a peace created by crushing all opposition – “surges” of Roman might. And it was not the peace of the naïve and innocent lambs that appear in every manger scene, but a peace that emerges after, as we just sang,”He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly”. This is a Mary that, as the theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther said, “experienced God’s grace by being the recipient of God’s revolutionary transformation of history… on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. Through Mary, through this elect community, God is putting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.”
Some of you may have seen the 2004 film, Maria Full of Grace. Maria is a young Columbian girl, pregnant out of wedlock, fired from her job in a flower factory where she stripping thorns from rose stems, hopeless, without a future for herself or the child she held in her womb. In desperation, she decides to accept an offer to become a mule, a courier for drugs being smuggled into the United States. With great difficulty, she forces herself to swallow 62, latex wrapped packages of pure heroine. Maria chokes down each thumb sized capsule handed to her by a drug lord…an unholy priest administering communion wafers. And then, with the capsules of deadly heroin resting uneasily in her stomach, with only the thin membrane walls of the tissue of her stomach and uterus separating death from new life – the fruit of her womb, she climbs on a plane bound for La Guardia. Expertly interrogated by customs officials always suspicious of young women traveling alone from Columbia, she has the self possession, the grace, to bear her awful secret with serenity and calm.
Maria had the grace to lie convincingly, where Mary had the grace to speak the truth. But both had the grace to act on behalf of their progeny. Not riding a donkey into Bethlehem, Maria is the mule, the heroin smuggler. Both young women put their bodies and lives at risk. Both were on journeys of liberation, for themselves, their sons, their people. Both issue a cry for justice. And both anticipate deliverance from the bondage of an oppressed people. I won’t spoil the ending of the story for you, but Maria, without an angel’s assurance that her son would be called “Lord” or “Son of God”, or even be treated with simple respect, this Maria also wished to find favor with God and for the fruit of her womb to be blessed. She is one of the Maria’s among us, who within their bodies, their spirit, their lives, carry the hope of humankind.
I often think of another Maria. I was reminded of this Maria two weeks ago on December 12th , the feast day of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin of Guadalupe. My mail carrier brought a congratulation card and a small ordination gift from the parishioners of La Iglesia de Epifania, The Church of the Epiphany. Located in a squalid barrio of East LA called Lincoln Heights, it was my privilege to live among and worship with this entirely Latino congregation. Tonight, at The Church of the Epiphany, the Christmas Eve service is likely to be sparsely attended. However I’m sure that La Posada, the ritual enactment of Mary and Joseph’s effort to find a place for the Christ child to be born, was richly celebrated last week. Likewise, on the feast day of Guadalupe, the churches are always overflowing. On that feast day, one year ago, I gathered with a cluster of parishioners from Epiphany, all of Mexican descent, recent immigrants mostly, always some member of the family, a father, a mother, a brother deemed illegal by the authorities. We gathered in the parking lot of a convenience store, a few blocks from the church. We sipped steaming coffee from Styrofoam cups while the mariachi band warmed up their instruments. The sun rising behind the palm trees cued the procession to begin. The assemblage included the mariachis, vested clergy, a crucifer, perhaps two dozen parishioners and leading them all was Maria, Maria Sanchez – a beautiful nine year old girl – her father a gardener, her mother a maid in the grand houses of Beverly Hills. Maria held aloft a large, ornately framed portrait of La Virgen de Guadalupe – the sainted virgin whose appearance gave birth to a nation, who gave an identity to a mestizo people born of a clash between European invaders and indigenous people. The tiny Maria led the procession and with her thin trembling arms raised the image of the Virgen high above her head… and the people followed. And as the procession wound through the streets, the neighbors heard the music, remembered the Virgin, remembered their origins, and they flowed from their houses. Sleepy eyed, ill clad against the morning chill, whole families joined in the parade, and in the morning light gathered with Maria in the candle lit church, to say with Elizabeth and with the people, Mary, mother of God, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church