December 23, 2012, Advent IV
This week – at Rob’s work party – one of his colleagues joked that he had to watch his newly pregnant wife at the party, lest she forget her condition and order a glass of wine. My response: I don’t think you need to worry. It isn’t easily forgotten.
Ask mostly newly-pregnant women and I suspect they will tell you the same thing: they can barely think of anything else. Those first days and weeks, before the pregnancy is evident to the world around you, you walk through life every mindful that everything is about to change – and wondering how it is possible that the rest of the world goes on with business as usual.
How much more that must have been true for Mary! The secret she carried was magnified tenfold. First, there was the way she learned of the pregnancy. It wasn’t from clothes that began to feel a bit tight, or from two little lines appearing. Mary received word of her pregnancy from – of all things – an angel. An angel showing up in her bedroom! And told her not only that she was pregnant, but that the child would be the long-awaited Messiah, rescuer of God’s people.
What news! Mary was perplexed, the text says. That seems an understatement. Baffled, mystified, astounded, completely overwhelmed seem more accurate. Certainly, it must have been a memorable moment.
A moment, I suspect, that she relived many times in the days that followed. She would have no physical proof of her pregnancy yet – but how could she forget the angel’s words? And then – how could she escape the consequences of those words?
The consequences were far-reaching. Her pious relatives might turn her in to the religious authorities and have her executed for adultery. And if they showed mercy, she still risked the wrath of Herrod. He would not respond kindly to news of a rival. Death was, again, a possibility. Mary stands in solidarity with many women in our world who carry new life at the cost of their own life and well-being. She was overshadowed by a Power that had the capacity to destroy her.
The angel provided a reassurance though: Elizabeth was pregnant! Barren Elizabeth, past childbearing age, was pregnant. If it were true – if God had really done such a thing – then maybe God would keep his word to her, too. Maybe.
She had to know. Had to know God would keep his word. Had to know there was hope in the midst of fear. So she went to Elizabeth. I imagine it was a journey filled with longing…with tentative hope…with many misgivings…with wondering. But who better to share her fear and wonder and longing with than one who had also experienced the power of God? So Mary went – and with haste. She could not bear this secret alone for long.
I wonder if she agonized over what to say – when to share the news – how to tell her secret. Did she turn the words over in her mind with every step, searching for just the right ones?
In the end, it didn’t matter. Elizabeth knew before Mary said a word! The child Elizabeth carried – John would be his name – lived out his vocation as prophet even before he was born. He leaped at the sound of Mary’s voice, and Elizabeth knew this one in Mary’s womb was blessed. “Blessed are you among women!” she exclaims, “and blessed is the child you carry!”
And then – then I imagine that Mary exhaled, finally, blowing out all the anxiety she had carried for days inside of her. She breathed, sucking in hope, and strength, and joy. Tension evaporates, her lungs fill with air and she bursts into song: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his servant…the Mighty One has done great things for me…” (Luke 1:47-49).
Ahh, the sweet joy of a mother-to-be who has finally let go of the worry and the fear that accompanies the early days of pregnancy, who finally believes that this new life really has begun! Mary’s words ring with that joy, that contentment, that excitement.
Of course, this is not the song of every mother-to-be. For some, new life is never more than an ache, a longing deep within them. For others, the new life ends before they have opportunity to celebrate. Or, it is birthed but then snuffed out in infancy, in childhood, far too early. Poet Cheryl Lawrie* begs us,
In a season that abounds with fertile miracles,
pray for peace for those for whom
every breathless, wondrous mention of babies born
will bring only unspeakable pain.
For peace does not always come
in the shape of a baby.
That’s the power of Mary’s song. When we look more closely – it is not just a baby of which Mary sings. Rather, it is the baby who brings peace for the whole world: A peace that reaches those who mourn, those in unspeakable pain. A peace that lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. A peace that fills the ache in our hearts and meets the needs of all nations and people.
Mary sings not only because she is having a baby, but more specifically, because her baby will be the One of Peace. And Mary sings her song not only for herself, but for all who long for new life, who ache for a new beginning.
It interesting that she sings it in the past tense – as if it has already come to pass that God has scattered the proud and brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry. Mary sings as if the rescuer had already been born and salvation had already come! She sings as if the world was already at peace, was already a safe place for little ones like the babe she carried.
Of course, it was not; not fully, not yet. Mary was still in danger; King Herrod would still try to snuff out life and the life of her child. Israel would continue to suffer oppression from other nations; Abraham’s descendants still had reason to wonder if God had forgotten them. The proud and the powerful would still abuse the weak and the poor.
But. But! In that moment, strengthened by Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary finds courage to sing ahead of time** – to sing as if God’s promises to rescue and redeem had already come true.
And by singing ahead – by believing that what God had promised God had already set out to do – Mary is drawn into the hoped-for future. When she sings, she moves from longing for God’s salvation to participating in it. Singing draws her – and us – into the reality of a changed world.
To borrow, again, from poet Cheryl Lawrie*:
Maybe in this there is a glimpse of the kingdom
Let it hold you and let it send you
so you will never be at peace
until all are fed
until all know home
until all are free
until justice is done
until peace is the way
until grace is the law
until love is the rule
until God’s realm comes
until God’s realm comes
until God’s realm comes…
So we sing until God’s realm comes. And while we sing, we set about bringing that realm to life. We bend down to the lowly; we feed the hungry; we serve the servants; we invite the poor to share in God’s abundant provision.
Our calling as Christian people is to live as if God was already present – because God is! Our calling is to open our eyes to God’s presence, to call it out, sing about it, and live as if it were true.
The Advent carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” celebrates God-with-us in many different ways. It is written in the tradition of the O Antiphons – prayers that call upon seven names of God found in the Old Testament. Those names express the ways that human beings have experienced God through the ages – as wisdom, dayspring, deep desire. They express our longing for God to show up again in our world, that we might know God’s presence anew.
The song also reassures us that God will never leave us or forsake us. The names of God form an acrostic, the Latin letters spelling out (in reverse), “tomorrow, I will come.” There is bright hope for tomorrow in these words.
We live with much longing this year. There are so many reminders of our need for God. Is God absent? Some believe so. We say no. God is here, with us. And God will continue to be present…a flickering light growing stronger in the darkness. When we sing with Mary, we live in that circle of light – and carry it to others – so that it might grow, God’s presence with us.
Let’s sing – with longing, with hope – and with confidence that God will be with us as we live out our calling to live in God’s presence. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
*Cheryl Lawrie’s poetry may be found at holdthisspace.org.au
**The image of Mary “singing ahead of time” is borrowed from Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon by the same name, “Singing Ahead of Time,” in Home By Another Way.