Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia
Good morning Christians, seekers and friends:
Well, it is almost here! Christmas is two days away. And so, on top of all the normal things we would usually be trying to prepare for on an average Sunday like laundry, housework or lunches—today and tomorrow we will be preparing for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Because whether we feel ready or not – Christmas is coming and is almost here. We talk a lot about Advent being a season of waiting, expectation and preparation and so on this last Sunday of Advent we are left with the job of not only questioning how we have done but with our list of stuff we’ve to do. Because “it will come.”
This last year, because our Presiding Bishop preached at the Royal Wedding, I think Episcopalians, many of whom are already cultural Anglophiles, really got into the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry on a new level. So, if you are still following the tabloid news, you probably also are aware that Meghan Markle—now a princess—is also going to be a mother. Now do not be afraid — this is not going to be a sermon about how Meghan Markle is just like Mary—but it is about some advice that her good friend Serena Williams gave her about having a child. Serena said her best piece of wisdom about having kids is quite straightforward: “It will come.” Speaking to People magazine, she remembered thinking when she was pregnant herself” “I don’t know what’s going to happen, I didn’t know how… to have a baby, and it all came.” She went on to add, “it’s so crazy, I totally changed, and it literally is like a switch. And so I say….[this to Meghan]” It will come.”
I have been thinking about that a lot this last week. Because that is the Advent truth, right? It will come. Christmas will come. And most importantly Jesus the Christ will come. And it will not happen on our time table –when we feel ready or when and how we think it should —but God’s Kingdom – God’s promise. It will come.
I like that this advice comes from Serena Williams too – Serena Williams has to be one of the most disciplined folks you can imagine in terms of her career in professional tennis. She did not become such a great athlete by sitting home reading People magazine. But as a mother, while she could prepare for the normal things, as one does, for the coming of her child – she couldn’t control the birth itself —nor could she control the fact that she would develop blood clots in her lungs and have to have two emergency surgeries right after she gave birth. But her little girl did come. And after six weeks of necessary bedrest and a lot of physical and psychological stress, Serena the strong and powerful woman that she is came back too.
In today’s gospel story of Elizabeth and Mary, we find two pregnant women who also are talking about motherhood. We listen to Elizabeth, an older woman who had previously been unable to have a child and Mary her young cousin who, while betrothed, was not yet married. In today’s gospel we get to hear from these women, and as theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson notes, hear in Mary’s response to her cousin’s greeting, which we refer to as the Magnificat – we hear the most that any woman gets to say in the entire New Testament. And so I would like us to really think about what we hear in our gospel reading today…. Maybe even take time to go back and re-read the story and the words of the Magnificat because, while, we often talk about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, we don’t usually take the time to listen to what she, herself, has to say. Meaning what we think we know about her is often based on our own opinions or sources as flimsy as People magazine. Johnson tells a story of Professor Mary Hines who was surprised at the beginning of a semester at a theological school to discover that all the students registered for her course on the theology of Mary were young men AND all the students in her course on feminist theology were women. When asked to explain their choices, the men said they knew next to nothing about the church’s teaching on Mary but as ordained ministers felt they would be expected to. The women, on the other hand, avoided the course because of their negative feelings about what they already “knew.” She said, “Some responded with a sense of betrayal and disillusionment, some with a sense of undefined unease” Hines continued. “Some [female students] said there was just too much baggage for them to summon up interest in studying Mary.” Mary has been as Johnson notes, “…interpreted and explained, imagined and rejected, loved and honored in ways so diverse as to be impossible to codify.” So what we think we know of Mary – well much of it is probably hearsay – and it certainly does not seem to reflect her words in the Magnificat.
Johnson goes on to share Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s word about the Magnificat. “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn, it is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. “This song,” Bonhoeffer continues, “has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth.”
Bonhoeffer is not the only one to recognize the powerful message of the Magnificat. Because I grew up in the Episcopal Church, I have am accustomed to hearing the Magnificat in its entirety. But as DL Mayfield, the daughter of an evangelical minister, wrote in the Washington Post last week this is not the case in evangelical churches. She writes, evangelicals — in particular, white evangelicals — have devalued the role of Mary, and her song, to the point that she has almost been forgotten as anything other than a silent figure in a nativity scene. Mayyfield asked evangelical Christians on Twitter about the Mary’s song and of the more than 1,100 people who responded: 28 percent said they had never heard the title “Magnificat” (Latin for “magnify”); another 43 percent said their churches never read or discussed it; 21 percent said they had encountered it just a few times; and only 8 percent said they read it every year. She goes on to say that almost all of the popular evangelical songs that incorporate the Magnificat stop after the first few verses. So, it would seem, that the powers that be are comfortable hearing about how Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her savior – as long as she is very quiet, docile and agreeable about it. But the bits about how God shows the strength of God’s arm, and scatters the proud in their conceit. The vision of God casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. Those bits are not acceptable to those who seek to coerce, control and disempower. In fact, in the not-too-distant past the Magnificat has been prohibited by three different governments.
During the British rule of India, for example, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church. And in the 1980s, Guatemala’s government discovered that Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor was inspiring the poor in their country as so, believing that it was too dangerous and revolutionary, they banned any public recitation of Mary’s words. Similarly, Mary’s song was outlawed in Argentina after is a group of mothers, referred to as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children “disappeared” during the military dictatorship placed the words of the Magnificat’s words on posters in protest throughout the capital plaza. The reason that these governments and those who seek to control others fear Mary’s words is because, echoing the words of Hannah and all the women prophets of the Old Testament, her song if we really listen can inspire all of us to believe that change is possible and remind us that God doesn’t just care about us in some “spiritual” way far removed from our real day-to-day existence. The Magnificat reminds us, in fact, that God cares so much that God was born and entered into our day-to-day existence and that regardless of what the powers-that-be may want, well the change— “It will come.”
And that change is going to come in ways and through folks that we don’t expect. As you all probably know I grew up in a little Episcopal Church in Lewistown Montana. And there was a lot that was lovely about that little place – including Penny Grover who was my Sunday School teacher for several years. Long after I was ordained, Penny sent me a copy of a photo of me and my sisters in the Christmas pageant. And there I am as an angel with my little tinsel crown and my dark ringlets. I gotta admit to my adult eyes I look super cute. But that little girl who would grow up year after year always an angel and never a Mary, well, my soul was not rejoicing because I knew that I could never be Mary because my hair was dark and my surname was Spanish and Marys in my experience—in all the paintings and the creches I’d seen—always had fair hair and blue eyes. It seems silly now, right, but then I hadn’t really heard the power of Mary’s words that remind us that all of us are being called on to bring forth the new life, the new power promised by God and delivered on Christmas day. Even if we never have a child, even if we look different than folks might expect us to – even if the powers-that-be don’t recognize it, God’s Kingdom. It Will Come. It will come through us.
While I promised earlier that I would not compare Meghan Markle to Mary, I got to say I can not get a particular vision of a Christmas nativity scene out of my head. In my vision of this, I see Serena Williams as Mary. I don’t see her stuck in the angel chorus or looking down demurely. I see her very much like Mary who, Elizabeth Johnson describes as an unconventional woman through whom God has done great things as God has for others similarly outside the pale. Because Mary was not only a vessel of God because she would give birth to Jesus – she is, like Serena Williams, was a vessel of God because she was bold enough to believe that God could and would do great things through her. She believed that God cared about her and about her people regardless of what others believed. And she knew and proclaimed it strongly, bravely and with conviction. So in my mind’s eye, I see Serena as Mary strong, confident, ready to be changed, who with her cousin Elizabeth believes in God promise and so, even though she doesn’t exactly how it will happen she says without a doubt “It will come.” And she audaciously believes that in God’s Kingdom– well love wins.