This third Sunday of Advent we light the pink candle on our wreath to symbolize the joy expressed by Mary when she learns she will bear a son who will be the Savior of the world.
Mary bursts into song at this unexpected news, the words which we said in place of the psalm today. The Magnificat, as Mary’s song is called, in part echoes the words of an Old Testament woman, Hannah, who also hears unexpected news that she will bear a son, Samuel.
Mary also echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah about what the news of this birth will mean to the world.
This week by happy coincidence I came across an essay about the Magnificat, written by Rachel Held Evans, from Dayton, Tennessee. Rachel died a couple of years ago, but her writings are timeless.
Her words about hearing the Magnificat in our time and place express my thoughts exactly. And so today I’m letting you hear from her as we move closer to the wonder of Christmas.
* * *
It’s an unconventional birth announcement.
We like to paint Mary in the softer hues – her robes clean, hair combed and covered, body poised in prayerful surrender – but this young woman was a fierce one, full of strength and fury.
When she accepts the dangerous charge before her (every birth was risky in those days, this one especially so), rather than reciting a maternal blessing, Mary offers a prophecy:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
“From this day all generations will call me blessed: The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
“He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
“He has shown the strength of his arm; he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
“He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy.
“The promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants forever.”
When sung in a warm, candlelit church in Advent, it can be easy to blunt these words, to imagine them as symbolic, non-specific, comforting.
But I’m not feeling sentimental this Advent. I’m feeling angry, restless.
And so in this season, I hear Mary’s Magnificat shouted, not sung:
Shouted in the halls of the US Capitol…
“He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
Shouted in the corridors of the West Wing…
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”
Shouted in the streets of Charlottesville…
“He has shown strength with his arms, he has scattered the proud in their conceits.”
Shouted among women who have survived sexual assault, harassment, and rape…
“He has looked with favor on his lowly servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
Shouted among the poor, the refugees, the victims of gun violence, and the faithful ministers of the Gospel who at great cost are speaking out against the false religions of nationalism and white supremacy…
“His mercy is for those who fear him in every generation.”
* * *
With the Magnificat, Mary not only announces a birth, she announces the inauguration of a new kingdom, one that stands in stark contrast to every other kingdom – past, present, and future – that relies on violence and exploitation to achieve “greatness.”
With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides.
And it’s not with the powerful, but with the humble.
It’s not with the (conceited) rich, but with the poor (and those who care for them).
It’s not with the occupying force, but with people on the margins.
It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an unwed, unbelieved teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.
This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside. And in her defiant prayer, Mary – a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land – names this reality.
“God is with us. And if God is with us, who can stand against us?”
I hear a lot of professed Christians right now suggesting that it’s okay if powerful men resort to a little lying, bigotry, abuse, and misogyny as long as Americans “get to say Merry Christmas again.”
Besides the fact that virtually no one in this country has ever been prohibited from saying “Merry Christmas” in the first place, such a sentiment stands in blasphemous contradiction to the very doctrine of incarnation we are meant to embrace this time of year.
God did not wrap God’s self up in flesh, humbling himself to the point of birth in a stable and death on a cross, eating, laughing, weeping, and suffering as one of us, so that I can complain to management when a barista at Starbucks wishes me “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
The incarnation isn’t about desperately grasping at the threads of power and privilege. It’s about surrendering power, setting aside privilege, and finding God in the smallness and vulnerability of a baby in the womb.
To claim that the lighting of a national Christmas tree each year makes this country “a Christian nation,” while its powerful systematically oppress the poor, turn away refugees, incite violence against religious and ethnic minorities, molest and harass women and girls and call them liars when they dare to speak up is the antithesis of everything the prophets proclaimed and the incarnation stands for.
We cannot claim to embrace the Holy Family while withholding justice from those who would most identify with them. We cannot talk of “making Christmas great again” while taking the side of the powerful and violent over the vulnerable.
The season of Advent is meant to be a time of waiting.
In years past, I lit candles, sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and pondered in stillness the joy of Christ’s first coming and the hope of his second.
But this year I cannot be still. This year, hope is hard, belief is hard.
And so I’m waiting with the angst of the prophets, with the restlessness of the psalmist who cried, “How long, oh Lord, will you hide your face forever?” and with the stubborn, unsentimental hope of a woman so convinced the baby inside her would change everything, she proclaimed in present tense that the great reversal had already arrived –
The powerful have already been humbled.
The vulnerable have already been lifted up.
For God has made a home among the people.
God has made a home with us.