We’ve spent the first weeks of Advent in the first testament of the bible looking at the prophetic words, the visions told by Isaiah that lay the groundwork for Jesus’s arrival. Today, we begin to look at the New Testament and what is called the Birth Narrative. The stories that we have telling of the birth of Jesus. Several weeks ago when we were talking about who Jesus was historically and culturally, I mentioned the book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, he talks about the role of the Biblical stories in Roman culture at the time they were written. He says, “The [first] readers of Luke’s Gospel, like most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant.” It may be hard for us to comprehend now, but history was not a matter of uncovering or recalling facts, it was about revealing and sharing truths. In our current time, the line between fact and truth has been blurred for sure, but for us, it is still a challenge to differentiate between fact and truth, what is truth if not a fact and what kind of facts aren’t true. As we look at the Birth Narrative, this story about Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, suspend your disbelief and hear it as a story speaking a truth we need in our world today.
The story begins with both Mary and Joseph being visited by angles telling them what is about to happen. When the angel visits Mary, the angel also tells her about her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to have been unable to conceive a child, is now six months pregnant. So, Mary travels to visit Elizabeth. We pick up the story in the book of Luke, chapter 1:39-56.
Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that you should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Happy is she who believed that God would fulfill the promises made to her.”
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God. God has looked with favor on the low status of Her servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the Divine one has done great things for me.
Holy is God’s name.
He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.
God has shown strength with her arm. She has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.
God has come to the aid of her servant Israel, remembering her mercy, just as she promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.
These words of praise, celebration and joy are often called the Magnificat. A psalm, a song of wonder. It is because of these words from Mary that this third Sunday is also known as Gaudete Sunday, a latin word meaning “rejoice”. In some traditions the advent candle for today is pink to represent that rejoicing joy. Mary’s words are the first testament to the wonder that is coming with the birth of Jesus.
Over he past few weeks, anytime the song, Mary Did You Know, plays on the radio I involuntarily launch into a passionate rant against Mark Lowry’s evangelical Christmas song. The song, in fictional conversation with Mary, asks;
“Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you”
To which I respond, have you read Luke 1? Have you read the magnificat?! Because if you had, I think the answer is fairly clear that Mary, along with her cousin Elizabeth, are the first to recognize what is about to take place. They are the first to understand the truth of what this birth means. Mary’s psalm is a statement of strength and conviction, it is a political manifesto, it is full of deep thought, strong conviction, and a good deal of political savvy. She is brave and determined. Her words are treasonous to the empires which bind us. She speaks not in facts and realities, but in truth and visions. She knows exactly what is about to happen.
Most often Mary is portrayed as poor, young, pure, submissive and immature. Earlier in the book of Luke, the angel greets her “Rejoice, favored one! God is with you!” Another translation says, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” This greeting is the greeting for someone of power, deserving of reverence. Mary is full of grace and she is favored, favored by God, chosen, called for this specific task because of her courage, boldness, grit. She is not full submissive meekness, she is full of grace. Blogger Nancy Rockwell writes, "Grace is not submission. And the power of God is never meek."
Mary knows that following God’s call, bringing about the Kin-dom of God, is messy business. It’s risky and requires all of ourselves. It’s not about silent nights, and gentle shepherds, it’s not about drummer boys and calm and bright nights. Mary’s words are a rallying cry for us all to join in the messy kingdom work, the challenging work of overturning empires and the risky work of taking the unpopular, unexpected path.
Nancy Rockwell, a theological writer and UCC minister, wrote a blog article last year in which she said, that according to the angel, God wanted Mary “for her bold, independent, adventuresome spirit, [God] decides to bear a holy child – for a bold agenda: to bring the mighty down from their thrones; to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away. This is Mary: well-spoken, wise, gritty.”
Our world needs more Mary in our lives. This season, I challenge us to follow Mary’s example and claim our identity as well-spoken, wise, and gritty.