This Side Up
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
The angel Gabriel leaves, and Mary runs. “With haste,” straight to her kinswoman. A newly pregnant teenager makes for the hills, not slowing down until she reaches the home of Elizabeth, her also-pregnant cousin. The Angel’s proposed plan is preposterous and dangerous, but Mary said “yes!”
When her kinswoman welcomes her, she bursts into song — a song so subversive, governments twenty centuries later will ban its public recitation. (Debie Thomas)
Mary runs and finds community. She finds solidarity, someone who knows and understands. In their embrace, they find an answer to the question they each carry in the privacy of their own hearts. ‘No, they are not crazy.’ This is happening. God confirms again it is true, not with an angel choir, or a roaming star, or a voice out of heaven, but with the leap of joy Elizabeth felt in her womb. According to scripture, Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, or until John after was born before returning home to an uncertain future with Joseph in Nazareth (Luke 1: 56).
These are real women, in flesh and blood, in whom the fullness of the mystery of God was pleased to dwell and through whom God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world was entrusted. This is the miracle and promise of the incarnation. Once we see and trust the Mystery even in the simple piece of clay we are, then we can begin to see it in each other. We start to see the divine image within ourselves, in each other, and in all things. This is the precious gift Mary and Elizabeth offer you again this Christmas. If you receive nothing else your life will become a fountain of blessing to you.
But there is more. Luke essentially describes how to be the church to one another. It could be called the very first Christian worship service. Mary and Elizabeth — the young and the old, the unmarried and the married, the socially established and the socially vulnerable — finding common ground in their love for Jesus. It has been the same ever since. Look around you. It is not clear what we possibly all have in common, but for Christ Jesus who calls us by name and claims us as God’s own child. As Henri Nouwen said of today’s gospel, “God’s most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community.” What a gorgeous and challenging example for us to live up to.
Mary received the gifts of community, blessing, and hope from Elizabeth. Together, they formed a church, the living Body of Christ. These very same gifts we offer each other. What do you say when someone gives you everything you could want or ever need? Mary responded by singing.
Mary sang a song she knew by heart. It was from scripture, from 1 Samuel 2:1-10. It was the song of another young woman named Hannah. It was already centuries old when Mary took it up and made it her own. The Magnificat, we now call it. Mary’s song is sung every time and place the church gathers for Evening Prayer as we did this past week (and will do again tonight at Immanuel). It is read every year on the fourth Sunday of Advent.
This song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. As I mentioned before, reading it has been banned in certain places because it was considered subversive, fostering revolution. The Magnificat was excluded from evening prayer in churches run by the British East India Company in India. Years later Gandhi requested Mary’s song be read everywhere the British flag was being lowered on the final day of imperial rule in India. The junta in Argentina forbade the singing of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capitol plaza. And during the 1980s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador prohibited any public recitation of the song.
Today, we hunger and pray for God’s kingdom to come. We are impatient for the leaders of this world to be toppled and for the lowly to be lifted up. This is how God answers us? With a song? A song so simple, ephemeral, here for a moment and vanishing the next. What is that compared to armaments, or the ingenious power of evil to inflict pain, or the ability of the few to assert control over and against the many now arrayed against us?
What makes rulers recoil and tremble at this song? It engenders hope. Singing makes those who sing into a community, however briefly. Mary’s song imparts a blessing upon each of us as bearers, with Mary, of the divine image. The gift of Mary’s song is the seed corn of the church. Here, the seed of the dangerous preposterous gospel is broadcast with abandon. Words of grace are sewn by singing in the good soil within every human heart accessible, known, and belonging only to God.
Here, for Christmas, is the sturdy faith of our ancestors. It carried them through adversity and injustice far greater than we experience today. Stop wringing your hands they say. Clap and sing the ancient songs you know by heart. Make them your own for hope to be kindled, for peace to be shown, for righteousness and justice to roll down like waters now today and upon our children.
This too would be more than enough if we received nothing else this Christmas. But there’s still more in this bottomless box of grace—which honestly, we can never fully explore—to help make heads or tails of our topsy-turvy lives. Mary’s gift comes marked with a sign that says, “this end up.” You can’t plant tulip bulbs upside down. You don’t open a box from the wrong end. You can’t make sense of an English sentence without moving from left to right, and in life, you won’t make headway without knowing the first shall be last and the last first. Mary’s song has clued us in. The ways of this world are upside down from what really matters. We mostly go about it all wrong.
For centuries, Christians have served as living invitations to a right-side-up life rooted in God’s love for an upside-down world. Despite terror and persecution, the church thrived because people who encountered Jesus’ followers were impressed by what they saw and heard. “They saw lives that had been transformed—men and women who were ordinary in every way except for the fact that they seemed to have found the secret of living” (Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity)
Living inside God’s embrace transforms our lives with love. Unexpected and mysterious, this perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love lifts our spirits. Perfect love has kindled joy and renewed our hope. As Mary’s song proclaims, God in Christ Jesus has set us right side up. What is left for us to do but sing?