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What songs are we singing? What story are we living? What might possibly connect us with a young woman who lived over 2,000 years ago in a village 9,000 km from here? Mary herself! It’s Christmas in June! This is not the quiet Mary who ponders things in her heart. This is the praise-filled, exultant, singing Mary who blows up the myths with which we live and which surround us. This is Mary who lives in a posture in which the entirety of her being is extended toward God in praise, and song, and thanks. A posture of gratitude.
“All is gift,” we’ve been saying. Look at what God has done! He has looked with favour upon the lowliness of his servant. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy.
What is the good and fitting and proper response in light of this song? It depends what songs we’re singing. It depends on the story in which we’re living. I came across a story while I was preparing for today. A man is in a hospital bed, suffering from a painful stomach ailment. A nurse comes into the room and soothes his forehead with a cold cloth. She gives him a shot of something to ease his pain. The man visibly relaxes. Before she leaves, he says “I want you to know how much I appreciate what you just did for me.” The nurse looks at him and responds, “You don’t have to thank me, I’m just doing my job.” “Ma’am,” the man replies, “It’s nobody’s job to look after me, and I appreciate what you did.” This man was not taking any kind of care shown toward himself for granted. To live in a posture in which the entirety of our being is extended toward God in praise and song and gratitude is to not take anything about God for granted or leave God’s goodness toward us unacknowledged.
And we get this, right? We get the wrongness of it when thanks is not given. I know of someone who used to tell people for whom she held a door and yet did not thank her things like “I believe the word you’re looking for is thank-you!” (and I’m in no way endorsing this kind of thing). We know how much the “thank-you wave” given to us by another driver means when we let them into our lane in front of us, or when we stop to let a pedestrian walk in front of us in the mall parking lot (and not at a designated crossing). It makes us feel good.
We are familiar with the story. The angel Gabriel is sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth. He tells Mary about her part in God’s plan. We have these wonderful words of acceptance from Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” This acceptance is not to be taken for granted either. The plan would not have gone ahead with Mary had Mary not spoken those words from her heart. Mary travels to stay with her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth is crying out when she sees young cuz. The child in her womb is leaping. The elder is blessing the younger. The elder still in the womb is praising the younger and already the reversal of which Mary will sing is in some way taking place.
Everything is going to be turned upside down in the best possible way. Elizabeth wonders “Why should this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (and we’ll hang on to that question) and declares her blessed – “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Blessed is she who lives in the mercy of God. Blessed is he who lives in the promises of God. You’ve heard me say these lines before and they’re good lines – religion is grace, ethics is gratitude. Our faith is founded in grace - in the unmerited love and mercy of God. The good and fitting and proper response to God’s grace is gratitude. Thankfulness, is more than mere feeling. Gratitude expresses itself in actions. Actions like an early morning prayer thanking God for the gift of another day. Actions like breaking into song.
Are we breaking into song to thank God for grace? I hope we are, in the company of God’s people, no matter where that may be. What songs are we singing?
Mary sings a song. For fans of musicals, someone has compared this to any one of a number of scenes in which the action stops, the spotlight hits the singer who turns to the audience. These are important moments. It’s the Reverend Mother singing “Climb Every Mountain” to Maria in “The Sound of Music.” Will Maria return to the Von Trapp household? A hinge moment! “Climb every mountain/Ford every stream/Follow every rainbow/Til you find your dream/A dream that will need/All the love you can give/Every day of your life” Something important is happening here. Something important is happening and maybe the best way to express it is in a song. Mary is living in the story of God which is about grace and mercy and reversals. It’s a dream that is deserving of all the thanks we can give every day of our life. Gratitude has been called the mother of all virtues. Even love can become manipulative and self-serving without a spirit of thankfulness. Gratitude is to characterize our posture as Christians. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” writes Paul to the Thessalonians. It’s not “Give thanks for all circumstances,” as that would hardly be reasonable. Give thanks in all circumstances. We’ve been facing a lot of grief here at Blythwood, and we have found that even in the middle of grief we may be thankful for a life.
Look at the circumstances in which Mary finds herself. She is part of a population living under the Roman boot. She is facing potential humiliation and even ostracization because of her pregnancy. She is facing the suspicion of Joseph which only a revelation from God will put to rest. Think of the potential vulnerability to which she is exposed. Think of the danger of pride which Elizabeth’s words might have evoked within her. Mary deflects this praise toward God and gives thanks. Religion is grace, ethics is gratitude. Mary’s response to God’s grace is full of gratitude. One of the myths that is being blown up here is that our worth as people is based on what we achieve. Isn’t this why so many obituaries read like resumes? “Why has this happened to me,” asks Elizabeth, “that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” This is a really good thing for all of us to be considering all the time. Why should this be, Lord, that you have met me with your grace? Why should it be that you have come running to me with your compassion? We can’t do anything to achieve God’s love for us. Mary hasn’t done anything to achieve the grace of God. The myth is that what gives our life meaning is what we achieve. We place a lot of importance on prestige and wealth. We pay a lot of attention to the most prestigious and the wealthiest. The more we have the better we are. This is the kind of belief that can lead to overwhelming pride and a sense of self-sufficiency if we’re “successful,” or a sense of debilitating envy if we’re not. The response here is that what gives our life its ultimate meaning is that God has shown us mercy. We can separate the song into two verses and each end with mercy. “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” in v 50. “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever” in v 54-55.
God forbid we ever take mercy for granted or leave mercy unacknowledged. We recalled recently the chorus of that great Fanny J. Crosby song “Blessed Assurance.” “This is my story, this is my song.” This is Mary’s song. Mary knew what story she lived in. To follow Christ is to live in the same story. It’s a story that has been punctuated by songs sung and prayers prayed by strong women about the grace of God. Songs sung by the people of God. Songs of deliverance. Songs like this one sung by Moses and all the people of Israel after passing through the Red Sea:
“I’m singing my heart out to God—what a victory! He pitched horse and rider into the sea. God is my strength, God is my song, and, yes! God is my salvation. This is the kind of God I have and I’m telling the world! This is the God of my father— I’m spreading the news far and wide! Come let us worship and give thanks to our God.” (Exodus 15:1-2 The Message) Miriam picked up a tambourine and all the women followed her with tambourines, dancing and singing, “Sing to God— what a victory! He pitched horse and rider into the sea!” (Exodus 15:21)
He delivered us. He saved us. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, prayed and listen to how her prayer is echoed in Mary’s song:
Hannah prayed: My heart exults in the Lord Mary prayed: My soul magnifies the Lord
Hannah worshiped with the words: There is none holy like the LORD Mary worshiped by saying: Holy is his name
Hannah exclaimed: Talk no more so very proudly Mary exclaimed: He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts
Hannah proclaimed: The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. Mary proclaimed: He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.
Hannah declared: The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. Mary declared: He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
May our gratitude be formed by the story of which we, as followers of Jesus, are a part. A story of God giving himself, of Jesus’ life poured out for us that we might know the richness of abundant life in him; of the Holy Spirit given for us without limit; of the day toward which we look forward when all things will be renewed.
Our thanksgiving is not just for our own benefit. There are ramifications to Mary’s song which are moral, social and economic. The kingdom of God is about reversal. Revolutionary reversal brought about in the person of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had this to say about the song in ad Advent sermon from 1933 – “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 song 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 the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” Listen to the words here – “He has shown strength with his arm; he had scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
This switching of roles here is not about those on the bottom now getting to oppress those on top. It’s a revaluation. Morally it’s the death of pride. We know pride is not dead but Mary is living in the promises of God, singing about them as both a current and future reality. He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. Pride that keeps us from helping others (because God helps those who help themselves after all) or keeps us from asking for or accepting help. Socially the most important thing is not prestige and power but hearts that beat in lowly knowledge of our need for the mercy of God. Economically there will be emptiness for those who put profit over everything else and a filling for those who have gone without. How are we called to live out this truth? This song is a fist raised against the unfettered pursuit of wealth; a fist raised against self-sufficiency, selfish self-regard, consumerism, materialism, classism, and racism. Someone has said, “Her song is a discomfort to white evangelicals who would not want to be reminded that ‘Black Lives Matter', that slavery and racism was and still is an invitation to God to show ‘his mighty arm’, and so have not only devalued the role of Mary and her song but also made her a silent factor in the nativity story or setting.”
What songs are we singing? It’s good for us to be listening to Mary’s song today. A song of thanks which signals that in Jesus, God is turning the world right-side up. He has done great things. He is doing great things. He will do great things. All is grace. All if gift. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.