Today is the first Sunday in Advent, twenty-two days away from Christmas, and I wonder how many of you have put up your tree and set up decorations and lights inside and out. Growing up, my parents probably had a dozen different crèche sets which they located around our house and now we have four or five in our house. We also have a few tree ornaments depicting the Nativity scene. Those are in place as well and I suspect the same is true for many of you.
I want to give you a homework assignment today, however. When you go home and look at the manger scenes at your house. Or if you happen to notice different manger scenes as you are driving around town. Take a close look at Mary, the mother of Jesus, and notice how she is depicted.
In many crèche sets and down through the centuries in portraits and statues and countless artistic images of Mary, it’s amazing how often you see Mary in a particular pose. Frequently, Mary looks like a porcelain doll. She has pristine facial features and a calm visage on her face, perhaps with an ever so slight smile. Everything about Mary appears quiet and peaceful, vulnerable even, and she often has her gaze fixed downward.
Instead of looking straight ahead, Mary pays sole attention to the infant son cradled in her arms. Occasionally, you might notice a picture where Mary gazes up towards the heavens in God’s direction. But typically Mary’s head is bowed…a demure and obedient symbol of faithful motherhood.
Few other figures in Biblical history, or in history in general, have such a fixed, singular identity. Mary is always and forever the mother of Jesus Christ, the woman who bore God’s blessed child. To the point where it’s almost as if Mary has no other distinctive personality traits. History has treated Mary as ageless and timeless…a glass prism reflecting God’s divine activity.
These widespread, historical images of Mary stem mainly from the Christmas story…specifically Luke’s version of the Christmas story. We will come to that part of the Christmas tale in worship in a few weeks. But this morning’s story in the Gospel of Luke takes place before Christmas. As far as timing, today’s Scripture lesson unfolds in the earliest days of Mary’s pregnancy, not long after Mary learns from her cousin Elizabeth that Mary will bear God’s son.
In response to Elizabeth’s surprising and overwhelming news, Mary bursts into song. Mary’s song is known as “The Magnificat.” and in the very first line of the song Mary sets a tone. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In other words, Mary’s soul increases God and makes God larger. Mary’s soul enhances God’s visibility and magnifies God’s ability to be seen by anyone’s eyes.
The Magnificat does not say that Mary’s womb magnifies God. Nor does it say that her pregnancy magnifies God. Instead the song clearly states that it’s Mary’s soul which magnifies God while Mary’s spirit rejoices in God who is her savior. The Magnificat helps us understand Mary’s personhood rather than Mary’s motherhood.
“God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God’s arm and God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” What an amazing song this Magnificat is.
Can you imagine Mary singing the Magnificat with her head bowed and her gaze lowered? With a calm, quiet, peaceful expression on her face? Looking pristine and demure and fragile? Do the words of the Magnificat sound like they’ve come out of the mouth of a woman who cares only about the infant she will hold in her arms at the end of her pregnancy?
When I picture Mary singing the Magnificat, I visualize her with her head held high and her mouth opened wide. With an intense, steely gaze in her eyes and a loud voice that rings out strongly and clearly and unmistakably.
This revolutionary Mary who voices God’s special care for the poor and the powerless. Who sings about the lowly being exalted while the mighty are pushed off their thrones. Who proclaims God’s promise that the hungry will be filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty handed. Mary sings about a world turned upside down. She is nothing less than a bold, confident, defiant spokesperson for God’s earth shaped the same way it is in God’s heaven…
Think about it though. How many images of Mary have you seen that looked anything like what I’m describing?
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the Christmas image of Mary. In a world where things are loud and chaotic, spinning seemingly out of control, the Christmas Mary reminds us of the need to slow down and reflect and pay attention to who and what is truly important. The Christmas Mary reminds us to listen to God’s guidance and stay faithful to God’s will.
The Christmas Mary is indeed a blessed woman. As God’s chosen vessel, she represents the hope and promise of new life in our midst. And by the end of her pregnancy she will give birth to a Savior who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. I’m not saying the Christmas Mary should be ignored or upstaged or replaced.
But on this first Sunday of the season, I want to lift up the Advent Mary. The one who sings the song of an activist and believes in the power of transformation and advocacy. I want to lift up the Advent Mary who will not be silenced. The woman who looks straight ahead without flinching and gives voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. On this first Advent Sunday, Mary represents the hope we lit the candle for at the beginning of this worship service.
On this first Advent Sunday where so many women in our world are busy rebuilding homes and families and communities in the wake of hurricanes and floods and fires and earthquakes, Mary sings on their behalf about a God who lifts up the lowly.
On this first Advent Sunday where so many women in our country and in our state and in the nearby Northeast neighborhood of Hartford and right here in our town are trying to figure out how to make ends meet so that there might be food enough on the table to feed their children, Mary sings on behalf of a God who promises to fill the hungry with good things.
On this first Advent Sunday when so many women across this country are coming forward with devastating stories about sexual assault and sexual misconduct and sexual harassment perpetrated by wealthy, powerful, high profile men, Mary sings about a God who brings the powerful down from their thrones and scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…
History knows well the Mary of Christmas. The Christmas Mary has been singularly etched in our artistry and in our imaginations for generations. She is one of the Christmas archetypes. All Christians hold her in high esteem as the holy mother of God.
The Advent Mary, on the other hand, stands outside of the box history has packaged her in. She has her head held high and her gaze fixed forward into the future. She sings with a loud voice and about the kind of world God envisions even if it doesn’t represent the world as it appears now.
The Advent Mary represents brothers and sisters in our world who are largely nameless and faceless, too often vulnerable and losing trust. She is a symbol of courage and a witness for justice. We don’t know this Advent Mary by the child growing in her womb. We know the Mary of Advent by her soul which magnifies the Lord and by her spirit which rejoices in the God who saves her.
If hope this Advent season strikes you as a time when God scatters the proud and puts down the mighty and exalts those of low degree. If hope this Advent season strikes you as a time when God reveals who God is in the world under the worst conditions and in less than ideal places. If hope this Advent season strikes you as a woman who dares to sing out loud, foreshadowing a world fashioned in God’s own image…
If hope this Advent season makes you want to echo the words of the Magnificat, remember the one who sang the song first. Yes, Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ. At the same time, she is the fearless proclaimer of God’s new world order. Amen.