Magnificat, a celebration of hope
St Mary's Church, Advent 4 Evensong, 18th December 2005
Zecharaiah 2: 10-end; Luke 1: 39-55
Yesterday was doing the duty day, visiting the family, exchanging the presents, eating rather too much, laughing a lot, and admiring various grandchildren, before moving on to the other side of the family, not so many miles away, and, rather more briefly, engaging in the same process. As I left, to return to the rather busy week ahead, someone said to me 'Make sure you give them a jolly sermon'. Ah, I said, I don't really do jolly. Well that's not true – jolly parties yes, please, anytime, but jolly sermons? Well there's some that can do them and some as can't, and I think I'm one of the latter.
But surely, someone will retort, 'tis the season to be jolly, falalalala,falalala'. Well, yes, if what your expecting to hear on Christmas morning is jingly bells and 'Ho ho ho' from a rotund, white bearded, red-suited gentleman in the pulpit. But if you're looking for something else, I'm not sure about jolliness. But lest you label me a puritan, a killjoy who mumbles 'Bah humbug' as he crosses the city centre on Christmas morning, let me reassure you that I do believe that it is a festival of love, joy and peace, and that anything that contributes to that in the building, rebuilding, reconciling of our relationships one with another next weekend will get a big tick from me, even the most eccentric forms of dress that can be imagined under a red cassock.
Wrestling with Mary's Magnificat
But the church, and by that I mean you and me, and the others, however many hundreds, or thousands or millions who will gather to celebrate the feast in this church, this city or anywhere across the world, must first wrestle with Magnificat. And I mean wrestle. It is a text so familiar that we don't really think about it. We sing it or hear it sung every week at this service of evensong. And very beautiful it is too; but whether we sing it to Anglican chant, or hear it sung to Murrill or whoever, its teeth have been removed. And if that is true of the song which Mary sings, it is probably true of Mary herself, who has transmuted from being the single teenage mum, weary from travel, rejected by all but one, who allows her to bed down in a cave, an animal shelter – pretty much as many do today in this city – in order that she may give birth to the one who is to come, Emmanuel, God with us, into a christmas card, a stained glass window, a plaster statue on a pedestal in a plaster church, who carries the burden of centuries of pietistic sublimation in adjectives such as immaculate, dearest, purest, gentle and chaste, spotless rose, virgin of all virgins. So she becomes not the assurance of God made man, but the impossible, inaccessible model of humanity made perfect who glows in our night and floats away on a cloud of glory into the heavenly realms, abandoning us with no more than a whiff of what might have been, and what might still be if only we Christian children all might be mild, obedient, good as he.
The sixteenth century reformers, and their seventeenth century disciples got all worked up about it and what they couldn't have they made sure no-one else could have either, and excised Mary from the calendar, along with anyone else unrecognisable in the newly translated scriptural texts. All except Thomas Cranmer, that is, our Anglican hero and champion of traditonal liturgy – he retained not just one but five feast days of Mary in the Book of Common Prayer – The Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Purification (all fairly straight forward in reformed theology) but also the feast of her conception and of her birthday (on 8 December and 8 September respectively). So Cranmer knew something his peers did not! I doubt if it was Liberation Theology. The Reformation – in England as much as anywhere – did very little to put down the mighty from their thrones or to exalt the hungry and meek, and certainly did not fill the hungry with good things or to send the rich away empty. But at least he allowed for the possibility of fresh understandings of the place of Mary in the economy of salvation.
That then paves the way for us today to remind ourselves that both the Magnificat and Mary herself remain at the heart of our liturgy and our calendar. So how are we to approach them if they are not just to be caught up in the sort of all encompassing smoothness of traditional Anglican smoothness and self-assurance that ensures that the bite of God's challenge to the world is translated into a general expectation that we should all be nice and decent (as the famous Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton found out when he went to English public school, and heard his school chaplain on a number of occasions preach on the famous 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians. He invited the Oakham boys simply to read the passage over, replacing the word 'love' (or charity as it would have been in those days) with 'an English gentleman'. Presumably, he ended up with 'And three things shall endure, faith, hope and English gentlemen, and the greatest of these is....).
Mary and the 'Poor of Yahweh'
Well, a good starting place for Mary might well be the late Pope John Paul II, whose devotion to Mary was profound. 'Mary is deeply imbued', he wrote, 'with the spirit of the 'poor of Yahweh', who in the prayer of the Psalms awaited from God their salvation, placing all their trust in him. Mary truly proclaims the coming of the Messiah of the poor. Drawing from the depth of her faith expressed in the words of the Magnificat, the Church renews ever more effectively in herself the awareness that the truth about God who saves, the truth about God who is the source of every gift, cannot be separated from the manifestation of his love of preference for the poor and humble, the love which, celebrated in the Magnificat, is later expressed in the words and works of Jesus.' Reflect on that for the moment. It's pretty straight talking, that and cuts through any niceness that we might want to spread across the top of biblical texts. Mary doesn't just talk about the poor. She is one of them, and the whole story of the birth of Jesus is the story of God's identification with the poor. He comes not for the well – they have no need of him. He comes not for the rich – they already have their reward. He comes not for the powerful, they already have the means to exercise justice but choose instead to oppress. He comes that the poor, those on the edge may know those things too. He comes to fill the hungry not just with the crumbs that fall from the master's table, but with all manner of good things. He comes that those who do not have life, may have life abundantly.
The Scandal of the Good News
And that is the Good News; and the weakness of our tradition is that in our well-meaning efforts to be open and welcoming and affirming to all, we miss the scandal of it all. Jesus came not to the temple, the cathedrals or even the major parish churches. He came not to the Roman Palaces, to the seats of power in Westminster or Washington. He brought the good news to the poor. So when one hymn writer wrote a hymn based on the Magnificat that begins 'Sing we a song of high revolt' and ends 'He calls us to revolt and fight with him for what is just and right, to sing and live Magnificat in crowded street and council flat', he may well have offended our sensitivities, but he was not far from the spirit of St Luke.
And when my sister-in-law said 'Tell them something jolly' and then added a second thought, 'Give them hope' I thought that I was on safer ground, because this is actually a message of real hope. We are getting ready to welcome the Lord of all Creation, who loves and longs for us all, rich and poor, replete and hungry, who offers new life to us all. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son – not the nice parts, or the decent parts or the gentlemanly parts, but everything, the good and the bad, the ones who know they're saved equally as much as the ones who do not thing themselves worth it; its just that some have to be convinced, reassured, shown that this promise is for them...because the world does its best to assure them the opposite. And we, we who celebrate this good news, we who are so mediocre, so fallen, we are the messengers, the angels; so its OK, get the glad rags on. This story of redemption that comes through a young reject is indeed a song of the triumph of love.
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