When I was a kid growing up in the industrial Midwest, my family lived about three blocks from the paper mill where my dad worked, and a block and a half from St. Peter’s church. One of our neighbors, Alessandra Petrocelli, walked to St. Peter’s every single day, knelt in the same pew, and prayed the rosary.
One summer afternoon, a couple of workmen were repairing the HVAC system at the church and decided to have a little fun at her expense. One of them called out through the ductwork, “Mrs. Petrocelli, this is Jesus.”
His voice reverberated throughout the building, but she went right on praying her rosary. So, he thought to himself: “She’s pretty old; maybe she just can’t hear me.” And he raised his voice: “Mrs. Petrocelli, this is Jesus!”
Still no response. So, he raised his voice even louder, booming through the vents: “MRS. PETROCELLI, THIS IS JESUS!”
Finally, she blurted out: “PIPE DOWN! I’M TALKING TO YOUR MOTHER!”
Okay, that story isn’t exactly true. But I tell it because as Protestants, we don’t quite know what to make of the veneration of Mary. We may be inclined to think that our Catholic brothers and sisters make too much of a fuss about her. But I wonder if we sometimes go too far in the opposite direction.
After all, Mary not only gave birth to Jesus, she was the one who pushed him to perform his first miracle at the wedding at Cana. And at the end of his ministry, when most of his followers abandoned him, she followed him to the cross. According to tradition, she may have been one of the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning. And in the book of Acts we read that she was
present in the upper room at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended and ushered in the church.
But I suspect that many of us only think about Mary when we bring the crèche down from the attic each year at Christmas. We carefully place her near the center of the display, along with the Christ child, Joseph, the cattle, the shepherds, and the angels. And then we pack her up with the crèche and forget about her for the next 11 months.
I would also imagine that our images of Mary have been formed more by paintings and icons—and Christmas carols and movies—than by the Song of Mary, which is this morning’s Scripture reading.
In paintings and icons, her serene countenance is often encircled by a halo. And the old English carol describes her as “Mary mother, meek and mild.”
I don’t know whether the spread in the back of the fellowship hall includes popcorn, but I would like to direct you to the monitors to see how Hollywood depicts the scene from this morning’s Scripture reading. Here’s a two-minute clip from the 1977 blockbuster miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth.”
[Scene of Mary and Elizabeth.]
In the clip we just saw, we heard Mary say, “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior. For he has looked kindly on the most humble of his handmaidens. And he has told me that all generations shall call me blessed. He who is mighty has done unto me a mighty thing.”
“Mary mother, meek and mild.”
If you were listening to this morning’s scripture reading—and I will admit that sometimes my mind wanders when the reading is familiar—you
may have noticed that something is missing from this scene. Something important. Something subversive.
Mary not only praised God as her savior, she spoke about bringing down systems of injustice—about breaking chains of oppression.
Here’s what she said:
God has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.
As Christians in the 21st century, we may be so accustomed to hearing that the first shall be last, that those who mourn are blessed, and that Jesus is present in the least, the last and the lost . . . we may be so used to hearing these things that it may be difficult for us to imagine how radical it was for an unwed, pregnant Jewish teenager in Roman-occupied Palestine to call out the rich, the rulers who sit on thrones, and those who were proud in their inmost thoughts.
These words were considered so radical that when the British ruled India, the Archbishop of Canterbury instructed missionaries not to use them in worship for fear of starting riots.
In the 1980s, the government of Guatemala prohibited reading them in public. And in Argentina, when the Mothers of the Disappeared used the words of the Song of Mary on their posters, the military junta moved quickly to ban them.
And with good reason.
Just before he was arrested by the Nazis in 1933, the German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer, said, “The song of Mary is at once the most passionate, the wildest, even the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate . . . proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here.
“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 collapsing thrones and [humbling] the lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
As an anti-Nazi dissident, Bonheoffer understood that standing up to rulers and those who are “proud in their inmost thoughts” could be dangerous. In fact, speaking out against the persecution of Jews cost him his life. Living under the brutal Roman occupation of Judea, Mary would have known this as well.
And yet her faith in God’s promise to free the children of Israel was so deep that she spoke of it in the past tense, as though it were an accomplished fact. Did you notice? She said,
He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty. Two thousand years later, we know that rulers still sit on thrones and people are still hungry. What are we to make of this?
The Song of Mary announced that the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world in Christ Jesus.
In coming to us as a helpless child, God joined God’s divine nature with our human nature for all time—turning everything on its head.
But like ripples on the surface of a pond, this moment of grace in a stable in Bethlehem is still working its way through the cosmos.
If you have ever written out a Christmas wish list, you know what it is to live “in between.” You know what you’re hoping for, but you also know what it is to wait.
And while we’re waiting for the fulfillment of the promise of Christmas, what should we be doing?
Some people think of the Song of Mary as a political expression, as a call for social justice. Others think of it in more spiritual terms, as an expression of God’s power and God’s promise to redeem creation.
I would hope that we could embrace and live into both interpretations.
I would hope that our faith in a God who hears the cries of the hungry and the oppressed would shape our political views. And let me hasten to add that thoughtful people of good will can disagree as to how best to bring about social justice. My point is simply that our faith should inform our politics.
But that isn’t enough. Our faith should also inform how we live from day to day. Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago, I was standing in line in a carryout and the man in front of me was becoming increasingly irritated with the woman behind the counter who was struggling to understand him. Her English wasn’t the best. Apparently Spanish was her first language.
As he became more agitated, I should have said something. Every Sunday, as we celebrate communion, we pray the words, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Standing in silence while someone is berating an immigrant doesn’t help usher in the Kingdom of God.
As an un-reconstructed folkie who grew up in the 1960s, I have a great appreciation for the power of song. The words “We shall overcome some day,” and “Where have all the flowers gone?” and “How many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died?”—these words changed the course of events in that turbulent decade.
Here’s a question for you. After the holidays, after we carefully pack up Mary, along with Joseph and the Christ Child, and haul the crèche up to the attic, what would the world be like if we sang the Song of Mary every day?
What would the world be like if we sang the Song of Mary
· In thanks for God’s mercy,
· In praise of God’s mighty acts, and
· In faith that God is lifting up the humble, and filling the hungry with good things?
What would the world be like if we sang the Song of Mary as a call to action, because God is calling each of us to share in the work of redeeming creation.
Now and forever. Amen.