What Mary Knew

Service on December 23, 2018
by Kat Becker

Listen to our service and sermon below:

“What Mary Knew”

By Stacey Simpson Duke

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Entire December 23rd Service

By Paul Simpson Duke

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If you are ever looking for an easy way to start a fight, ask any group of people, “What’s the worst Christmas song?” People have strong feelings about music. People have really, reallystrong feelings about Christmas music.

I’m not trying to start a fight this morning, so I’m not going to ask you what the worst Christmas song is. Let’s just agree that there are a lot of bad Christmas songs out there. Some of them are bad music – like Paul McCartney’s synthesizer-based “Wonderful Christmastime” – and some of them are just bad concepts – like John Denver’s song “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk on Christmas)” – but any bad Christmas song has the power to rile us up because music itself is so powerful. Music matters so much to us because it has the power to profoundly affect our well-being – emotionally, socially, spiritually, psychologically, even physically.

It has the power to affect us culturally, too. Cognition researcher Leonid Perlovsky argues that music’s power is grounded in its ability to help us reconcile the cognitive dissonances created by new knowledge. Music does this by giving us access to the range and depth of human emotions in a way that allows us to maintain a sense of purpose and wholeness even while grappling with the constantly evolving contradictions that come with our increasing knowledge.

And haven’t you experienced this to be true? There are things we can sing more easily than we can say, because the saying of certain things can sound flatly ridiculous, while the singing of them allows us to get in touch with some deeper truth. Say, “Jesus loves me,” and it sounds a bit trite, and not very real. Sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and suddenly the tender childlike parts of you opens up, and it knows. Say, “God is all loving and all powerful. God is sovereign over all,” and it sounds impossible and a bit theoretical. Sing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands, he’s got the little bitty baby in his hands,” and the deep truth of that somehow slips into your heart, and the power of it comforts. Say, “Everything will be okay,” and it sounds like a platitude. But sing, “It is well with my soul,” and in the very singing of it, it seems to become quite true. Think of the Civil Rights protestors singing, “We Shall Overcome.” It didn’t look like they would. It didn’t feel like they could. But they kept singing anyway. And they did overcome.

In 1989, several months before the fall of the Berlin wall, the citizens of Leipzig, in East Germany, gathered by candlelight on Monday nights, around St. Nikolai church – the church where Bach composed many of his cantatas – the citizens gathered around the church to sing. After a couple of months, the numbers grew from about a thousand people to more than 300,000, to over half the citizens of the city. Every Monday they gathered to sing songs of hope and protest and resistance and justice. After the Berlin wall fell, someone asked one of the officers of the Stasi, the East German secret police, why they didn’t crush the protest in Leipzig, the way they had crushed so many others. The officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”[i]

Music gives us the power to pronounce alternate realities before they have yet taken fully hold. Sometimes just singing the unseen truth begins to make it real.

An unmarried teenage girl finds herself impossibly pregnant. The first thing she does is hurries from her home to the house of her cousin, who is also pregnant, even though she’s too old to bear a child. Two women, pregnant with impossibility. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. The cousins are then transformed from expectant mothers into prophets heralding a new age, as Elizabeth declares Mary is blessed, discloses Mary’s identity as the mother of the Lord, explains the meaning of the baby leaping in her own womb, and pronounces a beatitude on Mary for believing that God will fulfill God’s promises. The word “prophecy” doesn’t mean telling the future, it means telling forth the truth. Elizabeth the prophet is the first one to tell the truth about who Mary really is and who is in her womb.

When Mary opens her mouth to respond, what comes out is a song, and it is as powerful as any proclamation any prophet ever made. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She is singing a new version of an old song – the song of Hannah in thanksgiving for her son Samuel, a song that praises the power and willingness of God to intervene in the world, to turn it around. Mary would have known Hannah’s song from her Bible. Now she sings a new version in her own words, from her own experience of God’s powerful work in her and through her.

“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Her song begins with what God has done for her, but then she kicks the tune up a notch, moving to what God is doing and is going to do for the whole world. She turns from seemingly simple praise to overtly radical prophecy, and her words are fierce and ferocious and disruptive and dangerous to anyone who has become too comfortable with this world: “God’s mercy is for those who fear him…. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” The words are beautiful, but they’re also threatening – it’s clear that the status quo, and anyone who benefits from the status quo, is going to be upended.

The song Christina, Marissa, Helena, and I sang a bit ago, Canticle of the Turning, is based entirely on the song Mary sang; its message doesn’t deviate from what Mary proclaimed. But I read a review of the song that took issue with the lyrics from a political standpoint, claiming that the words were “almost unbearably earnestly liberal,” and calling them “surprisingly revolution-oriented” for a church song. The reviewer gave the song a second chance, though, because of its catchy tune. He wrote, “frankly just about anything put to Irish music is going to sound better.”

I’m betting it sounded pretty good when Mary sang it with a Hebrew melody, too. But the reviewer was right about one thing – it isa revolution-oriented song. The scattering of the proud. The bringing down of the powerful. The lifting of the lowly. The feeding of the hungry. The sending away of the rich, empty. This is a complete top-to-bottom reversal. It’s a revolution.

And do notice the most radical thing about this song. It’s not in future tense.The way Mary sings it, God has alreadyoverthrown the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has already filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away, empty. God has alreadyrighted what is wrong in the world. The revolution has begun. This is a song of defiance, declaring the inversion of all social, political, and economic realities. This is a song of resistance to all the current worldly powers. This is a song of audacity. Mary is singing that the redemption, the restoration, the reversal, the revolution, the turning, is alreadyunderway – and it has started first in her.

How could she sing this way? Anyone who heard her song could have looked around and seen that her words did not match reality. The proud were not scattered. The powerful were still powerful. The lowly were still lowly. The hungry were not fed. How could she sing otherwise, when the reality was abundantly clear?

Mary can sing this way because she knows something truer than what looks to be true. Here is what Mary knows: God has made a home in her very own body. She is a poor, pregnant, teenage girl. Jewish in a land occupied by Rome. Female in a world run by men. Pregnant under questionable circumstances. She is at the bottom of the world’s order. Yet it is in herlife, in herbody, that God’s revolution has already begun. God’s power to change the world has taken root in her own being. It is taking flesh and taking form even now in the inmost part of herself. This is why she can sing in the past tense instead of the future. Her own life has already been turned upside-down by this pregnancy by what God has done – but that is only the beginning. What God has already done in her, God is doing in the whole world.

It started in her because she said, “Yes.” She consented to allow God’s promise to take over her body, to take over her life. She consented to embody God’s promises for the world herself. While the world did not yet look exactly like the words of her song, she was living as if. She was living as ifit were all already accomplished.

The proud were not scattered in her lifetime. The rich were not sent away empty. The powerful were not brought low. Were the lowly lifted up? One day, she would see her beautiful son lifted up, executed on a cross. And even then, her song echoed, with truth in its notes. A promise that the turning of the whole world had already begun, it began inside her, in the life of that child who would live and teach and love and die … and rise, the greatest reversal of them all.

The world still doesn’t look much like the words of her song. But if we dare to believe with her that God’s revolution has already begun, that the transformation of the world has already been set in motion, that the future has already broken into the present, then we will follow her lead. We consent to God’s outrageous plan to be born into the world through us. We let our lives become a home for God’s life in our world, and we let it grow in us, without resisting how it will change us, or what it will ask of us, but letting it work in us as a resistance to the worldly powers, the status quo. We will choose to trust God’s promises, and we live as if. We will live as ifthey have already been fulfilled.

The powers of this world have no contingency plan for song. Which means our own lives can be the music that shakes the powers and brings down the walls and resists fear and violence and lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry. Our own lives can be the song the world needs to hear.

And listen! There’s another voice, singing back, with a song of God’s wild love for us all. It is the voice beneath all others and above all others. It is the voice that yearns to be sung from deep within us and through us. One day its joy will ring out loud and clear over the whole world that has turned. But for now, it is still so hard to hear – which is why we have to add our voices to it. For now, it is just a few soft, tiny notes, coming from the east. It sounds like the coo of a little baby, lying in a manger. Can you hear it?