A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2021
I think that I’ve mentioned it from this pulpit before, but Mary was not the only Mary in her town. At the time that Jesus was born, around one in four or five Jewish girls were named one form of Mary or another.[i] Their naming may go back to Miriam, the clever and resourceful sister of Moses, who helped arranged his adoption into Pharaoh’s household and his exodus, along with all of the enslaved Hebrew people, their liberation from an empire of oppression. More recently, the descendant of the Maccabees, the Hasmonean queen Mariamme herself bore the name that once sang of God’s deliverance at the Red Sea. Whether the inspiration were ancient or modern, naming Mary could be seen an act of bravado, of rebellion, of faith in the promises of God that delivered God’s people from Pharaoh, and could be relied upon, so the hope went, to deliver God’s people now from the Romans and their puppet-potentates.
The name Mary cried havoc and announced the day of the Lord’s deliverance from the bonds of oppression. Mary’s word to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” was the acceptance of a mantle, the mantle of Miriam, the sister and peer of Moses. Mary’s, “Let it be with me” was saying, in effect, “Bring it on.”
Mary knew the dangers of raising an eyebrow in a buttoned-down society, one under the chastening rod of the empire. She knew the dangers of childbirth in a pre-medical society. She knew the danger of singing a Magnificat that glorified the God of promise and prophesied the scattering of the proud and the unseating of the powerful.
The Incarnation of Christ, the entering of God into human flesh, is an act that defies our expectations and shatters our exact rules about where God belongs and how God is allowed to interact with human nature. Mary knew it in her body: that God was not living down to our ideas of how these things were supposed to happen. In all sorts of ways, barriers and boundaries, barricades were being breached that had sought to keep the sacred and the fleshy apart, separate, sacrosanct.
And she was Mary, named for Mariamme, named for Miriam, who sang of God’s victory over Pharaoh at the Red Sea, who followed the pillars of cloud and fire, and while she may well have been afraid, she was not going to let that stop her living up to her reputation.
Just as God defied the imaginations of the Egyptians at the borders of the Red Sea, so now God was about to make a new way out of no way, and Mary wanted every part of it.
We are still a way from realizing the grand conclusions of the Magnificat. The powerful are not yet cast down, the fall of the Roman empire notwithstanding; we still suffer natural disaster and unnatural, violent division.
A civil rights case here, a murder conviction there; justice trickles past us, but where is the torrent that Amos prophesied, that Mary sang?
Last weekend, deadly tornadoes blew through Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee. We have witnessed the devastation and the aftermath of a natural disaster that was exacerbated, allegedly, by unnatural greed and inhuman interactions, by bosses who refused to let workers leave the shop floor to take shelter; by the perennial survival gap between the wealthy and the struggling. This is not the levelling that Mary imagined.
And there is this pandemic that seemingly will not let us go. Where is the healing of the nations?
Perhaps it is not enough to sing of it. Perhaps, like Mary, we need to embody the incarnation of God’s mercy, the growing of God’s justice, the birth of God’s new way in order to find our way out of no way.
In Mary’s town, one in every four or five girls born was named Mary. In our country, nearly two out of every three people calls themselves Christian. Just as Mary’s name meant something, called her into something, prophesied something, so the name of Christian should mean something for us who bear it in the world, should tell out something about God’s promise to us and through us.
Mary was named after a queen and a rebel slave and we are named after a radical religious type who preached counter-intuitive peace and love for enemies and friends alike and who died as a criminal, condemned by religious and state authorities, and who would not let even death deter him from bringing God’s mercy to the world and living God’s love in the world.
What Mary believed and proclaimed and laboured to reveal began deep in her own body, in the quiet mystery of her hidden organs, and it grew. How can we, from the small beginnings of our own embodiment of Christ, our faith in the goodness and mercy of God, labour and deliver good news to the poor, healing to the sick, justice to the oppressed, freedom to the prisoners, life to the dying? It is not beyond us; it is within us to do what God has called us into.
It seems as though the kingdom of God, the second revelation of Christ, is a long time coming, and there is much that we are afraid of, and much that we despair of, and too much that we have already left undone; yet, Mary’s song reminds us, God is already at work in the world. God has cast down the mighty, repeatedly; God has scattered the proud, perennially. God feeds the hungry with mercy, and pays attention to the prayers of the lowly. God is with us.
God is with us when we defy the injustices and entitlements of the world and respond instead with counter-intuitive kindness, counter-cultural mercy, radical devotion to the principles of peace, hope beyond measure, faith in God’s ability to break down barriers, to cross boundaries, to do whatever it takes to be with us, Emmanuel.
We are named, we Christians, for that first note of Mary’s song, the one who inspired in her courage and the imagination to live into her name, the name that launched a freedom movement onto the Nile in a Moses basket; the name that can do great things out of small beginnings, with strategic and rebellious mercy, with the insistence that God is with us, yesterday, today, tomorrow, and then some; and Christ’s new revelation is coming.
Amen: Come, Lord Jesus.
[i] Tal Ilan, “Notes on the Distribution of Jewish Women’s Names in Palestine in the Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods”, in Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. XL, 1989