The Joy of Mary
Just before today’s scripture, the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she is going to give birth to the Messiah. At that time, Mary quietly and humbly says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” When people imagine the Virgin Mary, they always think of quiet, demure moments like that or perhaps her cooing over the baby’s manger. But Mary today, a few verses later, is anything but prim and proper. The angel told Mary that if she wants to verify his message, then she can visit her aging relative Elizabeth, whom she’ll find has also miraculously conceived a child. So Mary travels to see Elizabeth, who reveals her own pregnancy, and then Elizabeth declares that her unborn child is hailing Mary’s expected baby as the prophesied Messiah. At that moment, at last… the other shoe drops. Mary knows it’s all real.
Immediately Mary bursts into song. And it’s not a gentle song like Silent Night. Mary sings about overthrowing kings, driving away the wealthy and drawing in the poor, shattering the world as we know it. The Virgin Mary is always shown meek and submissive in popular media, and to an extent that may be true at times. But it’s not true here. Mary—like all human beings—is a complex person. And having just realized that she is for sure going to be the mother of the Messiah, this Mary doesn’t want to be meek, cannot stay calm, will not be silent. She bursts into a raging, passionate song. Think about your own life. When was the last time you were so overcome by joy that you spontaneously danced? Perhaps when a child was born? Perhaps during a moment of national triumph like the Berlin Wall falling? Perhaps last Tuesday? For me whenever I go to a particularly good rock concert, I just lose myself in the rhythm and lyrics, swept along by the current of emotion. Whatever your moment of literally dancing in the streets, this is Mary’s, and she is not going to be silent. And she sings a song of prophecy and hope.
But Mary’s song, which is popularly known today as The Magnificat, has a weird problem. The problem is that our English songs and Bibles… put all of Mary’s words in the past tense. “God has sown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud; God has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” All past tense in English. But Mary is not singing in the past tense. Unfortunately, the aorist tense Mary is singing in… doesn’t exist in English. The verb tense of Mary’s singing does not quite indicate past, present, or future: it could be that God already has scattered the proud, or that God is scattering the proud right now, or that God will certainly scatter the proud in the future. The verbs Mary sings do not tell us when God is doing these things. Instead, the verb tense Mary sings in tells us that she is certain of these actions, that God does not waver in these behaviors whenever they might occur, that God consistently is this way. The best English example I might offer is if I were to point at an apple and say, “This is an apple.” That is a statement true past, present, and future. That’s kind of what Mary is doing here: she’s singing, “My God is a God who scatters the proud! My God is a God who brings down the mighty! My God is a God who lifts up the lowly!” She leaves it up to you to decide when it happens: she’s just happy that it happens. But if you ask for my answer on whether Mary thinks these deeds of God’s are past, present, or future? My answer is? Yes.
Mary sings of God lifting up the lowly because she knows her history: she knows God is a God who historically is in the business of lifting up the downtrodden. And she sings of God lifting up the lowly because that is exactly what is happening to her at present. And she sings of God lifting up the lowly because she knows that is what the Messiah whom she will bear will do for the entire world. The key to unlock all of Mary’s song is the final few lines: “God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Mary gets lost in the present moment singing a hymn of praise to God… that looks forward with hope for what God will do… because she knows what God has already done for people like her. Past, present, and future are united and all held in God’s hands, and so Mary celebrates that the Lord is the same God no matter the time.
Today on the third Sunday of Advent, we celebrate joy. And today I was particular struck by how Mary’s joyful song today spans time itself. Mary rejoices over what God has done in the past. She rejoices in what God is doing now. And she rejoices in what God will do. It’s not that God is always doing the same action over and over: long ago the Lord lifted up his people by delivering them from slavery in Egypt; in Mary’s present tense the Lord is lifting up the lowly by telling poor, unwed, single mother Mary that her child shall be the Messiah; in the future the Lord will lift up the lowly through this Messiah redeeming the world. It’s a different action each time. But the goal, the intent, the goodness behind it… remain the same no matter time or place, for it is the same compassionate, holy God who does those things and more.
And you and I today must do the same. Today on this Sunday when we celebrate joy, we must look to the past to remember all of what God has done for us. Think back to the ups and downs in your own life, in the life of this congregation, in the life of the world. Give praise to the Lord for what God has already done! But then… think about your own life today and what God is doing for you, with you, through you, around the world. Give praise to the Lord for what God is doing right now! And lastly, look forward to what God has promised he will do: forgiveness of sins, comfort throughout our life, and at the end of days the promise that Christ shall come again. Give praise to the Lord for what we know God shall do, for we know God keeps promises!
In my personal opinion, one of the biggest failures within American Christianity, one of the biggest problems that hinders the American Church’s ability to serve and witness to others… is that too often we neglect all our joys. Far too often Christians look to their past and all the great things God has done historically for us… and we stay trapped in that past. We remember how things used to be and so stop looking for the news things God might be doing in our midst. Or we latch onto one way of doing ministry that worked well for us forty years ago but which isn’t helping people today. Or we spend all our time as Christians pining over past glories and take no time to imagine what new joys God might sew into our lives. As Christians, our hope for the future is not that the Church here on Earth will exactly replicate what it was like in the 1500s, 1950s, or what-have-you. The Virgin Mary too did not hope in a renewed Kingdom of Israel led by King David 2.0 when she rejoiced over her messianic pregnancy. Our hope for future joy is not that things will go back to the way they were. We don’t look to past joys to be trapped by them but to confirm that the God who was faithful to us then is faithful to us now and always.
Rather, our hope for future joy—the Virgin Mary’s hope for future joy, our hope for joy every Christmas as we look forward to Christ coming again—our joy is rather a faithful, certain trust that the God who gave us that joy in the past… is the same God today and forever. And knowing that God never changes, knowing that God always lifts up the lowly, always scatters the proud, and so on… we know that while the details, times, and places may change… the God who does all these things never changes. And God’s desire for our lives does not change either. The status and fortunes of the Church universal or an individual congregation? Those may ebb and flow with the seasons, but it is the same God watching over us. Pastors and church members may come and go, but is it the same God who works through us. How Christian ministry goes about feeding the hungry, praising the Lord, sharing the gospel… the superficial details may change over the decades ahead to suit local needs and abilities. But it is the same God who motivates our actions, the same God who inspires them, the same God in whom we put our trust.
Mary’s song of praise does not say whether it’s in the past, present, or future that God does all the things she celebrates. Because God has always done such things, is doing them now, and will do them to completion in the future. That was Mary’s joy, and our hope. Amen.