“Wow! Christmas is Hard Work – The Magnificat”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, December 19, 2021
Reading: Luke 1:46-55
I want to introduce to you the fourth very important person I’ve had the privilege to introduce you to over Advent. This person has had a little bit of notoriety over the years, clearly an exemplary mother, insightful, prophetic, and prescient in her thinking, around which legends and myths have been built. The person I'm introducing you today is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary’s name rises above the parapet walls of time. Her name is matchless within our tradition, and there is no one that we should reflect on more than Mary at this time. I say this because Mary is someone we know and understand through her words and deeds. If we heard Zephaniah through his words, and Epaphroditus through his deeds, in Mary we see both word and deed. In Mary we see a person of immense courage, and credibility, who not only rose above the status in which she was born but humbled herself to be a servant of the Lord. Mary was present at both the birth and the death of her son.
It is Mary’s words that I want to reflect on today. Rarely do we hear from her at all, but we do in this passage, known as “The Magnificat”. If Mary rose above the parapets of the walls of time with what she did, she rose even higher by what she said. The Magnificat goes down as one of the single most revolutionary, prophetic insights into the world that we have ever read. She did it in a time of immense uncertainty and stress manifested, as you could tell, by the situation in which Mary found herself. Regardless of the nuances of the story, the fact is that what you have here is a Jewish woman with her betrothed, having to travel long distances to register the birth of a child and themselves, so that an opposing power, the Romans, could find a way of taxing them.
If you think it is an inconvenience to show a QR code to a restaurant when you go, and that is an ignominious thing to have to do, try travelling to your hometown in first century Israel just to register so you could pay your taxes. There would be riots on the streets, wouldn’t there? Then, to find yourself in a situation where, because of all of this and the movement of people, it is hard to find a place to give birth to your child. We haven’t got a clue what stress is. When we think that Christmas is hard work and that it requires a lot of dedication and thought, and in this case with COVID, inconvenience. As one minister put it to me – a female minister – “You haven’t got a clue, Andrew. This is a woman who had to give birth in the midst of all of this. If you think Christmas is hard, you don’t want to be Mary.”
I’ve thought about that, because I realise that the context in which we live is a stressful one, and I do know and appreciate the psychological force of uncertainty that presses upon us. It is almost as if we’re in a vice and we’re not quite sure how we’re going to be able to push the vice apart. I saw this manifested in a lineup to a grocery store on Friday, where a mother was taking a child through the checkout, and the child was distracted by everything. The mother was trying to focus on paying the bill and making sure she had the right food for whatever it was she was planning on doing, and she exclaims to the checkout clerk, for everyone to hear, “I am fed-up with the stress of all of this.” I know we would all say, amen to that.
Notwithstanding the stresses we’re under, or maybe because of the stresses we’re under the words of The Magnificat resound with us. I would like to let Mary speak to us this morning. What does Mary say? She says, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, so God will keep his promises to us.”
For Mary, even the impending birth of a child was a statement of God’s covenantal love for God’s people. As a Jewish woman, she knew that God had a history of taking care of his people and out of that covenant, she believed that the child to whom she was giving birth, though way beyond her comprehension of why or how, was going to be the fulfillment of a promise that God had made through the ages.
Now, there have been those – and even recently I have been reading all kinds of materials that question whether the birth and the person of Jesus Christ and Mary’s Magnificat in particular, were nothing more than the fabrication of a group of first or early second century Christians who decided they wanted to create this mythological figure. But better scholarship that knows and understands the context in which Mary’s Magnificat arises, realises that indeed, for the whole of what is known as Second Temple Israel, the building of a second temple, and for the next five hundred years to the birth of Jesus, there were many expectations that God was going to come in person, restore and deliver people from their sins and liberate them.
You can see that, for example, in the prophets of the Second Temple. Third Isaiah, for example, believes that all nations – not only Israel, would be drawn into the covenantal relationship with God through God’s coming in person. You see the same sentiment in the Book of Malachi, where Malachi believes that the exiles who had been spread around because of all the invasions and the wars, would eventually return to their promised land.
You see, in Zephaniah and Zechariah, and in Haggai, this belief that they needed to rebuild the temple in Israel to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Even in what is known as the Targum, the Jewish literature, there was the belief that there would be a liberator, a vice regent who would come. Even in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which I'm sure many of you have heard about, written by the Essenes before the arrival of Jesus, in these ancient documents there are all kinds of statements about God coming in person. For example, in one of the manuscripts, 11Q13, when it was here in Toronto, I was able to see it in person, there are these words (now, this is before the arrival of Jesus, before the Christian community): “A god-like being has taken his place in the council of God. In the midst of divine beings, he holds judgement.” Scripture says about him, “Over it, take your seat in the highest heaven. A divine being will come and judge the people.”
Mary knew all of this. Mary arose then, not from the imagination of first century Christians, she arose from the soil of Judaism. She knew that if God had been faithful to Israel through the exile, God would also be faithful in terms of the arrival of a Messiah. She knew that whatever form it would take, the child to whom she would give birth would be that very person. So, she asked everyone to remember that God has kept his promises in the past.
One of the great problems that human beings face when they have a crisis, is that they lose their perspective of time. They think that it is only in the now, only in the present that we need God. Or we think that only now, only in the present, will things matter. And, while they do, and it is important to live in the now, to do so though at the exclusion of remembering the past, is one of the greatest errors that human beings can ever make. The history of the world and the history of God’s covenant with Israel and the history of the coming of Jesus of Nazareth are profoundly important reminders that God’s grace and God’s love and yes, even at times, God’s judgement are present. Mary says, “Remember.” She also says, “Rejoice.”
I think it’s fair to say that every mother I have ever met, deep down in their heart, feels that their child is special, and so they should. I do think that Mary felt her child would be special, but there is more than that in her rejoicing. This is more than just a mother having a good feeling about her child. This is also more than someone on a great ego trip, believing that to be true. This isn’t someone who wanted the world to know that she should be honoured and magnified; she is someone who wanted to magnify the Lord. She says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in my God.” Mary was not on an ego trip; Mary was humbly recognising that God was doing something special.
Was Mary in it for the gifts? I remember reading something about that some time ago; wouldn’t it be great; Mary just had a child and said The Magnificat just to get some gifts. I read a lovely little meme about a child who misspoke in a pageant – when we could have pageants – and said, “Mary was brought gold, common sense and fur.” Common sense we could do with, fur I'm not so sure about. But did she do it for the gifts? Did she do it because she wanted to be queen? Was she rejoicing because she’d given birth to a king? No. She tells us why she rejoices; she rejoices because of God’s mercy to those who revere him, and I prefer the translation that says, “revere him.” That for those who honour and respect God, who experience the mercy of God’s divine forgiveness, and the power, the love, and the presence of Almighty God in their lives, and know how merciful God is, that is reason to rejoice.
Likewise, in many ways, it is also a sign of God’s strength. When we talk about the Christmas story, we talk about the vulnerability of the moment, about how Mary and everything around was infinite lowly and all of that. She even talks about lowliness herself, but she does not talk about lowliness in terms of God, she talks about strength, and that God is a mighty power. While God might act in the lowly things and humbly, it is still a mighty God we serve, and she knew that mighty God. She knew that mighty God would honour her Son and look how he did it: By bringing down the powerful and raising up the weak; by feeding the hungry and sending the rich away, by lifting up those who honour him, turning from those who don’t. This is a strong God.
When you look at the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, for all of that we talk about his crucifixion, and the things that he suffered for us, there were moments in his life and ministry where he profoundly demonstrated what Mary had pleaded for. He took those who were lowly and lifted them up; he took Zacchaeus down and ate with him; he took the blind and the lame and healed them. He took the outcasts and welcomed them in; he took those who were sinners and forgave them. He took those who were in need and were hungry and fed them; he took those who were thirsty for truth and righteousness and gave it to them. He took those who were the downtrodden and redeemed them, and he took the sinners and, on a cross, he forgave them.
Mary says, “Rejoice.” She also says, “Not only rejoice in this, but realise that this is forever.” She talks about God’s grace from generation to generation, and the very last word in The Magnificat, is: “forever”. There is a timelessness to the incarnation, a timelessness to God coming and being with us, a timelessness that means even now, this is a God in whom we can trust.
One of the great social thinkers, philosophers, and preachers of the twentieth century was an African American called Howard Thurman who, in his own humble way, believed that Christmas is not something that is just here and now, but is something that lasts. In a wonderful poem that preceded his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, which he wrote in 1935, Thurman said this: (you might have seen it).
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and the princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flock,
the work of Christmas begins.
To find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among brothers,
to make music in the heart.
For Thurman, the work and the ministry of Christmas continues, and it continues according to Mary, from generation to generation, and the love of God and the covenantal faith that we have in our God through Jesus Christ, is one that is not broken by time, but is seamless. It is God’s activity. I realise that things change from generation to generation. Life changes, it is not a static thing. Christmas is past, and Christmas is present and God willing, Christmas is future and will be different from one another. This really came home to me t last week when I was clearing out the very last things in my office – my books had gone and my library at home had been rebuilt and other books had been given away. I found some photographs that fell out of a binder. They were photographs of me as a child. Kind of humbling. One of them was of my father and me on Christmas day. I remember it like yesterday; it was around 2:00 AM on Christmas Day, I couldn’t stand the tension anymore. I had to get up, I had to go downstairs, I had to find out what Santa had left me. No one was going to stop me.
I went downstairs, and there in the living room, drinking tea and eating a mince pie, was my father. I said to him, “Dad, those are for Santa Claus,” and he said, “Oh no, Santa’s already been, I'm just eating the leftovers.” I looked at him with incredulity and then finally looked over to the Christmas tree that was behind him, and there I saw the gift that I had asked Santa to give me. It was a pair of football boots – soccer boots – Adidas soccer boots.
My father realised I'd seen them, and he didn’t know what to do. So, he declared Santa had been there already, so why don’t we have a look at them now? He took them down from the tree and he unlaced them, put them on my feet, laced me up and then taught me how to lace the boots up properly. Then I went to bed, wearing my soccer boots. I got up in the morning, wearing my soccer boots, and then as a family, we went to church, with me wearing my soccer boots. In fact, I don’t remember taking them off at all. I loved those soccer boots, and I loved the fact that my father knew how to give them to me.
Years later I saw something else – a photograph of my father when he was elderly and ill with congestive heart failure. I recall going to a friend’s house for dinner, and I had to dress my father to get him there. I helped him with his clothes, with his wonderful red button-up sweater that he wore every Christmas, and I got that on him, but then it came to his shoes, and he couldn’t put on his shoes. So, I reached down and put them on his feet and laced them up. I looked at him in the same way that he had looked at me, and I thought, “Oh Lord, how incredible time is.” There was one immutable thing there, and that was love.
When Mary speaks, the love that pours out from what she says reaches every generation and every time. We might think it’s only now that we experience and need the love of Jesus Christ, or maybe it was only then, but it’s not; it is, as Mary said, forever, for God always keeps his promises. Amen.