And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
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.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He 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 for ever.’
I wonder what Mary’s family must have thought about this pregnancy of hers. Would her father have wanted the wedding to take place right away? Were all her relatives out to get Joseph, thinking he was the father? Were they disappointed in her for failing to honor her betrothal and not staying chaste until her wedding night? How hard was it for them to believe that the Holy Spirit had overshadowed this ordinary young woman, and made her mother to the Messiah?
She was just a girl. Young, perhaps a little silly…or maybe she was the somber type. Who knows? We know very little about who she was, and would have known nothing at all had it not been for God’s intervention in her life. Mary is mostly a mystery to us.
What we know is this: many hundreds of years ago, Mary was forced to go to her fiancé with a confession: she was pregnant. Joseph knew the child wasn’t his, and would have been well within his rights to not only ruin her reputation in town, but also to bring censure upon her family. Instead, he chose to stay with her, to live out her pregnancy and then begin their lives as a married couple. There must have been something special about Mary that she inspired such generosity and loyalty from Joseph. Of course, he had had his own angelic visit, too.
When the news got out, the pregnant Mary left her home and went to visit with her older cousin Elizabeth. I’m sure she wasn’t feeling very much at home, with the stares of her family and friends, the questions about whose child she was carrying, the speculation about whether Joseph would cast her aside, or accept the child, or something in between. Elizabeth was pregnant too, a miracle in itself. Elizabeth and Zechariah might have been the only people in the world at the time who could understand what Mary was going through: while their child may have been conceived in the ordinary fashion, it took divine intervention for this couple, long past the age of child-bearing, to get their long-awaited son. An angelic messenger gave them the good news…so perhaps Mary thought that Elizabeth would be able to hear her own story.
Before Elizabeth and Mary could sit down for a good talk over a cup of tea, something strange happened: the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy in recognition of Mary’s unborn child. Elizabeth caught on to the joy in her babe, and Mary began to feel a little acceptance instead of suspicion, grace instead of condemnation, a sense of home and comfort instead of alienation.
Whatever else she might have been, Mary turned out to be a remarkable person. An unwed mother. Joseph’s fiancée, wife, and the mother of his children. The Orthodox Church calls her Theotokos: God-bearer. The mother of the Savior. In today’s passage, Mary proved herself to be quite an exceptional individual: a prophet in her own right, one favored by God, a woman unafraid to testify about the goodness of God, one with the words to explain why, in the face of her unorthodox circumstances, she should find the words to rejoice. And what words she finds:
“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. 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.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He 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’s song of praise defies all reason. She should have felt lost, confused, uncertain, to say the least. She would have been aware of what the neighbors were saying…after all, people talk, you know. She had left her home, possibly to escape the whispers and stares and rude comments. In a real sense, she had lost her sense of comfort, of safety, of home: Few would believe that God was the father of her child, and if it wasn’t Joseph (which would have been scandal enough to satisfy any dedicated gossip), then everyone in town would be wondering who he might be. They say “you can’t go home again,” and how true that must have felt for Mary as she made her way to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. She should have felt very much alone and far from home, and yet she found a way to rejoice.
To rejoice is to celebrate, to take joy in, to find one’s heart uplifted by that in which we rejoice. When we rejoice, we feel at home, in charity with all that is around us, in awe at what is going on around us. We can all find a reason to rejoice in the Christmas season and the promised return of Jesus. The song, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” is partly about going home…but home means something different for Christians than it does for others, as we’ll see a little later.
The birth of a baby is generally an occasion for rejoicing. This Christmas, my family is celebrating my sister’s pregnancy: my niece, Jamie, will have a little brother or sister next May. We will all be home together this Christmas—even though we will all gather in Virginia Beach, at my mother’s house. Jamie’s home is in Falls Church, Virginia. My home is here in Beaufort, but when we are at Mom’s for the holiday, we will all be home together.
Mary, once her family and Joseph had accepted her pregnancy, had plenty of reason to rejoice in the new life she was carrying, and in the potential this son of God’s and Mary’s had to change the world. Even before she had a chance to share her rejoicing with Elizabeth, John was doing it for the two of them. Happy news: the savior was soon to arrive!
The Bible tells us to rejoice continually, and in all circumstances…in the words of Paul, “again I say, rejoice!” But what, I wonder, are we to make of the days when it’s not so easy to rejoice? When Joseph first heard the news of Mary’s pregnancy, was he able to rejoice? When Mary’s parents heard of her pregnancy and feared for their contract with Joseph, did they rejoice? When the neighbors began to ask questions, seeing Mary’s swelling belly and knowing that the wedding had not yet taken place, was there room for rejoicing? When her father went to the market to work and found a neighbor there, collecting taxes to feed the Roman oppressors, was there rejoicing there? It becomes a very difficult word, something very hard to do, this rejoicing.
Think about your own lives, your own families. Where is it easy to rejoice? Where do you find the rejoicing hard? I’m going home this Christmas to spend some time with my father, who is mourning the death of his wife last year, his brother and mother this year. He’s having a hard time thinking of a reason to rejoice; in fact, he’s told me a couple of times he wishes he could just skip Christmas this year, that his house no longer feels like home. Are you dreading travel? Fearing the arrival of the post-Christmas credit card bills? Anxious about having anything to put under the tree? Sleepless over a friend or family member overseas? We find ourselves living our faith in a most practical way when we are able to rejoice, to find joy, celebrate and find our spirits uplifted in the midst of the circumstances that most seem to defy rejoicing—to create a sense of home in the midst of uncertainty, anxiety, and worry.
Mary’s song of praise in today’s reading is called the “Magnificat,” after the first line: My soul magnifies the Lord. She speaks of what God has done for her in choosing her to be Jesus’ mother. She proclaims herself to be his “lowly servant,” and certainly we know of nothing special about her before the angel’s visit. She rejoices in God’s favor, and declares that “all generations shall call [her] blessed,” not a very modest thought, to be sure, but she has very little reason to be modest at this point. She has plenty of reason for rejoicing, for not only has an angel delivered to her the good news that she would bear God’s own Son, but she knows that God’s Son, the Messiah, will come and change the world—will make a home for God’s people.
Mary goes on in this praise hymn to prophesy about what God will do in this Savior that is coming, and we have to have a little grammar lesson here before we go forward. The Greek verbs used here are translated using the past tense, but have instead the sense that these are things God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in Jesus: turn the world upside down, giving privilege to the deprived and depriving the privileged, care for those in need, and continue to show God’s favor to Israel, as God has promised. Jesus will speak to those who have no home, and in himself, create a new home, a new kingdom, a new place for God’s people.
This praise of Mary’s, this rejoicing, flies in the face of the circumstances around her. One wonders if her neighbors talked, because everyone knew there had not yet been any wedding festivities. They might have been muttering about town about that flighty young girl, and the way she and Joseph have gotten a little ahead of themselves. Life was not easy, and perhaps she worried about the Romans and the crucifixions she had heard about. Maybe her family had problems with money, or another child in trouble. There could have been sickness in the family. There certainly was a degree of political unrest and a sense of a fragile peace, bought mostly by the Jews as victims of Rome.
Mary’s rejoicing defies logic. To quote that venerable old gentleman, Ebenezer Scrooge, John’s stirring in Elizabeth’s womb might have been nothing more than indigestion: a crumb of cheese, a spot of mustard, a bit of underdone potato. Elizabeth herself might well have wondered how a child would change her life, and Zechariah’s, coming so long after they’d given up hope. Zechariah’s service at the Temple contradicted the Roman emperor’s desire to be worshiped as a god…their position in the community might be considered tenuous.
But our rejoicing is at its best when it defies logic, when, like our faith, it states a conviction in that which we can’t see, can’t prove, but know to be true. And so Mary rejoices: the Lord has always looked after his people, still does, and always will. Despite Exodus and Exile, enslavement and poverty, flood and famine, despotic rulers and human greed, God has always loved God’s people, and always sought their good. Wherever we live, we find our home in God’s kingdom, both the kingdom we are living into reality here and now, and the kingdom to come in our resurrection.
Even today, with traumatic news of economic crisis, God has, does, and will love his people and seek their good. Despite continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite conflict between Pakistan and India, God has, does, and will love his people and seek their good. Despite sickness and death, despite debt and fear, despite school and work and Christmas shopping and all the other events that cause our stress levels and blood pressure to rise, God has, does, and will love his people and seek their good. Are you sensing a trend yet? Whatever else goes on, God creates a sense of home for us…in God, we are at home.
This is our reason to rejoice, to celebrate, to lift up our hearts, to feel at home in God: because our God always has loved us and sought our good. God always does love us and seek our good. God always will love us and seek our good. It’s that simple. In Advent, as we celebrate the light of Christ that breaks into the world’s darkness, we light candles to remind us of Jesus, the Light of the World. In the midst of our darkness, be it the dark of 4 am when we really should be sleeping, the never-quite-dark-enough of a hospital room as we keep vigil, or the dark storm clouds overhead, God loves us…forever. And so even in the midst of our darkness, even in the strangest and most painful and least comprehensible moments of our lives, God is there, loving us, and we find ourselves at home.
This is what Mary knew: her world was no place to be an unwed mother. It was no place to be a pregnant teenager. It was no place to be a follower of any God besides the Roman Emperor. It was no place to do anything but keep your head down and try to be as inoffensive as possible. It was certainly no place to stand out. It was no place that felt like home. But Mary had no choice: into the darkness of an occupied Israel, into the darkness brought about by centuries of oppression by one nation after another, into the darkness of human lives that couldn’t find a way to reach God, God found a way to reach us, to bring Mary, and us, home.
In the form of an angel, God sent good news. In the pregnancy of an unwed teenager, God sent good news. In the form of an infant named Jesus, God sent good news. And the news is this: Rejoice. You have a home in Christ. Rejoice continually, and in all things because God always has, always does, and always will love his people. In the darkness, there is God’s love. In our aloneness, Christ is always with us. In our pain and suffering, in our doubt and confusion, in our mourning and loss, God is always reaching out to us—there is always room for rejoicing, there is a home for our weary hearts. This year, “I’ll be home for Christmas” is true for us, wherever we are, because it is a statement of faith and of the reality of the kingdom of God, made real by Christ’s people. I’ll be home for Christmas.