A startling song on Advent's third Sunday

December 6th, 2022

I defer to the pink candle over the lectionary, as I’m determined, 3 Sundays into Advent, to give Mary considerable attention. It’s not just her week, with the 3rdcandle. It’s her season. Waiting for the Lord to take on reality, to become flesh in her life, in our lives. That’s Advent.

So Luke 1:49b-56 provides. I’ll back up to v. 39 and ponder the Visitation, the remarkable, unsurpassed in beauty fellowship of hope. Mary, Elizabeth, needing to be together, the children to come with some recognition of one another, even in utero. No takeaway. No moral. We just watch these two – and reflect on Mary’s song. She sang! What did her voice sound like? I picture, not a big vibrato soprano, but a clearer, simpler maybe 2nd soprano or alto.

Her song startles, upsets, turns the placid world of piety upside-down. She sings not of sweetness or the giddy delight of having a baby, but of might, of mercy, God scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, filling the hungry, sending the rich away empty. Put this woman in jail! Hide her away someplace safe – not for her but for us!

The opening, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” amazes. She magnifies the Lord, but not artificially. She is like a lens, a prism: please, see the Lord largely in me. Maybe even in the other lectionary texts.

Isaiah 35:1-10. I like to reflect on our lections that Mary knew as her scriptures, and try to divine what her perspective on them might have been when she was so very pregnant. The prophecy of Isaiah must have thrilled her with its inspiring vision of the transformation of nature. “They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God” – so whereas Isaiah was thinking of an eschatological revolution in nature, Mary might have been dimly, courageously, hopefully aware that the child pressing against her belly, in her very own body, would be the glory and majesty of God about to appear. She would be the lucky one to see the glory and majesty first.

Surely the prayers, “Strengthen the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees” must have resonated with her in her exhaustion, carrying extra weight, with her daily chores, having made an arduous journey to visit Elizabeth. Isaiah 35 prays for those with “fearful hearts,” encouraging them to “be strong, do not fear, here is your God, he will come.” I just love how Amy Grant sang her surmises of what must have gone on in Mary’s heart during those days: “I am frightened by the load I bear, in a world as cold as stone Must I walk this path alone? Breath of heaven, hold me together, lighten my darkness. Help me be strong, Help me be, Help me.”

Did Mary ponder the “highway of the Lord,” where “even fools cannot get lost”? Her journey to Elizabeth’s home must have been arduous. No GPS, no helpers, much to fear. How much courage did she have? How eager was she to be with Elizabeth, her friend, her elder, her mentor?

Of course, the tone of Isaiah shifts, as does the music I hear in my head. A powerful alto thunders in with Handel’s text taken from Isaiah: “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened…” Oh my. My soul just rushed from the quiet by a well in backwater Nazareth to a concert hall in London. Notice all the singing in Isaiah’s text. The ransomed don’t just trudge back to Zion; they sing their way home. Mary was a singer – although I’ll never picture her as the alto with the big vibrato.

On the way home during Advent, the preacher could do worse than invite people simply to ponder the holiness, the faith, the courage, the anxiety, the hope, the isolation, the uncertainty that was Mary, mother of our Lord. So much beauty. There’s no takeaway, no lesson, no “point.” We just ponder. I think my best preaching dares to do such a thing.

James 5:7-10 has the lovely Advent-ish counsel, “Be patient until the coming of the Lord.” His analogy is of the farmer waiting for the crops to come in. Who requires more patience? The farmer? Or the pregnant mother? Fortunately both take time, and yet the wait has its own agonies, like the life of faith. Here’s a playful question I may pop into my homily: if James, this James, was the brother of our Lord, did he for a moment reflect on his own mother – Mary also! – pregnant with his brother Jesus, or with him? 

Had she sung to him, to them? Another reverie may be in order, no takeaways or points, just inviting people to gawk at the tenderness, the beauty, the holiness of the holy family.

“Strengthen your hearts.” Sounds like the common fare of secular gurus. James explains how, and why: “The coming of the Lord is near.” It’s not “Be strong,” but “The Lord is coming – so be strong.” Massive difference. And you have to love James’s practical, churchy counsel: “Don’t grumble.” If you are patient for the Lord’s coming, there’s just no space or energy for grumbling.

Matthew 11:2-11. More John the Baptist! He’s now in prison, not active any longer, only listening for rumors of what’s happening. Jesus knows and sends a report: what’s going on out here is stunning. How many times through history have those imprisoned for their faithful labors been stuck inside while God’s work is still unfolding out there! And you have to admire Jesus’ framing of things. It’s not “Tell him I’ve got it,” or “I’m being amazing out here, I’m the Messiah, after all!” Instead, it’s what Jesus (and John!) cared about: not identity, but what’s actually transforming the lives of people. I think of this amazing podcast about John Garland’s ministry at the Mexican border (“Maybe God: Can Loving ‘Illegals’ Save our Souls, part 2”) where he says it’s not so much doing something for someone, but just being there to bear witness to the beautiful thing God is doing. 

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