Sunday, December 23, 2012

Magnified with Mary

The Virgin and Child at All Souls

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2012. The lectionary readings are Micah 5:2-5a Psalm 80:1-7, Hebrews 10:5-10, and Luke 1:39-55.

Having grown up in Protestant churches in North Carolina, my first real meeting with the Blessed Virgin Mary happened in a footnote.  It was my first semester of seminary at one of the proudest and most conscientious Reformed seminaries [Princeton Theological Seminary, 1987], but we read as a survey text, a book by John Macquarrie.  There, in a footnote, was mention of a group called the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I was intrigued. I felt like I had stumbled upon a secret that had been kept from me, and so I went to the library and began to find pamphlets and newsletters from the Ecumenical Society.  Thoughts were offered by Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, and the Orthodox.  This began for me what has resulted in first a journey of the head, then of the heart, and now perhaps one this is increasingly incarnate.    

When I first ran into, or rather, “read into” Mary, I did now know that while John Macquarrie started out a proper Church of Scotland theologian and minister, when he was teaching at Union Seminary in New York City, he one day visited a church in Times Square, a church named for the Virgin Mary.  That visit continued a deep conversion process that resulted in Macquarrie’s reception and ordination in the Episcopal Church.  His first Mass was celebrated in 1965 in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the church where I also said my first Mass and served before coming here. 

Some believe (and I agree with them) that the best hope forward for people of faith (those of us who are Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, but also, the surest way forward with Jews and Muslims) is for us to follow together Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Miriam, the Jewish girl, never for an instant diminishes her Jewishness.  Christians revere her for giving birth to the savior.  Muslims acclaim her as righteous and chosen, and in fact, an entire chapter of the Quran is named after her.  In addition to interfaith and ecumenical discussions of Mary, in the last few years, Pentecostals and Evangelicals have also begun to re-examine Mary. The famous experiences of Mary in the lives of ordinary people—Guadalupe, Fatima, Medjugorje—as well as the quiet, personal experiences, happen when we are vulnerable, when we are humble, when we most need God.

Mary sings from this place of humility and neediness in her song, Magnificat, the Latin shorthand for the beginning of, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In the medieval church Mary’s Song was the highpoint of the evening office, it followed the reading of the Gospel, incense was offered and it led right into the prayers. When Thomas Cranmer simplified the monastic daily office and edited the first English Book of Common Prayer, he retained the Magnificat as a kind of highpoint at Evening Prayer. When we offer Evensong, the first canticle is Our Lady’s Song, Magnificat. When Evensong in done in grand style, it is during Magnificat that the altar is censed, and then the thurifer goes right down the middle aisle of the church, censing all of the people. The spreading of incense is a reminder that Mary’s song is also to be our song.

She begins by singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” But in fact, the Lord has magnified Mary. Through today’s scripture lessons, there runs a theme of God’s magnifying work, of the way in which God enlarges and creates great things out of things that were small.

In the first reading the Prophet Micah singles out Bethlehem, tiny Bethlehem. “From you shall come forth the ruler in Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.”

The second reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews, a kind of poetic argument about the ways in which Jesus is both high priest and perfect sacrifice, who accomplishes salvation for us in a way that nothing else can. Hebrews argues that no amount of offering from us, no amount of sacrifice or work or good deeds or perfect living will ever accomplish what was accomplished by the simplicity and purity of Christ’s faithfulness to God. God is more pleased by the simple act of faithfulness than the complicated scheme of temple sacrifices and offerings.

Throughout the scriptures there is a theme of God choosing what is small and insignificant. Israel was not the mightiest of the nations. Moses was not the most likely to lead the people of Israel out of bondage. David was not the most likely to be king. Sarah was not the most likely to be the matriarch of an entire people. Great things were not expected from Jonah the prophet, Ruth the Moabite, Ezekiel or Esther, and many others.

Mary’s song in today’s Gospel sings with eloquence the song of God’s reversals, of God’s ability to turn everything upside-down and inside-out. The lowly and ignored are seen and appreciated. The mighty are put down and the left out are lifted up. The hungry are fed and those who are full are sent away. God remembers. God shows mercy. God magnifies.

I wonder in what ways we are being called to be like Mary and to magnify the Lord even as we are aware of the way that God magnifies our efforts and prayers? What can we do to lift up the lowly, to help feed the hungry, to offer healing to those who hurt?

Shannon Kubiak is a youth leader and writer who wrote a great little book a few years ago called “God Called a Girl.”  She writes

Mary was a nobody, yet she found favor and blessing with God.  How many times do we look in the mirror and find a nobody staring back at us?  We often limit what God can do with our lives because we think our upbringing, our appearance, or our life is not a sufficient tool for the hands of God to use….[But] if Mary really was a nobody, all  it took for God to make her “somebody” was one miracle on a lonely day when she was just going about her daily business… God called a girl. And that girl changed the world.  The same God is calling again, and this time He’s calling you.” (God Called a Girl, p. 14-19, passim)

May we sing with the Blessed Virgin Mary the song of God’s reversals, of God’s surprises, and of God’s magnifying love, that we may do our part to magnify the Lord.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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