Mary, Mother of our Lord-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Mary, Mother of our Lord. The Queen of Heaven. Our Lady of Quadalupe. Theotokos, the God-bearer. So much is layered upon Mary. Medieval and Renaissance paintings depict her holding court, surrounded by admiring angel attendants while caring for Jesus in fine a European castle.  We must be ready to smash the icons we have of Mary if we are to reach her where we find her today in Luke chapter 1.

We must see her as she saw herself. By worldly standards, she is the most unlikely choice to become the mother of the Son of God.  No one could have been more surprised than Mary to receive the invitation of the angel Gabriel. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is a song about surprise, amazement, and wonder.  Mary’s song opens us all to imagine the unimaginable.  Even now, even now, when so much tragedy befalls us, and so much divides us, and so much evil threatens us, could the world be about to turn?

Last week, Kari, Mehari, Leah, Russell and I hiked to Muir’s grove, which covers 215 acres in a relatively remote location of Sequoia National Park. The sequoia is the largest tree on earth. It has a lifespan of about 4,000 years. There, in the grove named for the famous naturalist and father of the National Parks, John Muir, there is a stand of twelve sequoia trees in a tight rectangular formation surrounding an area roughly the size of this courtyard. Older than the Parthenon in Athens or the Coliseum in Rome and standing taller than each of them is a cathedral of light and air to rival any wrought by human hands.  Once upon a time, each tree began with this (a sequoia pinecone). It’s hard to believe something so small could produce something so large, isn’t it?

Yet, the news that Mary sings about is even more startling!  Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like a Mustard seed.  Or, in other words, like this (a dandelion!) a weed, that grows into a tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:32). Preposterous you say?  Ridiculous. Unimaginable?  Mary’s song is an invitation to open our hearts to what God has done and has always done, to open our eyes to what God is now doing all around us. How might it change how we live if we understood the whole world was alive? How does it change our relationship to the stuff we use, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe if we received them as gifts rather than commodities?

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is so famous and familiar, we tend to think we already know all about it. Now, in the dogdays of summer, we have an opportunity to listen to what Mary has to say about the Christian message while our thoughts about Christmas are still a long way off.  Once we bring Mary out from behind the veil of Christmas and popular piety, the plain meaning of her message holds some surprises for us.

When there are so many people who would stand between you and the bible, Lord it over you, and say with bald confidence that it’s all about predicting the end times; or, this bible is all about preserving the American way of life by any means necessary; or, this bible is about becoming more affluent –it becomes even more important that Mary’s song break through again to pierce our hearts and open our eyes.  Here, the plain meaning of the gospel is hidden in plain sight.  Mary’s spirit rejoices, not because Joseph bought her the perfect Christmas gift— but because “…[God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”  Mary’s song is essentially about social justice.

New Testament scholar Scott McKnight points out that in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned singing of Mary’s Magnificat for Christmas because, unlike Away in a Manger, her song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds) Mary’s song, this familiar bible song—a song of joy and faith—is a danger to the status quo.  Like the slaves of the American South before them, poor people in Latin American base communities began to read the Bible themselves in the 1980’s and heard in the Good News that God did not want their children to die of hunger and disease, or their husbands and sons to be disappeared, or their to be daughters lost in poverty.  Is it ironic, or simply tragic, that the governmental authorities of Guatemala paid more attention to the meaning of Mary’s song than do most of us as we sing our hymns or read the bible? (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

Sometimes, we must be willing to smash our beloved icons if we are to receive the life-giving gospel, for Mary’s song to reach our ears and inspire us again.  A pine corn must be opened by fire to become a seed. What might Mary’s song call forth in you? Notice, Mary’s revolutionary road is not characterized by conflict, polarization, or partisanship but by solidarity, accompaniment, and partnership with outsiders and the poor.  Mary answers God’s call with a boldness that is unbelievable to most of us.  But she is no ideologue.  She doesn’t pontificate.  She ponders.  She doesn’t count her blessings as evidence of her privilege, but as evidence of God’s grace.  She celebrates the mystery and glory of God by taking each step as God’s plan unfolds without knowing where it will lead but trusting in God to work grace and power through her.

Mary says Yes to God, and that entails many No’s.  Mary surrenders to God’s authority, not by becoming a tiresome, self-righteous, religious snob, but through receiving life as a gift.  Grace transforms Mary as each of us is called to be transformed.  Faith in God makes her a true friend.  She is filled with joy, not deadly seriousness. As Mother Teressa once said, “One filled with joy preaches without preaching.”  The gospel, according to Mary, is a song to be sung.  Faith is a dance that involves us completely—mind, body, and soul.

A Blessing Called Sanctuary -—by Jan Richardson, from Circle of Grace

You hardly knew

how hungry you were

to be gathered in,

to receive the welcome

that invited you to enter


nothing of you

found foreign or strange,

nothing of your life

that you were asked

to leave behind

or to carry in silence

or in shame.


Tentative steps

became settling in,

leaning into the blessing

that enfolded you,

taking your place

in the circle

that stunned you

with its unimagined grace.


You began to breathe again,

to move without fear,

to speak with abandon

the words you carried

in your bones,

that echoed in your being.


You learned to sing.


But the deal with this blessing

is that it will not leave you alone,

will not let you linger

in safety,

in stasis.


The time will come

when this blessing

will ask you to leave,

not because it has tired of you

but because it desires for you

to become the sanctuary

that you have found—

to speak your word

into the world,

to tell what you have heard

with your own ears,

seen with your own eyes,

known in your own heart:


that you are beloved,

precious child of God,

beautiful to behold,*

and you are welcome

and more than welcome


Mary, Mother of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth (Luke 1.39-40). A newly pregnant teenager makes for the hills. She doesn’t slow down until she reaches the home of her also-pregnant cousin.  She flees toward her kinswoman, toward refuge. She finds solidarity and sanctuary.

‘On a well-swept doorstep, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child. Mary and Elizabeth are two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness, but first attending to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting for every woman, especially the first time, and these two women found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms: one past the age to conceive, and the other unmarried. So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they faced first-time childbirth and motherhood’ (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds).  

In his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, Henri Nouwen asks what must have gone through Mary’s mind?  “Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? The Angel’s proposed plan was preposterous and dangerous, but Mary said “yes!”  When her kinswoman welcomes her, she bursts into song — a song so subversive, governments twenty centuries later will ban its public recitation. According to scripture, Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, or until John after was born. Then returned home to an uncertain future with Joseph in Nazareth (Luke 1: 56).

John the Baptist proclaimed of Jesus, “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). We must pause a moment to acknowledge the tragic and painful ways the beautiful story of Mary has been weaponized by the church against women. When the history of all the words said of Mary is laid before Jesus, a whole lot of unquenchable fire will be required to burn away the layers of misogyny and theological malpractice heaped upon Mary to obscure, nullify, and outright contradict her story.  How many women throughout history and across cultures have been bludgeoned with the cudgel of religious shame into self-loathing for failing to live up to the impossible standard of being both a virgin and a mother at the same time?

Yet, the self-righteous, the self-interested, the liars, bullies and Christmas marketing people could not steal the gospel from us. For them, Mary’s message contains surprises that will not be quiet. Mary’s spirit rejoices, not because Joseph bought her the perfect Christmas gift— but because “…[God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52b)  Mary’s song is essentially about social justice.

New Testament scholar Scott McKnight points out that in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned singing of Mary’s Magnificat for Christmas because, unlike Away in a Manger, this song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

The Magnificat was excluded from evening prayer in churches run by the British East India Company in colonial India. Years later, on the final day of imperial rule in India, Mahatma Gandhi requested Mary’s song be read everywhere the British flag was being lowered. The junta in Argentina forbade the singing of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza. And during the 1980s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador prohibited any public recitation of the song.

What made Mary’s song so dangerous?  Mary’s song of joy and faith is anthem of solidarity with the poor. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52a).  Mary and Elizabeth, like people of faith of every generation, expanded the powerful bond of their kinship with one another for belonging in the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God.  They shifted their allegiances and loyalties.  They went from living in an “us versus them” world, to a world of love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace for all.  That is why we celebrate Mary (and Elizabeth) today.  They are heroes of faith who show us the way to walk toward transformation and renewal by the way of the cross. 

Mary and Elizabeth afforded one another safety and strength through the gift of sanctuary.  Can we, like them, grow in our stated mission, striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace?  This month, our church, at its national Churchwide Assembly, voted to become a sanctuary denomination.  By this, the ELCA has publicly declared that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. They affirmed that we are called to use our hands and voices in obedience to Jesus’ command to welcome the most vulnerable.  Specifically, the Churchwide Assembly’s resolution challenges us to seek for ways that we may provide concrete resources to respond to the needs of our human family who are suffering now—especially immigrants and asylum seekers.  This national resolution has drawn criticism for being too radical. Yet, in substance, how is it any different than Mary’s song? Mary’s song is a lullaby conjuring dreams of new worlds as we sleep.

This week, August 23-25, our nation commemorates the 400th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Most of us learned about the arrival of 102 passengers on the Mayflower in 1620. What you didn’t learn in history class was that a year earlier, August of 1619, 20 enslaved Africans from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola landed at Point Comfort (now in Virginia) on the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer slave ship.  The transatlantic slave trade was the biggest forced migration of people in world history.

The Mother of Exiles, the Statue of Liberty has a broken shackle and chain laying at her feet as she walks forward, to commemorate the national abolition of slavery in 1865.  Could Mary’s song of solidarity be the cure that alludes us? Can we finally stand with the children of those who never knew welcome to our shores, as members of one wonderfully diverse human family? In 1992, Toni Morrison told the Guardian newspaper: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” When can our allegiances and loyalties shift? When will our national story expand to become part of the universal story—of the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God? Listening to Mary’s song will end the fever of racism animating the irrational, tragic, and self-defeating anger against people of color and immigrants today. 

In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of the goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, Mary points the way to becoming expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy. See, even now we are being filled with joy and delight in God’s grace so that the song of our lives may give praise to God and our souls magnify God’s grace.