46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
One of my favorite things about Christmas is the music. I love Christmas songs. Usually no matter what mood I’m in, the right carol can put a smile on my face. So, I was listening to a Christmas mix the other day and the song “Christmas (baby please come home)” came on. The lyrics go something like this:
They’re singing Deck The Halls
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year
If there was a way
(Christmas) I’d hold back this tear
(Christmas) but it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home (please)
And it struck me—Christmas feels different this year. It just does. For many of us, this Christmas season will lack some of the traditions that we look forward to all year. So many of us will miss familiar faces and familiar places that help make this season so special. But, despite all of the special things that COVID is taking away from us this year, it can’t take away the music of Christmas.
This is the second week of Advent, when our tradition teaches us to meditate on the theme of Peace. This is a theme found through so many of our Christmas songs, both old and new. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was written in the 1700s, and tells us that the angels song asks for “peace on earth.” In the 1800s, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” also tells of Angels singing about “peace on earth and good will for men.”
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day” started out as a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the Civil War. His poem told a stark story of war and violence but concluded that God’s call for peace is stronger. Here is the conclusion of that poem:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
One of my favorite Christmas songs is from our scripture for this morning, Mary’s Magnificat. In it, she sings,
“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.”
The beginning of her song shows us how deep her faith is in God. Despite the risks that she was facing, she believed that she was blessed because she was chosen to do God’s work in the world. And then her focus turns outwards, to the good news of who God is for all of humanity.
She sings, “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.
Her song celebrates that God has heard the laments of those who are hungry, and in pain. Her God is a God who is focused on those that society wants to forget. This is good news for all of those who have ever been marginalized or mistreated because they do not have the privileges that help them get to the top of society.
And while this does not sound like good news for the folks who are at the top, it still can be. Just as those who are hungry need to be fed, those who have never gone hungry need to experience what it is like to not have enough. It is through this type of experience that people who have never been forced to look at their own privilege can grow in their compassion for others. It is their invitation to join with God in the creation of a more just world for all of humanity.
Father Ted Hesburgh once said, “If religious persons are committed profoundly to one simple reality all around the world, it must be peace … And without justice, especially to the poor, the homeless and the hopeless, there will be no peace.”
Mary knew what it was like to need justice. She was not a woman of great wealth or stature. She was a poor, unwed Jewish girl living under a Roman occupation. She probably expected that as she grew older she would continue to live a simple life in Nazareth, eventually married to her betrothed, Joseph. But then, everything changed when Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she has been chosen for something great—she was going to give birth to Jesus.
Growing up in a Christian home, I heard the story of the birth of Jesus over and over. Every year at Christmastime I would hear of a young virgin with a miraculous pregnancy, who gave birth to Jesus in a manger. And I would get caught up in how special Mary must have felt. How exciting it must have been to be chosen. I’ll admit, it was years before I really thought about the weight that was placed on Mary’s shoulders.
Mary was probably perplexed, confused, and frightened. Being an unwed mother would put her at risk. She would be gossiped about, shunned, and her life could be in danger. Remember, this is the same society where years later Jesus saved a woman accused of adultery from being stoned to death. Mary knew all of these risks, and yet, she still said yes.
Just like I grew up listening to stories about Mary and Jesus, Mary grew up listening to stories from the Torah. She had heard the prophetic words of those who came before her of a God who blessed and liberated her spiritual ancestors. She had learned of God’s work through people like Moses, Abraham, and David. Just like the rest of Israel, she was waiting for the Messiah to come and save Israel from the Romans.
Throughout church history, Mary has been remembered in various ways. Some branches of Christianity see her as a holy and blessed perpetual virgin who we should honor in our prayers. Others see her only as a meek and mild girl who gave birth to Jesus. But Mary truly was a courageous prophet, whose song brings forth the story of a God who wants justice and equality for all who live on the margins of society.
I wonder how much of Jesus’ compassion for those on the margins came from Mary? Was he raised listening to her tell him stories of how to care for the poor, the sick, and the hungry? When he became angry at the injustices of the world, did she encourage him to grow up with a passion to change them? Did she sing him her Magnificat at night as she rocked him to sleep?
I believe that she did. I believe that when Jesus saw the danger and the pain and the injustices of his world as he grew up, Mary taught him about the God who would lift up the lowly, and fill the hungry with good things. She did not teach him to feel hopeless in a desperate situation, she taught him how to find the courage and strength to stand up and work towards changing the situation. Mary could have gotten caught up in the negatives of her circumstances. Instead, she let the good news of a loving God transform her pain into a song of justice and peace.
Not much has changed in the last 2000 years. We still live in a world that is full of injustice, and so much of that is highlighted during this season of advent. Some of us long for those we love who are no longer here with us. Some of us feel the weight of poverty, hunger, and loss. Some of us are scared of what the future may bring. For many of us, even with the lights, and the carols, and the Christmas celebrations, the world feels dark right now.
But just like Mary, during advent we are reminded that feeling hopeless is not our only option. Advent is a reminder that we are not alone, that we have a God who loves us. Advent is a reminder that we can find peace in the most troubling of times.
Like Mary, we too can celebrate the good news of a God who longs to help make our world whole again. This Christmas, I invite you to remember that you are a part of God’s work towards justice for all and the creation of Peace on Earth for all of creation. For as the Dalai Lama once said, “Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.” Amen.