Bearing Hope to the World

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Advent 4B (Luke 1:26-38, 46-55)

“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.”[1]

Thus begins some of the most beautiful poetry of our Scripture.  Hearing these words, I think first of the Ave Maria sung so beautifully by the Angel Gabriel who, oddly, sounds just like Perry Como. Then Mary responds with these words, The Magnificat, sung to the beautiful music of Mozart, Bach, or Vivaldi. Travel forward one week when we will be transported to the idyllic scene of Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph smiling sweetly at the newborn Jesus.  The cattle and sheep quietly sleeping nearby.  A star shining brightly in the sky above as choirs of angels – usually between the ages of 5 and 10, dressed neatly in cassock and surplice sweetly sing “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night.”  What could be more perfect, more pristine, more innocent, or more – dare I say it – unrealistic?  Do not misunderstand me, the retelling of the beauty of the nativity has its place – and in important one – because ultimately there is nothing more beautiful than the birth of a child – any child – let alone the child who is to be the Savior of the world.  And perhaps the romanticism around that holy night provides exactly the right context for the praise and adoration that follows.  But here, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we are encouraged to go deeper, to look at the harshness of the story and to find our place in its telling. 

Mary is likely a 12 or 13-year-old servant girl when she learns from the angel that she will soon be pregnant.  She is engaged, but not yet married, to Joseph.  According to the Jewish laws recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, if a woman is not a virgin when she is to be married, the town leaders “are to take her out to the entrance of her father’s house, where the men of her city are to stone her to death. She has done a shameful thing among our people by having intercourse before she was married, while she was still living in her father’s house. In this way you will get rid of this evil.” Or, in the case of a woman who is engaged at the time of her pregnancy, the historians, write that both the man and the woman are to be taken “outside the town” to be stoned “to death. The girl is to die because she did not cry out for help, although she was in town, where she could have been heard. And the man is to die because he had intercourse with a girl who was engaged. In this way you will get rid of this evil.”[2]  The consequences of being an unwed, pregnant woman in early 1st century Judea are dire.  There is, however, no mention of this in Luke’s gospel. Instead, the angel Gabriel declares to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God”[3] and Mary “magnifies the Lord” and “rejoices.” 

Of course, we might say, but Mary knows this is God’s going. The angel has spoken to her and cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant and that too is a miracle. And yet, what will the neighbors think?  Will they really believe that a servant girl has been chosen by God to bring the Messiah into the world?  If Mary has even a thought of this reality – of the danger of her situation – there is no mention of it.  No word of trouble or terror; only a song of faithfulness and responsiveness to God’s calling in her life.  How is it that this young girl finds the strength, the courage, and the faith to say yes to God, to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[4]  This is not Mary, meek and mild, sweet and innocent, this is Mary the God-bearer, pregnant with the hope of the world.

And it is from within this larger context of Mary’s understanding of what this birth will mean to the world that we get the rest of the Magnificat.  What begins as a song of praise and thanksgiving moves quickly into a description of Mary’s understanding of salvation history and the role her child will play:

“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
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.”[5]

Mary Foskett in her book A Virgin Conceived writes, “not only is Mary cognizant of God’s plan, she is moved to declare it openly.”[6]  Mary’s words have more in common with the words of the prophets – Isaiah, Micah, Amos – than the words one might expect from a young girl. And indeed, Mary is a prophet bearing God in the world through her womb and her words, bearing hope to the world through her womb and her words.

In a few moments, we will initiate by water and the Holy Spirit, Eliana Amaya Greene, into Christ’s Body the Church.  In doing so, we will have the opportunity to renew our baptismal covenant in which we will promise, with God’s help, to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” – that is, to be the bearer of hope to the world.  We will promise, with God’s help to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” – that is, to be the bearer of hope to the world. We will promise, with God’s help, to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” - that is, to be the bearer of hope to the world.  Let us be prepared for and open to the possibility and the promise that this seemingly innocent and simple ritual may have revolutionary power, turning values on their heads, turning the world upside down.  Let us once again put our hope in the Word made flesh.

[1] Luke 1:46-49.
[2] Deuteronomy 22:20-21, 23-24.
[3] Luke 1:30.
[4] Luke 1:38.
[5] Luke 1:50-55.
[6] Mary F. Foskett, A Virgin Conceived: Mary and Classical Representations of Virginity, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002 p. 14.