So here we are at the first Sunday in Advent and we’re looking at our first Christmas carol. It’s not conventional, because there are no shepherds or wise men, no camels or other animals and no census or stable. To be honest it doesn’t really pass the test of being a Christmas carol – but it is the first one written. Mary’s song seems an odd response after the encounter with an angel and the news she was given, and the delicate situation in which she found herself. Not only did she see it as a blessing from God, but she also made a very clear political statement, which we will reflect on and think about. It is not a political statement entirely in the sense that we would understand it in 21st Century, although we can relate to what it says in many ways.
When I reflect on Mary’s song, I wonder how Mary was blessed by this action of God? What is more, how had God done these things that she was singing about? What does it say about Messiah? And at the end of the day was Mary not just deluding herself because she was in a precarious position, and have we not just gone along with the delusion? These are reasonable questions and the sort that anyone who is not a Christian would ask on reading this passage and knowing Mary’s position.
The irony for Mary was that a Jewish woman was not completely part of the family that she had married in to, until she had given birth to a son. Hence the anguish of women in the Hebrew Scriptures when they couldn’t have children. This also explains the excitement over the miracle of Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, being pregnant. Mary however, was to be the focus of gossip and possible rejection, rather than excitement. Her response however, was one of acceptance of the privilege of bearing Jesus.
But wasn’t Mary deluding herself? Well things start to happen around the birth of Jesus with the visitors and we are told Mary treasured up these things, probably not understanding them.
- There were the prophecies in the temple.
- Then life settles down, until Jesus goes missing in Jerusalem and talks about doing his Father’s business.
- Then all is quiet until Jesus begins his ministry and perhaps doubts creep in and we realise that she is not entirely convinced, because the family turn up one time to take control of him.
- At the time of his arrest and crucifixion, Mary must have come to the conclusion in the tragedy of it all she had deluded herself about Jesus and his birth. However, we do find her listed among the believers in the first chapter of Acts.
It is in the life and work, the death and resurrection of Jesus that we see the fulfilment of Mary’s prophetic song. She is a prophetic voice as she sings her song in the long tradition of such songs in the Hebrew Scriptures, and there are particular echoes of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel. The words that she utters cannot be dissociated from a socio-political setting either in the context of the New Testment or today. Neither can they be separated from the religious setting and worldview that Mary had, just as they cannot be separated from a Christian worldview today.
One of the difficulties 21st Century people have is understanding the intertwining of religion, politics and society that was the case until modern times in the West; that it gave a foundation to society, a stability, and although it could be criticised, overall it worked for the benefit of society. Certainly the song of Mary and the living fulfilment of Jesus, has transformed people’s lives and been the motivator for social change. The irony of the church is that it has been and can be the most conservative of organisations, viewed as opposing everything; and it has also been the most radical of organisations in bringing about social change, in seeing the image of God in people others reject, and raising them up; in welcoming a breadth of people and speaking up for the weak and vulnerable.
Coming back to Mary’s song, everything relates to the covenant action of God. Her song is prophetic,
- because she declares the faithfulness of God in the past to Israel, but she also declares that his faithfulness will continue both in the present and the future and that is fulfilled in the child she is carrying;
- because it focusses on God and his actions, blessing God for the privilege of being chosen to bear Jesus;
- because it announces the grace and mercy of God in action in the world – past present and future.
It is important to recognise that the songs and prophecies of the Bible were not and are not all about ‘pie in the sky when you die’. They were looking for and experienced God’s action in the world at that time, and they were looking for God’s action in the future. We also need to remember sometimes the actions of God were unexpected and included judgement.
Gabriel puts the birth of Jesus in a spiritual and political setting. His announcement that Jesus will be the ‘Son of the Most High’ designates his origin and the fact that his role is greater than secular concerns. Gabriel says that his reign will be forever, indicating the eternal nature of the child about to be born. He is also described as the son of David, making his work very concrete in the here and now, because the mention of David would have brought to mind thoughts of stability, prosperity, greatness and justice. The eternal work of God is very much rooted in and focussed on the world he created and the people he brought into being; the people God desires to relate to and to whom he has brought salvation and restoration.
So how does the coming of Jesus fulfil the prophecy of Mary? In the first place in Philippians the incarnation of Jesus is described as humbling, and it points out that Jesus became a servant. Just in coming Jesus becomes the embodiment of the song. It is in his life that we see the reversals of Mary’s song taking place. He raises up those who are humble. Just consider the interactions he has with people. Jesus spent time with, acted on behalf of and spoke up for, those who were poor, those who were hungry and those who were humble, those who were marginalised. The mighty deeds were largely performed for those who were lowly in the eyes of the more comfortable classes and the religious elite.
Stop and think how he raised the self-esteem of those who had been written off:
- Zacchaeus by eating with him and his friends. The crowd were aghast and Jesus pronounces salvation and that here is a son of Abraham. He also included a tax collector among his disciples.
- Think of the woman who gate crashed the dinner party; who knew she was worthless and certainly the guests thought so too, and yet Jesus accepts her ministrations and again pronounces salvation and acceptance.
- Think of the beggars and the diseased, used to being looked down upon, pitied and shunned, but now restored and able to live life.
- Think of the parables he told that constantly put the self-righteous, the wealthy, the judgmental in their place. Those who were proud in their inmost thoughts scattered from his presence because they could not accept what he said, what he did and whom he mixed with.
When the humble are raised up it is not so that they can crow over those who have rejected them; it is not so that they can look down on others. When God allows regimes to fall it is not so that those who were once oppressed now become the oppressors. It seems to be true that where there have been popular revolutions to overthrow or hold to account a ruling elite, they were either put down violently, or the new regime became just as oppressive as the old – as we have seen in South America, in the Soviet Union and in the Far East. Mary’s song is all about bringing a new order of things – God’s kingdom in the whole of life. Jesus was and is bringing that in.
Jesus set a new example that was strong, that was courageous, but based on love and service in the power of God. How could he allow a questionable woman to show him love and devotion in a public place with important people around? Because he didn’t have to stand on his dignity and wasn’t concerned about preserving an image, and knew that God loved this woman as much as he loved anyone else. Why could he kneel before his disciples washing their feet? Because he didn’t have to preserve his status before anyone. Not only did he know where he had come from and to whom he was returning, he was confident in that knowledge. He asks those who call him Lord to live his example, confident in the knowledge that they are his and are serving him.
Many have been inspired to social action and to bring about social change as a result of reading Mary’s song and seeing Jesus living out the words in his mission. This the ‘now’ of the Kingdom of God that Jesus brought and that we are called also to bring as part of our discipleship, our following of Jesus. We can see this happening through the mission agencies we support, working in remote areas, difficult circumstances, in places of danger and serving in the name of Christ; serving people who are struggling with life and often those who are destitute; sacrificing career prospects and comfort in following Jesus. We can also see it in the way the church serves the local community.
There is a ‘but not yet’ of Mary’s song, of Jesus’ mission and of our experience as Christians. All too clearly the reversals of Mary’s prophecy have not yet happened in the world at large – and they hadn’t happened in her world either. This is where we get the bigger picture of redemption and restoration that looks beyond the immediate and to the time when God in Christ will return – a time Jesus refers to both with his disciples and when he is on trial. Mary spoke – as other prophets did – as though restoration had taken place, because she believed in the covenant God who is faithful.
It doesn’t mean we gaze endlessly into the distance, opt out of life, spend our time in constant prayer and song singing. Clearly Jesus didn’t expect that to be the case otherwise he wouldn’t have said that his followers were to be salt and light in the world. Being agents of the changes Mary sang about is part of being salt and light. Sharing the future hope of Jesus coming again and bringing complete restoration – the imagery of Revelation 21 – is also part of that mission.
As Christians we have a big picture understanding of the world and we share that with Mary who also seems to have had the big picture in mind. Life is not just here and now, but has an eternal perspective. This is evident in the message of Gabriel to Mary, in her song and in the song of Zechariah; it is also evident in the responses of Simeon and Anna in the temple when Jesus is presented there as a baby. In these responses there is the expectation that God will be at work both now and for eternity.
It is the big picture understanding that our society does not share, but it is the hope and the light of Christmas in the darkness. Jesus the Messiah came to bring forgiveness and restoration to people now; to raise up the humble now; to fill the hungry with good things now; to open the Kingdom of God to those for whom it was closed. We are the channels through which Christ brings in the Kingdom and it is exciting to be part of the ongoing work. As we bring in the Kingdom now, we point people to Christ who will come again, but not as a baby, but the King of kings and Lord of lords. We point to the one who brings salvation and restoration now and will bring complete fulfilment for eternity.
My soul glorifies the Lord…