"The Gift of Mary"
Sermon preached by Anne Ledbetter
Sunday, December 23, 2012
Scripture - Luke 1:39-55

Several years ago a church member sent me a note on a card with a stirring rendering of the Annunciation. I was so taken with the picture that I keep the card on my bookshelf. The young Mary is sitting on her bed warily watching not an angel with wings, but this glowing, mysterious column of Light. More than any of the classical paintings of the annunciation, this one drew me into the scene, and into the story of Mary.

As a whole, the gospels offer little information about Mary. Mark skips the birth in Bethlehem and portrays Jesus as indifferent to his mother when she appears with his brothers in chapter three. As for Matthew, his Mary is mute, never speaking. She is present, but silent as the night in a certain beloved carol. What a blessing that Luke fashioned or preserved traditions regarding Mary.1

When the angel Gabriel visits the young maiden engaged to Joseph, Mary initially shows perplexity and then skepticism regarding a pregnancy induced by the Most High. Undeterred, the angel reports that old cousin Elizabeth is now in the family way, and exclaims "you see, nothing will be impossible with God!" His words quicken Mary's heart and she willfully signs on to the Divine Plan saying, "Let it be with me according to your word."

The next day, or the next, or perhaps even a week later, Mary heads to the hill country, most likely to check out Gabriel's story. Maybe it was all a dream, or a hallucination. "Delusions of grandeur," her siblings would say. Who was she kidding? She, Mary, the mother of a monarch whose kingdom would last forever?! Right. But when she enters Cousin Elizabeth's house, Mary discovers that indeed, nothing is too outrageous for Yahweh, for there before her is aging Elizabeth great with child, glowing with joy, and gorgeous! Mary's lingering doubts dissolve as Elizabeth blesses her, calling her "the Mother of my Lord!"

And so Mary sings. She erupts in a song chanted to her as she nursed at her mother's breast, a song her mother's mother sang to her children, a melody more than a millennium in the making, going all the way back to Hannah, the barren one, whom God redeemed. Hannah sang of God's topsy-turvy world, where the hungry are fed, the needy are raised up; the weapons of the mighty are stripped away and the rich find themselves in line for food stamps.

Mary unleashes her own version of this canticle of praise, rejoicing in Yahweh's inscrutable, bizarre ways, declaring the Lord's partiality for the poor, glorifying God whose justice demands a reversal of the status quo. What a sight Luke delivers to us today: two expectant peasant women testifying to God's greatness! We can almost see these unlikely pregnant prophets, hugging in the kitchen - celebrating the miracle of new life, singing about the Lord's favor, laughing over the craziness of it all, dancing for joy with Lizzie's baby kicking out the beat in utero.

Mary sings not simply a solo aria about her own destiny, but a freedom song on behalf of all the faithful poor in Israel. She belts out a song of freedom for all who in their poverty and misery, still believe that God remembers them, yes, favors them, and will make a way out of no way.2 While Mary's pregnancy is only days or weeks along, she is magnified by the Holy Spirit, and Luke paints a young Jewish woman great with God. Filled with the divine, Mary's soul enlarges, indeed, magnifies our understanding of who God is and what God is about.3 Thanks be to Luke who bequeaths us with a wonderful pre-Christmas gift: a profound portrait of a fierce and feisty Mary of astounding faith.

Known as "The Magnificat," because that is the first word in the Latin text, Mary's song moves from the deeply personal to the explicitly political, outlining the biases of God's heart. Mary rejoices in the One who has amazingly reached down to where the least and the lowly still struggle for life. We Protestants cannot claim a strong acquaintance with Mary's song. Traditionally, Catholics have sung the Magnificat each evening at Vespers and Episcopalians have heard this prophetic poetry daily during Evensong. What effect has this song had on the Church through the ages? Likely, a steady dose of Magnificat inspired Dorothy Day to devote her life to the Catholic workers' movement. Maybe Mary's Song stirred Katharine Drexel, the first American saint to spend herself and her money for the poorest of the poor. And who knows how Magnificat might have motivated Mother Teresa? It makes one wonder: What if this song were part of our daily or weekly canon of scripture?

On the brink of Christmas our minds draw to Jesus as the gift of Mary, and we consider her role in the story of salvation. Submitting to God's plan announced by Gabriel, Mary partners with God. She risks rejection, humiliation, and a possible stoning. She endures pregnancy and a journey on a donkey as her delivery date, or D-day nears. She gives birth not in a hospital or at home, not with a doctor or midwife, not among other women to care and comfort, support and sympathize, encourage and cheer - but in a stable, roiling with the stench of animal dung and flies. Luke gives us not a passive, demure Madonna, but a mighty, defiant matriarch.

When I traveled to Israel six years ago on a pastors' retreat, we visited numerous holy sites, reading scriptures and remembering Jesus' teachings and encounters with the poor and outcasts, the rich and privileged. At every stop, one question repeatedly rose in my mind: Who was this man's mother? Who raised Jesus with such a conscience and concern for the lowly and forgotten? Who instilled in him a thirst for justice and a hunger for shalom? Who taught him to pray to his Abba Father?

Luke gives us a hint as he places this revolutionary song on Mary's lips in his gospel. The young maiden dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, a distraught fiancé, social ostracism, belts out a libretto of revolution, an aria celebrating the defeat of hierarchy. Luke leads us to believe that God chose Mary to provide the unique gift of motherly wisdom for the Son of God. Mary's importance was greater than simply giving birth to the Savior; her extraordinary gift was imbuing Jesus with the radical, redeeming nature of God's love!

Why did God choose Mary to birth Jesus? Not because she was from the right family. Not because she was pretty or physically fit for childbirth, not because she was submissive and deferential. Luke leads us to believe that God chose Mary because her heart was filled with the knowledge of God, an awareness of God's passion for justice, an intimate understanding of God's concern for the vulnerable and dispossessed, first-hand experience with God's intense, fervent love for the invisible and voiceless ones. Luke paints Mary as the Abraham of the new covenant - the one God calls to major action and faithful obedience so that God may issue in a new realm that begins in the heart.4

Last spring the member who sent me this beautiful card told me of a special exhibit in Philadelphia. On display was the largest collection ever assembled of work by Henry Ossawa Tanner, the African American artist who grew up in Philadelphia, and lived most of his adult life in France. The son of a preacher, Tanner gravitated to Biblical subjects, and imagined the stories in his own mind's eye. A friend and I visited The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts the Wednesday of Holy Week, and were deeply moved by many of Tanner's paintings. In one, the disciples stare out from their fishing boat, mesmerized by this glowing Light, presumably Jesus, hovering on the horizon of the sea. Two of his works I kept returning to, depicted Mary and the boy Jesus. They were very similar - Mother Mary sitting on a bed with one arm around her son, and the other holding a scroll. Jesus was leaning into his mother, almost cheek to cheek, looking intently at what was in her hand and touching the scroll. One painting was entitled Christ Learning to Read, and the other Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures. Maybe Tanner's own boyhood had inspired the painting, or perhaps he imagined Jesus' childhood as he observed his own wife and their son Jesse, whom he used as models for the painting.

The scriptures contain only one story about the boy Jesus. Luke mentions that the family made annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, and tells of a hair-raising event when Jesus teetered on the brink of adolescence. You remember. Following the festival, the family is heading home, probably in a large caravan, when they realize that Jesus is missing. He's not with his siblings, or cousins. Mary and Joseph high tail it back to Jerusalem and after three days of searching, they find Jesus in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions. Luke says, "And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers."5 Why do you think young Jesus could debate issues with the scribes and leaders of the synagogue? Undoubtedly his parents had schooled him in the law and the prophets. As his primary caregiver, Mary surely tutored her son in hesed, that is, the steadfast love of God. Jesus was taught the essence of Torah - love of God and neighbor. He grew up in a laboratory of embodied love and practiced faith. In his local synagogue Jesus likely debated the spirit of the law with his youth advisors and challenged the session regarding what percentage of the annual budget would go to support the widows and orphans.

Just a few chapters later, Luke records the first public words of Jesus. After Jesus was baptized by John, when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth, he entered the synagogue one Sabbath, and upon being invited to speak, he took the scroll of Isaiah, unrolled it, and read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has appointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

When Jesus finished, he rolled up the scroll, handed it to the attendant, and sat down. With the eyes of everyone in the synagogue fastened on him, Jesus then dropped the bombshell: "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

Later, when friends brought the scandalous news to Mary, she did not need to ponder the incident in her heart. Instead, she turned away in relief and amazement, raised her faithful heart to Yahweh, and cried, "Yes!"


1. James F. Kay "Mary's Song - and Ours" Christian Century, Dec. 10, 1997.
2. Ibid.
3. "The Song of Mary: A reading of the Magnificat"
4. Ibid.
5. Luke 2:41-47

Prayers of the People: Advent 4
By the Reverend Dr. Gregory Knox Jones

Good and gracious God, we do not invoke your presence, but rather acknowledge that you are always present, surrounding us with your love and calling us to joy-filled, Christ-like lives. Yet, with the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school so fresh in our minds, it feels insensitive to sing out words of Christmas cheer. This tragedy haunts us. Most of those innocent first graders were looking forward to all the fun and surprises that come with Christmas morning. Parents and grandparents had purchased presents in anticipation of the moment when the children would rip off the paper and squeal their delight. But suddenly they are gone and their families will need more strength than they have ever mustered before, just to make it through the coming days. We pray that their families, their friends and their faith communities will extend the gentle love and caring compassion they will need to survive their surreal Christmas. O God, help each of us to touch people who are hurting with your healing love.

Mighty God, in addition to extending love to brothers and sisters who suffer, you call on us to let justice roll down like mighty waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Your Spirit moved Mary to magnify your name and to rejoice that the poor and the outcast would be lifted into places of prominence, while the arrogant and the mean-spirited would be knocked off their thrones. We pray that you will purge everyone's heart from greed and malice and the things that destroy. May your great Spirit flow through us inspiring us to throw ourselves into pursuing truth and striving for justice and doing all that we can to promote peace.

Everlasting God, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, help us to make room in our minds and our hearts for the babe in the manger. His birth signaled a new beginning and a new way of being. His life was filled with struggle and suffering, yet he showed that joy bursts forth, not from a trouble-free existence, but from living a life of love. O God, remind us that our lives need not be perfect to experience joy. You are with us in every chapter of life and nothing can separate us from you, so even when life is sorrowful in the extreme, we can feel the joy and the inner peace that comes from a life in harmony with you. God, in all times and in all places, you shine light in darkness, inspire us to be bold disciples committed to sharing Christ-like love throughout this planet we all must share. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.