Today's sermon - which really is only today's sermon if you heard it in the context of worship at Manassas CoB - where we heard Christmas blessings sent to us from the local mosque and prayed for gunshot victims, where the fourth advent candle was lit by a family from Benin, a family brass ensemble accompanied our singing, and a recently returned BVSer sang an acoustic guitar-accompanied solo of Mary's song. This is a good place.
Manassas Church of the Brethren
For a lot of us, when we think of Christmas music, we think of the old stand-bys: Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Gene Autry, Perry Como and Burl Ives crooning carols in their smooth, mid-century certainty. The sound of those voices calls up something familiar and nostalgic in a lot of us – home, family, memory. But in my family’s house, we didn’t listen to a lot of those standard Christmas voices. Instead, Christmas carols got belted out, over and over, by the likes of Reba McEntire, Destiny’s Child, and - especially - Mariah Carey. Even if you’re not sure who Mariah is, you’ve definitely heard the single from her Christmas album: All I Want for Christmas is You. THAT album, Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas, has become the soundtrack to my own Christmas nostalgia.
Christmas albums are a popular project - it seems like every pop star and college choir produces a new one each year. These ancient, sacred hymns from the Christian tradition are being sung all over the place this time of year – the mall, the airports, on television and the radio. And it’s not only gospel singers and church choirs that are singing. No, these sacred hymns are being sung – loudly and in public spaces - by the likes of teenage Justin Beiber and rapper-slash-voice coach on the TV show The Voice Cee Lo Green. Some of that abundance of Christmas music is surely over-marketed, profit-induced and sales-driven. But there’s also something a little lovely about these old, old hymns getting so much airtime and attention. Mariah Carey singing Joy to the World, contributing her song to heaven and nature singing, proclaiming that the Lord has come, repeating the sounding joy of Jesus’ birth…it’s a weird and wonderful thing.
Ancient words getting modern airtime is not a foreign concept. While it may seem like a stretch to compare Mariah Carey to Mary, the mother of God, the two women do have something in common.
The text for today is from the first chapter of Luke. The young Mary has just been visited by the angel Gabriel, told that she will give birth to God’s own son. Traditionally, this passage is called the Magnificat, because that’s the first word of Mary’s song when it’s translated into Latin – “my soul magnifies the Lord.”
We know Mary’s song. We hear it every year, and it has become part of how we understand Jesus: who he is, where he came from, what he is about. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary says, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. He has looked with favor on me, and done great things for me. 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.”
We know these words. They are familiar. But what’s sometimes lost in our Christmas stories is that Mary already knew them, too. The song she sang was a familiar one, caught in the collective consciousness of the Israelites for generations. Mary didn’t compose that gorgeous hymn on the spot. In the largeness of that experience, of an angel visiting her to explain that she was pregnant with God’s son and the world’s savior, she did not have to sit down and write a new song to express her wonder. Instead, Mary reached back to tradition and remembered a song that had been sung many times by her ancestors – a song of God’s promises, made and kept.
Mary’s song is, actually, a new treatment of Hannah’s song. It’s not quite a cover...but a familiar interpretation. Hannah’s story, which we read in 1 Samuel, is different from Mary’s. She was unable to have children, and her husband’s other - very fertile - wives were merciless in taunting her about it. Hannah went to the temple to pray. She promised God that if he gave her a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord and send him to work as a priest in the temple. She was praying so fervently that she must have entered into some kind of trance - her lips were moving and tears were flowing down her cheeks but no sound was coming. The priest in the temple saw her weird behavior and assumed that she must be drunk. “Go on, then,” Eli told her, “put away your wine and get out of here!”
But Hannah wasn’t intimidated. “No! I’m not drunk,” she insisted, “I haven’t had a drop to drink! I’m just in deep, deep anguish. I’m praying to God that he would give me a son. Leave me alone.” And Eli did. “Go in peace,” he said, “and may God answer your prayer.”
God did answer Hannah’s prayer. She gave birth to a son, and named him Samuel, a name which means “God has heard.” When Samuel was still small, Hannah took him back to the temple, back to Eli the priest, and offered him her son, staying true to her end of that prayer to God. And there, in the temple, Hannah sang her own song of magnificat. Listen to Hannah’s song, and listen for echoes that carried through the years and into Mary’s song:
My heart rejoices in the Lord.
My strength[a] rises up in the Lord!
My mouth mocks my enemies
because I rejoice in your deliverance.
2 No one is holy like the Lord—
no, no one except you!
There is no rock like our God!
3 Don’t go on and on, talking so proudly,
spouting arrogance from your mouth,
because the Lord is the God who knows,
and he weighs every act.
4 The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,
but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power!
5 Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread,
but the ones who were starving are now fat from food!
The woman who was barren has birthed seven children,
but the mother with many sons has lost them all!
6 The Lord!
He brings death, gives life,
takes down to the grave,[b] and raises up!
7 The Lord!
He makes poor, gives wealth,
brings low, but also lifts up high!
8 God raises the poor from the dust,
lifts up the needy from the garbage pile.
God sits them with officials,
gives them the seat of honor!
The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord;
he set the world on top of them!
9 God guards the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked die in darkness
because no one succeeds by strength alone.
10 The Lord!
His enemies are terrified!
God thunders against them from heaven!
He judges the far corners of the earth!
May God give strength to his king
and raise high the strength of his anointed one.
Do you hear Mary’s words, right there in Hannah’s song? It’s the same song: God fills the empty, raises the low, enriches the poor, brings down the haughty and the wicked. Hannah is praising God, singing about the strangeness of God’s ways, repeating the sounding joy of God’s kingdom close at hand. Barren women conceive, the starving are now plump with goodness, the unbelievable becomes real at God’s hand. Mary, hundreds of years later, sings the same song - the powerful taken down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.
Last Sunday, the Junior High sunday school class was studying this passage and talking about Mary’s song. I asked them why they thought that Mary would sing a song about hungry people and poor people when an ANGEL had just come to visit and tell her all this incredible news. “Well,” they said, “those were probably the only words that rhymed with the rest of her lyrics!”
I’m not one to discount Jr. High answers to biblical scholarship - in fact, I usually like their answers the best. But I think Mary had another reason to sing.
I think Mary sang this song because she already knew it.
I think Mary sang about hungry people being filled and poor people being lifted up because she had just experienced God’s presence, and she knew that THESE were the ancient and eternal promises of God.
I think Mary knew Hannah’s song, and after an angel visited to tell her that she was about to get swept up into God’s story, that old, familiar carol was maybe the only thing that she could grab onto to explain what it was she was feeling. Mary’s song wasn’t just Mary’s song. It was - and is - one snippet of the ancient, sacred tune of God’s presence and promise that had been sung for generations. And it is still being sung today.
So, that brings us right back around to Mariah Carey, doesn’t it? Who’s to say why Mariah sang those carols for that album in 1994, whether she was a follower of Jesus or just another of those unexpected agents of God’s presence? Either way, Mariah is carrying on in the tradition, getting swept up into God’s story, singing that powerful song of God With Us, Mercy Incarnate, a Savior Born This Day.
I think that’s OUR job, too. Hannah met God and did the only thing she knew to do: sang a song of praise and witness, shouting out the story right there in the temple. And, years later, Mary met God and found herself singing that same old song of upheaval, salvation, and mercy. Maybe we can sing, too: maybe we can respond to God’s presence in our lives - sing it out, let our souls magnify what God has done, loose our spirits to be free to rejoice in this expansive salvation.
We are about to meet God, again. Advent is almost over, and Jesus is coming soon. When it happens, when we see him, this time, let’s sing about it. It might be a strange experience, and we may not know exactly what to make of it. God meets us, we know, in weird and unexpected ways – in temples and in stables, in old traditions and in new creations, in the halls of power and in the forgotten alleyways, in angels and in burning bushes, in concert halls and on the radio. It might be hard to figure out, but all we have to do when we notice God’s presence, is to have the wherewithal to open our lips. If we can manage that, we’ll find ourselves singing, praising God for promises kept. We’ll find that we already know the tune, and we already have the words.