Advent 4, Year C, 2018
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
There are a lot of words we associate with Advent. Peace, Love, Joy. Waiting, patience, expectation. But the one word I see running through the season of Advent, one that sums up so much of the story we are telling leading up to Christmas is wildness. We start with the little apocalypse from Jesus, in Advent One, with the heavens and the Earth shaking at the foretold second coming. Then we move to John the Baptist, the wild-eyed prophet proclaiming the messiah to come, crying out to make straight the pathways, admonishing those in power, and upending the understanding of what it means to repent. In Advent we live on the edges of the Kingdom of God which is about to burst forth into the world with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, seeing flashes of the Kingdom in everything that leads up to it. Then today, when the tension is at its highest, when some churches might decide to give up and do Christmas pageants, when the anticipation of the nativity is so palpable, we have one of the wildest and radical events in our scriptures. Often referred to as the Visitation, it is the story of Mary going to see her cousin Elizabeth after the angel Gabriel has come to tell her that she will bear the child of God, the messiah who is prophesied to come. What follows is, arguably the first proclamation of the Good News by Mary herself in the Magnificat. In fact I would make the bold statement that one of the ways in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ, told through the lens of Luke, seeks to upend the norms of the time is by having a woman be the first one to proclaim the Gospel in Mary, the mother of God, and for women to be the first evangelists and apostles to herald the resurrected Christ. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that second one in Easter.
The Visitation is itself such a wild, absurd moment. First we have Mary, who has just been visited by an angel, to be told she will conceive a child by God. Her response is to say she is too young, that she is still a virgin, and yet the angel assures her it can be so. At the end of the encounter with Gabriel, Mary basically just says, “Ok. I’m in. Let’s make this happen.” She seems rather nonchalant in my book. But then she races off to her cousin’s house. Now we add the second person to this absurd scene, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is much older than Mary. In fact she’s so much older she probably fits more like an aunt or elder confidant and role model. Elizabeth is also barren, and yet in the verses before Mary shows up we learn how God blesses Elizabeth and Zechariah with a pregnancy. Elizabeth is the first person Mary goes to tell about this encounter. She doesn’t go to Joseph, she doesn’t go to rabbis or priests, she goes to Elizabeth to share this news. These two women are the ones discussing the God incarnate who is coming into this world. Through this sharing of the news, and the confirmations for each other of the shared state of pregnancy, because recall that Mary didn’t know Elizabeth was pregnant until the angel told her, they are affirming the salvation of humanity that is at hand, two women of decent means and status, but not royalty. These women aren’t part of the ruling class or the religious elite, they are just people whom God has chosen for this.
What comes next has been a rallying cry of the Kingdom of God for centuries, recited, chanted, or sung in pretty much every Christian domination. The Song of Mary, or the Magnificat, is the proclamation of what’s about to happen. It is an extraordinarily subversive statement, decrying the rich and powerful, asserting that the lowly will be lifted up, and all being recited by a young woman in her cousin’s house. Can you imagine if a Roman soldier or Judean official happened to walk by the house as Mary is exclaiming that, “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.” Either they would roll their eyes at the ridiculousness of it, or worse they might arrest the women for conspiring against the Emperor. This heralding of the Messiah isn’t done by a rabbi, or the high priest, or the Sanhedrin, or the emperor. This statement isn’t from a warlord or anyone who frankly has any say or legal standing. In reality, Mary isn’t even married yet. Her standing in society isn’t going to be very good. But she is the one to whom the messiah will be born. The Magnificat is a statement of the Kingdom of God. It is the world in which the followers of Christ indeed should live. The hungry are fed, mighty are cast down, the lowly are raised up. It turns everything on its head, and everything about the heralding of the messiah shows this.
In ages past, to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, the time of Christmastide, there were many events such as the Feast of Fools where the poor and the outcasts would be welcomed into the feasting halls of the royalty. The King of Fools would be crowned and rule for a day. Cathedrals would seat the ‘boy bishop’ in all his finery. The selecting of a child chorister to be made bishop for a day still exists in some English cathedrals and elsewhere. The point is that Jesus’ message is subversive. Everything we have heard from Mary, to John the Baptist, to Jesus himself is about starting with the least of these and raising them up. The Kingdom of God is not like any kingdom we can conceive of, and so these festivals are an attempt to show what that would be like. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the downside is such practices are only for a short time before those in power step back in to wield their might in ways that do not always reflect the teachings of Jesus.
So in a way this is our invitation, our opportunity to turn the world on its head once more. It is our time to be nothing less than fools for Christ, if that is what the world would label us. If we are to celebrate the birth of the messiah by ringing those bells outside tomorrow night, should we not also do so by rooting ourselves firmly in the words of the Magnificat? We are called to the work of lifting up the lowly, of feeding the hungry. I know that I say this sort of stuff a lot, but this is the time to feel the tension between the ‘what is’ and the ‘what should be’. Jesus Christ came to proclaim the Kingdom of God at hand, to teach the values of that kingdom, and his mother, Mary was the herald of this kingdom to come. The popular hymn, “Canticle of the Turning” written by Rory Cooney in 1990 reworks the Magnificat into poetic prose, and the refrain exclaims, “My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.” The world truly has already turned, and now as we are holding our breaths for the proclamation of the birth of the Messiah once again, we should turn our minds and our hearts to preparing for the work that is before us in this world where our souls do indeed magnify the Lord, and our spirits constantly rejoice in God, our savior. So that we are ready to let the wildness of God’s Kingdom send us out proclaiming the Good news of Jesus Christ.