Mary, Did You Know?

There is nothing like reading the facebook posts of my friends who are parents to reaffirm my desire to not be a parent.

It’s not that I dislike being with children and youth. I enjoy hanging out with you all at church, I regularly compete in the sport of fencing with middle and high school aged fencers- they usually beat me. I used to work in early childhood literacy and assisted the children’s librarian with storytimes when I worked in the library.

So its not that, rather it’s more that I’m happy to share my influence with lots of children for short periods of time, and then send them home to their parents, where I don’t have to deal with temper tantrums or dirty diapers.

Because of that, I will never experience much of what Mary was feeling in her song of praise that was our second Bible reading this morning, otherwise known as the Magnificat.

Because part of Mary’s song of praise and love for God her savior is unique to her situation, I believe some of the underlying feelings that inspire the Magnificat are common to all who parent children, who realize the enormity of the task ahead of them and the miracle that is birth.

It’s a song of praise for God’s salvation. It’s a song of hope for her and her child.  It’s a song of peace, the yearning for a world where the mighty are toppled from their thrones. It’s a song of Joy, delighting in a God that fills the hungry with good things.  And last, it’s a song of Love, of the steadfast love of God toward his people, generation after generation.

Truly, this is one of the great scripture sections in the whole of the Bible, and deserves its full context. Let’s back up for a second. I believe that to understand the Magnificat and Mary’s song of praise, we must talk about what salvation means.

When we talk about salvation today, most of the time, we think of whether or not we’re going to heaven or hell when we die. “Do you profess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior”, is a question that we ask when we join the church.

And although this is one aspect, even an important aspect of the history of salvation as it appears throughout the Bible, it is not the only way that we can talk about salvation. After all, Mary sings about “God, my savior”, not Jesus Christ, my savior.

Nor when she sang, do I believe her intent was declare how nice it was that now she would be going to heaven when she died. That’s not what the rest of the song is about, nor is that how Mary, as a Jewish woman during what we call the second temple period, would have understood salvation.

Heck, around the time of Jesus’ life and ministry, there was a vibrant debate among Jews about whether or not the soul was an immortal thing. To this day, Jewish folks don’t believe in a heaven and hell like Christians do.

It’s why when Jewish folks die, the traditional phrases and honorifics involved in mourning have little to do with the state of the deceased’s soul, but instead are things like “May their memory be a blessing.”

This isn’t to imply at all to imply that what we believe as Christians is in any way wrong. If I did, I would be Jewish, but rather that salvation is a multi-faceted thing.

Let’s look at what Micah and Mary in the Gospel have to say about salvation. Micah was one of the Biblical prophets writing before the Babylonian Exile.

He was living in a time of national insecurity, with the tiny kingdom of Israel sandwiched between the giant empires of Egypt and the Assyria. Micah’s primary concern was not the state of his soul, but rather, the soul of the state.

Micah was concerned about if the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel would have effective leadership that ruled in concert with the will of God. Micah wants a land with security, where people live in tune with God’s justice and righteousness, in peace with their neighbors, where the poor are treated with dignity.

As Christians, its easy for us to almost put aside this understanding of Micah’s situation, bluntly superimposing a “THIS MEANS JESUS” sort of stamp on this Bible reading, while ignoring its context.

It’s also easy for us to get so focused on the context of Micah’s time that we forget that we believe that the whole of the Bible does point to Jesus Christ, speaking beyond the time it was written.

It’s a conceit of the modern mind that only one thing, only one reading, one interpretation can be correct of any particular Bible reading. Christians in generations past were comfortable with these readings stacking on top of each other like a… parfait, for everyone likes parfait.

If we look again at what Micah is saying, it’s a call for a new type of leadership. Micah is deliberately calling back not just to King David, but to the town of King David’s birth, and youth.  Micah is deliberately calling for a shepherd.

Micah is not pointing toward a warrior king, a bureaucrat, or a lawgiver, Micah is pointing toward a shepherd. It’s a fundamentally different view of what good leadership looks like.

And if there’s anything we know about shepherds, it’s that there is a good shepherd who leads us. Furthermore, one of my commentaries noted that the words that were used to describe this shepherd King were not the words usually associated with human Kings, but with God.

So yes, Micah was yearning for a salvation rooted in the present conditions of a need for physical, economic, and religious safety. Yet Micah was also yearning for a savior shepherd, who would rule with humanity and divinity. Micah was yearning for Jesus.

Which brings us to Mary, Mother of Jesus, and as the ancient believers confessed, Mother of God, for Jesus is God. Mary, who sings out a song of praise to God her savior. Mary, suffering alongside most of her people under the occupation of a hostile Empire, the Romans, near the height of its power.

Even so, Mary sings of Hope: she sings that all generations will call her blessed.  She understands that her blessings are not because of her own power, but gifts from God, freely given and readily accepted.

Mary sings of Peace, not the absence of conflict, but the presence of God’s justice and righteousness where the mighty are toppled from their thrones, and the lowly lifted up. 

Mary sings of Joy, a God who delights in the lowly, filling the hungry with good things.

And Mary sings of Love, the steadfast mercy and faithfulness of a God towards his people, generation after generation, even in the face of exile, betrayal, and conquest.

Mary foretells Christ’s ministry- his desire to feed the hungry, lift up the people, and cast down the powerful. Which, by the way, if you hear that lovely song Mary, Did you Know, the answer is yes, yes she knew.  She tells us about it in this song.

But when Mary sings the Magnificat, Jesus hasn’t been born yet.  She knows, but doesn’t know the fullness of what changes he will bring to the world.  But she does know of God’s Hope, Peace Joy and Love in anticipation.

Mary’s song of praise is the clearest expression that I know of of the spirit of Advent, this period of anticipation mixed with reflection.

A season of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, a season where we look backwards and forwards at the same time, celebrating the Christ that Came, while looking toward Christ who is to come.

Tomorrow, or the day after, is Christmas Eve.  We will read the Christmas story from Luke, light candles and sing silent night in the dark.

But today is still advent.  So sit with this song of praise of Christ yet to be born yet who is foretold.  Sit with the hope, peace, joy, and love of God in your hearts, and may your days be glad.