Based on Luke 1:39-55
When I attempt to put myself into Mary’s shoes, I find them quite scary. Mary was a young Jewish woman in Galilee in the last years of the rule of Herod the Great. Can we think about what that meant for a moment?
You’ve likely heard of the Jewish exile, which started with the Babylonian defeat and capture of Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE. The exile refers to the subsequent removal of the political, religious, and intellectual leadership to captivity in Babylon. After the Bablyonian empire was defeated by the Persian empire in 539, the Jewish captives were permitted to return, thus ending the exile. That is known as the “return” or “restoration.” It was a time of rebuilding and creation – the walls and gates of Jerusalem were restored, the 2nd Temple was built, and Jewish identity solidified.
However, from before time of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem through the life of Jesus, the Jews and their nation of Judah remained a vassal state to some empire or another. The only exception to this is 167 to 160 BCE during the Maccabean revolt from which comes the history of Hanukkah. By the time of Mary, then, the Jews had been living under the dominance of Empires for nearly 600 years straight.
Furthermore, Mary was from GALILEE…. Galilee had been part of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel, which had been captured and defeated in 722 BCE by the Assyrian Empire. During the time of the Maccabees, Jews from Judea resettled the land and claimed it for traditional Jewish living again – at least in the small villages. So, even within Judaism of the 1st century before the common era, Galilee was second class, almost a colony within an Empire.
Then there was the Galilee’s Galilee-ness. Galilee, which had been part of the Northern Empire, was known for being distrustful of centralized power. (It should shock no one that Jesus was formed there.) When Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, revolts broke out, starting in Sepphoras – the largest city in Galilee.
Marcus Borg describes it like this:
When Herod died in 4BCE, revolts broke out in all parts of the Jewish homeland, indicating how repressive and unpopular his reign had been. Rome responded by sending legions of troops from Syria. In Galilee, the legions reconquered its largest city, Sepphoris, and sold many of the survivors into slavery. Nazareth was nearby, only 4 miles away. Then the Roman legion continued south, reconquering Jerusalem, and crucified two thousand of its defenders as a public demonstration of the consequences of the rebellion. Jesus was an infant or toddler during this time.1
This wasn’t EXCEPTIONAL, this was life under foreign occupation and the attempts to reconstitute self-rule.
These are the facts of any Galilean’s life. Mary had some additional factors. First of all, she was a young woman, likely pubescent. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are NOT inventions of the 21st century, and I imagine it was terrifying to be a young woman then as it often is now. Also, puberty is a very hard time for anyone, and I imagine that hasn’t changed. Bodies change, hormones rage, and life is confusing. Let’s add one more piece to the first two: Mary was pregnant. Talk about hormones, bodies changing, and confusion!! Furthermore, in those days it wasn’t uncommon for women to die in childbirth, and being a parent is scary!
So far we have dealt with fact and likely conjecture. I don’t have historical evidence to prove that Mary was young, but it is very likely. There are two more pieces of the story that are unclear – they aren’t likely nor unlikely. The story says that Mary is engaged – that may or may not be so. If she was engaged, that might have been scary since her fiance was likely much older than she was and not someone she picked. Furthermore, if he was not the father of her child, she lived in fear of being found out and ruined. Similarly, if Mary was pregnant and engaged (but not married) then her fiance was not the father – as the marriage WAS the consummation. Then it seems possible that she was pregnant by assault and … sexual assault is terrifying.
Basically, Mary’s experience sounds to me to be similar to how it might feel to be 12 years old, pregnant, and in a Central American caravan trying to seek asylum in the US. The whole thing sounds terrifying.
I wouldn’t expect either young woman to to praising God with words of strength and profound adoration. I would expect either one to be begging God for help with survival. But that isn’t what our passage does today – not at all. Instead, our passage has Mary exclaiming the wonder of God, in ways that DEFY historical context, Jewish history, and even the moment she’s living in her life. Of course, the word were likely penned later by Christians a few generations afterwards, based on the song by Hannah, but that actually doesn’t make them less interesting, it makes them MORE impressive. That means at the time the words were written, the Christians were experiencing serious persecution, and still they wrote, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is [God’s] name.” There is something about God that is bigger than individual survival or even communal well being!
The words attributed to Mary in this passage are words of deep and abiding faith. They may not have been her words, but they are an expression of the faith of Jewish women for generations. They sound like what it would take to be the woman who could raise a man like Jesus. They express faith in a God who is trustworthy – and despite MANY reasons to be afraid, they express trust and hope that all matter of all things will be well.
They trust that God is at work, but more than that, that God is at PLAY bringing the world towards justice and wholeness. Now, we’ve reached my major point. I’d think Mary would be afraid, but instead she is delighted and filled with praise. She sees a God of play. One who loves justices and brings it into the world with joy and creativity. So, it is time for a transition – to hear what she said and what it means, but this time I’m going to use someone else’s words and rhythm, and rhyme. Will the children please join me up front?
These words come from Rev. Emmy Kegler, the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Northeast Minneapolis, in her sermon “The Heart of Justice — or, How the Grinch Learned the Magnificat” from 2015.
There are hundreds of carols we sing every year,
celebrating the season when Christmas draws near.
These hymns are familiar and loved very dear,
And we sing loud and proud about midnights so clear.
But some songs get forgotten in the midst of the season,
Songs that have been with us long for a reason.
Songs someone carefully thought up and wrote out,
Songs that are all what the season’s about.
Today’s story is that — the song of sweet Mary,
Who faced some good news exciting and scary.
She was carrying Jesus, God’s very own Son,
And sang today’s story in a-dor-a-tion:
My soul is enraptured, uplifted, fulfilled,
For God has seen me and a purpose has willed.
Though I am quite humble, unimportant and small,
God has chosen me to bear the Savior of all.
But I should not be shocked that God chose a girl —
God’s made unusual choices since the start of the world.
You’d think God would choose big names, the mighty, the strong,
God should rain down power to fight and right wrongs.
But in all the stories I’ve ever been told,
God works in the outsider, the young or the old,
Those who we think are empty-handed and poor
Are the very ones God comes to and loves more and more.
God isn’t impressed by riches or appearance,
God looks at the heart and sees what is nearest.
If your thoughts are un-good or unkind or untrue
God will not let you hurt whoever you choose.
God isn’t excited about rulers and kings,
God knows earthly might is a dangerous thing.
God remembers the promises and seeks out the lost,
God is righting the world, no matter the cost.
All the Whos down in Whoville loved the Magnificat,
but the Grinch, still learning his lesson, did NOT.
“I’m confused,” the Grinch said, “At first it seems sweet
That God looks at the lowly and thinks that they’re neat.
“But Mary says God takes the strength from the strong,
And sends rich away empty, and — well, that seems wrong.
I thought God loved us all, exactly the same.
Choosing some over others sounds like a shame.”
“This isn’t a song we should sing in this season,
This song is confusing and feels without reason.
Life isn’t fair, and I do wish it would be
But now’s not the time to talk about should-be.
“We’ve got to get ready for family and feast!
For singing, and joy, and cooking roast beast!”
Cindy Lou Who, the little Who whom you may remember
Listened kindly to the Grinch’s grumps through December.
“I think,” Cindy said, after thinking a lot,
“There must be a reason for the Magnificat.
Christmas began with the birth of a child,
And while it sounds cute, the scene was quite wild!
“Rich men called magi, who studied the stars,
Packed up their camels and brought gifts from afar.
Expecting a new king to be born very soon,
They checked at the palace, as one ought to do.
“But he was born in a stable, filled with smelly old sheep!
His parents were homeless, had nowhere to sleep.
His dad was a carpenter — not very wealthy,
And I can’t imagine sleeping in hay is healthy.”
“But still,” the Grinch said, “I thought God was fair.
I thought God viewed each of us with just the same care.
If that’s so, why does God feed some and not others?
Shouldn’t we split it between all sisters and brothers?”
“I think,” Cindy said, after thinking a bit,
“That God’s idea isn’t unfair or unfit.
The rich Whos have money. They’re already eating.
But for those on the edges, there is no more seating.
“If God is ensuring the poor get some too,
God isn’t unfair — God’s thinking it through.
God’s evening out what is unfairly done,
Feeding the hungry and forgetting none.”
“This is called justice,” Cindy Lou Who reminded,
“Making things equal and right for all Whomankind.
Some Whos already have more than they need.
God’s concern is for those who are trampled by greed.
“Justice means when something goes wrong, God will right it.
And to that hard work of change we’re invited.
To fixing what’s broken. To righting old wrongs.
I think that is why we sing Mary’s great song.”
“But still,” the Grinch said, “it doesn’t seem fair
To take from one person to even the share.
If I earned it, I keep it. I can give it away
If I want to, but God taking it isn’t okay.
How can I buy gifts if God looks down on money?
Can we cook roast beast if God sends us off hungry?
Once I stole food, but brought it back to you.
Now when I make food, I buy it all new.
If I’m not the one causing any unfairness,
Why am I being charged with justice awareness?”
“I think,” Cindy said, after thinking quite quietly
“God worries how the mighty got so very might-i-ly.
“We’re all loved by God, but not all born the same.
Some Whos get a bonus in life’s complex game.
“I think justice,” said the wise little Cindy Lou Who,
“Is recognizing you’re not just a product of you.
“There are systems in place that we didn’t start,
And some without the tiniest shred of a heart.
The roast beast we eat — were they cared for and fed?
Who stitched the red Santa cap you wear on your head?
“Some Whos are quite wealthy because they make choices
That hurt others, but wealthy Whos silence their voices.
When God questions wealth, it’s because all too frequently
Wealth has been made from Whos who are hurt secretly.
“So I think,” Cindy said, after rubbing her chin,
“The challenge is for us to see the systems we’re in.
We have to ask questions. We have to keep checking.
If Whos do go hungry, it’s time for inspecting.”
“It’s hard to keep learning,” the Grinch grumpily said.
“This information feels like too much for my head.”
“That’s OK,” little Cindy Lou Who let him know.
“You don’t have to change everything by tomorrow.”
“The power of community helps us keep going.
We gather together to share questions and knowing.
By hearing our stories, we change and we grow,
And become a force for justice in the world that we know.”
“Hmm,” hmm’d the Grinch, his grinchy face wrinkling.
“This idea of community has got me thinking.”
He thought of how life had been pre-Cindy Lou.
How he grumbled, and grimaced, and hated the Whos.
He thought of how feeling left out made him feel —
Like he would never sit with a friend for a meal.
“I hated Who Christmas because I felt ignored.
I tried to ruin it and even the score.
“When you sang your Who songs, I was angry and rash.
I stole all of your presents, your gifts, all your stash.
I stole all of the food and the Christmas trees too.
I was so very angry, my dear Cindy Lou.
“But I realized the day when you all still sang songs
That Christmas is all about repairing wrongs.
I wanted to fix all I’d broken and wrecked,
Even if you despised me for the thoughts in my head.
“But you didn’t!” the Grinch grinned. “You invited me in.
You gave me a seat, said I was for-giv-en.
The injustice of me being left out was repaired.
You welcomed me even though I’d been unfair.”
The Grinch smiled. “Thank you, little Cindy Lou Who.
It’s hard to accept, but I know what to do.
I’m part of a problem that’s quite hard to see,
But you know what? I’m stronger than its secrecy.
“Justice is a word I want to keep hearing.
And knowing that fairness is a hope to keep nearing.
When I have been hurt, I want to declare it.
And when I am the hurter, I want to repair it.
“I want to help others. I want to learn lots.
And I want to sing Mary’s Magnificat.
God remembers the promises and seeks out the lost,
God is righting the world, no matter the cost.”2
Preached by Rev. Sara E. Baron on December 23, 2018