Sing Safely, But Sing Nonetheless
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The kid’s from church recorded the ending of the Christmas Eve service this morning. The story has been read and the Amen has been added for an event that is still almost two weeks away.
It feels odd to make the proclamation of the Messiah’s birth while we are still in the midst of Mary’s pregnancy. But staking a claim on the future is not out of step with the Biblical story. In fact it is the biblical story.
Mary goes to visit her elderly family members, in the hill country. She needs a break, a refuge. After learning that she is pregnant and as of yet still unwed, she flees to somewhere that she must have thought safe, a no-judgment zone.
When she meets Elizabeth, there is a miracle of equal proportions taking place. Elizabeth is pregnant.
And Mary sings, my soul does magnify the Lord. But like the Christmas story recorded before its time. Mary’s song seems oddly out of step with reality. Beginning with the opening verse of her song:
“For you, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed.”
Almost no one would have called her blest. Young, poor, and single, the unwed pregnancy could have been a capital crime.
It's popular these days to tell people to have a blessed day or to say that they are feeling blessed. Or to wish a blessing upon one another. “Blessed” has come to mean living a life of privilege and comfort. Using the term has become a way of celebrating those moments when everything is going well, and all seems right with the world — or at least one’s own little corner of it.
But really who wants to be blessed like Mary. By our standards she does not look at all blessed. She is a nobody, a peasant girl from a small village. Her friends and neighbors see her as a disgrace because she is unmarried and pregnant (see Joseph’s initial reaction to her pregnancy in Matthew 1:19). Furthermore, as she will soon learn from Simeon if she hasn’t perceived it already, being the mother of the messiah is scarcely an unmixed blessing. She will bear the unspeakable grief of watching as her son is rejected, shamed, and crucified: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” we learn from Simeon in a little later in the story (Luke 2:34–35). Despite all this, Mary sings.
Her history also seems premature. Mary sings of tyrants being thrown down. And the haughty and rich being sent away empty handed even while living in one of the most stratified and tyrannical times in the recorded history of the world. Despite all of this Mary sings.
Mary sings and claims that which is not yet. She sings of how things can be, should be, would be and will be. She sings of God’s promises and promised hope. She sings and she claims the victory.
Claiming the victory is phrase often repeated in African American Theological circles. Born in slavery, grabbing a hold to the promise of freedom as if it were a present reality was an embodiment of hope. The slaves knew this, and they sang spirituals of liberation and jubilation. Yes, some were laments but many were celebrations claiming and naming the victory while the battle is raging. This may seem premature. It is not because it is a victory assured by God.
8 years ago tomorrow, is the anniversary of Sandy Hook and the some of the realized consequences our national love affair with weapons and violence. It was a hard time in many respects. Going to church and claiming victory was a herculean task. David Lose offering advice that week wrote that it might be better for preachers to be quiet (often good advice I might add) and for the faithful to just sing.
David wrote in part about this text. I think, that is, that they (Mary and Elizabeth) knew just how ridiculous their situation was – two women, one too old to bear a child, one so young she was not yet married, yet called to bear children of promise through whom God would change the world. And they probably knew how little account the world would pay them, tucked away in the hill country of Judea, far from the courts of power and influence. And they probably knew how hard life was under Roman oppression. Yet when faced with the long odds of their situation, they did not retreat, or apologize, or despair, they sang. They sang of their confidence in the Lord’s promise to upend the powers that be, reverse the fortunes of an unjust world, and lift up all those who had been oppressed. When you’re back is to the wall, you see, and all looks grim, one of the most unexpected and powerful things you can do is sing.
Caught between the false dichotomy of despair and optimism, Mary and Elizabeth remind us that of another way, the way of hope. Hope, you see, implies circumstances that are dark or difficult enough to require us to look beyond ourselves for rescue and relief so that we might hear again and anew God’s promise to hold onto us through all that might come and bring us victorious to the other side.
This Sunday is known as Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday. That’s what the pink candle is for. It is the day the Christians traditionally decorate their homes for Christmas. The pink candle shifts the mood of worship for repentance to absolution. From passively waiting for victory to claiming the victory promised. And it comes at the darkest time of year during some very dark times around the globe. Covid has now become the number killer in the US. Depression, despair, substance abuse, physical abuse and unemployment are its gifts.
This is the year that singing in public is not allowed because it is simply too dangerous and quite frankly part of our Christian responsibility to protect the lives of others. A bad situation only gets worse.
Luke’s Gospel has much singing. The Angels sang to the shepherds, far above them (socially distanced) in the heavens. Maybe they had no song of their own in their dangerous and dirty job, so they listened to other songs. Zachariah, struck dumb, his tongue was loosened when it was an appropriate time to sing. And the same when Simeon sang songs of farewell as he catches a glimpse of the victory God promises. Some songs are meant to be sung loudly in public others to be hummed lightly as we await the day when we shall sing together again.
And we will. These difficult days deserve a song of endurance and lament but of promise as well.
There is a lot of power in singing, proclaiming that which by all accounts is not present yet.
Mary’s song was banned being sung or read in India under British rule. In the 1980’s, it was banned in Guatemala. The military Junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song as mother’s of the disappeared scrolled it on placards and posters throughout their capitol’s plaza.– The Subversive Magnificat: What Mary Expected The Messiah To Be Like
But it is more than the singing. It is the song itself. The voice of God telling us to hold on, hold fast. Everything is not as it seems. It is God that is in control, not the haughty, not the arrogant, not the proud.
This morning the scriptures invite us to sing, in the wilderness and in our hopelessness. To sing, yes safely, but to sing, nevertheless. The victory is assured. Our futures are pregnant with possibility. Our God reigns for ever and ever Amen.
We are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born. – Meister Eckart, 13thc. German mystic.