~ Luke 1:26-56 ~
There’s one word in this passage Jeannie read that we might have overlooked. But it turns out to be quite important. Did you catch it? It says Mary “pondered.” “What sort of greeting might this be”, she ponders? “Pondered” means she turned things over in her mind. Hers was not a passive, do-with-me-what-you-will mind. Hers was a let-me-carefully-consider-this mind. Everything that follows is in light of her “pondering” what this all means.
As the story goes, Gabriel presents Mary with an invitation; puts an offer on the table. Mary asks some questions of clarification (it is a rather audacious situation, after all). But this is not a forced situation. It would appear that God (and I use the masculine voice here intentionally) does not force himself on Mary. He does not abuse his power. Rather, it is an offer, an invitation. It appears that Mary is free to refuse this audacious offer if, in her pondering, she decides it’s just not for her. The choice is hers. We don’t know how long it took for her to decide – maybe a few seconds? A couple hours? Later that day? Maybe a few days? However long it took, the offer was hers to choose. And she chose to accept the invitation: “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me…”
Apparently, Gabriel, maybe somewhat relieved, had done his job, for it then says he “departed from her.” And there was Mary left to ponder some more about what had just happened. Evidently, she didn’t stay that way too long, for the story says that she went “with haste” up to a small village in the hill country of Galilee to visit her cousin Elizabeth. And so, two remarkable women celebrate their conditions – their pregnant conditions. Little did they know…
Little did they know they would be in a musical. Picture this: The screen shows a large Vermont fireplace with logs ablaze. As the camera pulls away you see a warm living room with a large Christmas tree and a piano. At the piano, talking to his girl about his hopes and dreams, is Bing himself. With barely a pause in the conversation, he turns to the keyboard and starts singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Well, like those musicals of a bygone era, when songs seemingly came out of nowhere, Luke gives us a 1st century musical, of sorts. Often, in those old musicals, the song had nothing to do with the plot or the plot was a mere contrivance to set up the song. But in Luke’s musical, the songs are all essential features of the plot. Every character has a role to play in telling this amazing birth story and sometimes they burst into song. Zechariah and Simeon will have their songs to sing. Here we have Mary.
As the story goes, nine months before Christmas day, Mary went to see her cousin, Elizabeth. Mary told Elizabeth about the visit from the angel Gabriel. Luke’s Gospel then says, “…and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” In response, Mary bursts into song, a song most venerated in all of Christendom, The Magnificat. This is an incredible, amazing statement of how God will bring about justice in the form of her son, Jesus.
Kathleen Norris, a wonderful poet and essayist about spiritual journeys, spent considerable time visiting Benedictine monasteries when she lived in South Dakota. In that experience, she was able to open herself to the literary and theological treasure house of the early Christian church. She writes:
No doubt it was my repeated exposure to The Magnificat in monastery choirs that led me to make it the focus of encountering Mary in the Scriptures. Each time I pray, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,” I am compelled to ask, with Mary, “How can it be” that salvation has ways of working around all of the obstacles of sin, ignorance, and defiance that I place in its path? “How can it be” that God troubles with so wretched, self-centered, inconstant, and spiritually impoverished person as myself. Who, after all, am I?
Indeed, in our self-made sufficiency we have difficulty facing the reality of our self-centered impoverishment. In our activism, we have a hard time accepting the fact that God’s grace is absolutely prior to all we are and do. America, a nation religious to the core, is motivated by the conviction that God helps those who help themselves. With our unprecedented power over nature and nations, we are prone to regard God’s grace as a reward for our virility and power. Therefore, to regard ourselves as humble, helpless recipients of a grace that is the very foundation of our existence is not easy. Yet here is Mary. She was the simple and pure recipient of grace and became the mother of Jesus.
As recipients of God’s life-giving grace, I’d like to extol the poignant words of another Mary. As many of you already know, Mary Oliver, who passed away just recently, was a wonderful poet. And even though this quote does not come from a poem about Mary, the mother of Jesus, I think it could be her song – and ours. From “Starlings in Winter,” by Mary Oliver:
I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable and beautiful and afraid of nothing
as though I had wings.
Mary dared to think and sing “dangerous and noble things.” Even as we ask, “how can it be,” may we not be afraid to take to winged flight because we have all received much grace from the God, the God of mercy who turns the world upside down. May our spirits rejoice in the God who has shown us favor. Indeed, we could all be like Mary. Amen.