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"Faith of a Woman"

A Sermon by The Rev. Keenan Kelsey
Noe Valley Ministry, Presbyterian Church (USA)
December 12, 2004

Luke 1:41-55
41 And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ 46 And Mary* said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

THE SIGHT AND SOUND of a young mother-to-be singing is a touching and common one.   Even I, a hesitant singer at best, was wont to begin humming or singing lullabies as I eased my bulging belly into a newly purchased rocking chair and tried to imagine my new baby.  My friend Donna had a different approach – she would belt out show tunes as she considered various names to suit her forthcoming and doubtless heroic son.


Today we hear another mother-to-be, Mary, Mother of Jesus, singing in anticipation of her own child. At this point you would think she had little to sing about  -- This young peasant girl who has braved the appearance of a frightful angel, has wrestled with the fact of an inexplicable pregnancy, and has endured the judgments of family and fiancé.   In our reading, she has just arrived on the doorstep of her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman who is also with child in unlikely circumstances.

Mary must have been hungering for a confidante, a girlfriend, someone to tell about that moment when the angel Gabriel spoke to her, when her initial fear was described with a Greek variant stronger than any in the Scriptures, outstripping even the alarm that Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah felt at the same angel’s appearance.   Mary must have felt like Moses at the burning bush. This teenager – who did not cave in, who neither passed out, nor helplessly submitted – must have yearned to talk about her questions and fears.  After all, she had been forced, to decide in an instant, whether to recoil and refuse, or to take the leap into nothing less than a faith-filled partnership with God.

So Mary comes to her cousin, and possibly for the first time in her pregnancy, she had been celebrated and praised – “Blessed are you among women, Mary”. Suddenly and finally, freed from the need to apologize, explain, cower at the mercy of others;  a dazed but jubilant Mary explodes into song.  What we call the Magnificat is the longest set of words placed on the lips of any woman in the whole New Testament.  Her song is a joyous prayer of thanksgiving to a God who knows the circumstances of the poor and lowly and reaches down to lift them up. A pregnant girl’s faith is validated and Mary ‘s spirit rejoices in God her savior. She sings of an exultant, covenantal vision, much like that we heard in Isaiah, where life is lived in mutuality, generosity, and community; where hierarchies disappear and in their place is a circle of relationships where everyone matters; where there is joy in the world.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, “Yahweh who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.”

Ah yes, that’s the song of Christmas -- God has done great things, and holy is God’s name. The song contains the essence of the Christmas faith, of Mary’s faith. For through her words she tells us that “faith” is not a magic wand or an abracadabra.  It   is a consuming trust in God’s justice, love, and mercy.  Faith is more than the acceptance of a body of beliefs, it is staking one's life on God’s promises. “Feed your faith,” says Mary, “and your doubts will starve to death.” Her song reminds us that Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, but Faith looks up “Faith is not merely your holding on to God,” Mary tells us, “it is God holding on to you. And God will not let you go!”

It does Mary no honor to reduce such extreme faith to a privatized piety or a passive obedience. Her Greek name derived from the Hebrew Miriam means rebellion.  And as she realizes her destiny, she holds up the banner of peace and justice and liberation.  She becomes a gutsy freedom fighter, a peacenik, a demonstrator and a believer in the fulfillment of prophetic promise, for she of all people is realizing that nothing is impossible for God!  The faith of Mary was recognized early on in the Christian church. She was given the title Theotokos or Mother of God in the late 4th century   Augustine of Hippo held her up as an example of the inner state of human spirituality, the secret heart of a person that mirrored the presence of the creator. But the significance of the Birth itself was underplayed during the first thousand years of Christianity, as believers claimed the cross as the keystone of our faith.

It was the monastics that finally began to see theological implications in the birth as well.  St. Bonaventure wrote, “The eternal God has humbly bent down,” “and lifted the dust of our nature into unity with his own person”. “We move toward God,” said Bernard of Clairvaux,  “because God has first moved toward us.”  And St. Francis of Assisi  maintained that the journey of God is always through the Crib, as he called it, the manger or the birth.

In fact St. Francis was probably the first to fully understand that  the dramatically  radical aspect of Mary’s faith was not that God was going to initiate work for salvation, for justice, for mercy, but that God was going to do it through the birth of a child. Francis applauded that Mary was the very first to accept that somehow God would enter the human condition and bring peace, that a vulnerable and dependant baby who enters the world with a cry, Would be God’s chosen. Francis was fond of saying “God works out of littleness”  -- of course this could be because he himself was quite short!  But I think he meant that the crib empowers humanity, raises our status as enfleshed and vulnerable beings, brings a new value to every human being by allowing each of us the opportunity to become more deeply like Jesus.   Francis describes that journey not as linear, but as inward, toward a new relationship with God in which God takes on flesh anew in one’s life. The Good News of Jesus Christ, as Francis understood it, is that we do not “go to God” as if God sat in the starry heavens awaiting our arrival; rather, God has “come to us” in the Incarnation.

Francis would say that we don’t acquire a relationship with God as though acquiring something that did not previously exist. Rather, we pray to disclose the image of God in which we are created, the God within us, that is, the one in whom we are created and in whom lies the seed of our identity. We pray not to “ascend” to God but to “give birth to God” to allow the image in which we are created to become visible.

And that image is the image of a child, of simplicity and generosity and vulnerability.

Francis wanted to take Christ off the cross and back into the world. And he did it by embracing the child, the one who is strong enough to be weak, busy enough to take time, rich enough to be poor.

St. Francis lived with the centrality of scripture. His faith, his theology was grounded in the Crib, the Cross, and the Cup.  But he loved the feast of the Crib above all else! And I think his Crib would have welcomed some of today’s Christmas traditions, this period of looking forward, preparing. Of course he would hate the crassness of commercialization, and the blatant sentimentality of so much of it.  But he would welcome the magic, the movement toward the light.

The daily popping out of multi-colored lights at doorways and windows, the Christmas tree lots that spring up over night, the magnificent window displays, the wreaths, the reds and greens and sounds of bells – it all evokes a tone of excitement and anticipation.   It is as if the entire world is preparing for a visit from an emissary from another world, and St Francis would have liked that part.  For that is the childlike fun and eager joy.

The business side of Christmas -- the commercialism -- doesn’t bother me as it does some. There are those who think the spiritual import of Christmas may be forgotten. There’s no danger of that. The spiritual significance of Christmas is so dominant that many who are ordinarily indifferent go out of their way to find a religious service. Or a volunteer activity. That is part of the miracle of Christmas.

Personally, the exchange of gifts, the decorations in our homes, and the adding of color to drab streets, the erection of a bedazzled tree in our public square, these are not a contradiction to the spiritual importance of the season. These traditions and rituals repeated each year help rekindle in our consciousness what happened a long time ago. They help us recall emotions that otherwise would get lost in the past. But I think it is wonderful that in this season of darkness, we humans use light –illuminating our homes and towns with increasing brightness as we move toward the light of God in Christ.  The simple fact God has come to be with us in Jesus Christ never grows stale. Visual images help tell the story.

I cannot explain it, but every year it happens. A special quality of Divine Presence invades our world. Year after year the world in some measure stops to listen to the story, to sing the music, starting with Mary’s song.  These are the gifts of a child, of a human birth.  These are the gifts that remind us to slowdown, to listen, to be focused, to be in the moment.

St. Francis celebrated God’s humanity, and vulnerability, through the feast of the Crib. I wonder if he created a crèche?  Like many families I grew up with a crèche where the kids could handle the figures.  In fact, we three kids would take Baby Jesus and hide him all over the house.  Likewise the wise men would be taken to the far corners of the room, to be moved closer each day.  Of course every night my mother would dutifully gather them up and rearrange them at the crèche, but their journey away from the crèche would begin again the next morning. My own children were not so focused in their reenactments, but they did indeed play with that same crèche.  After many years, one of my most poignant moments was hearing Megan tell her brother, look Sean, everyone but Jesus is chipped!”

What an amazing theological truth.  Everyone but Jesus is chipped.  You and me, the whole world, in humanity, we are chipped. But God continues to love us, to work in us, to come to us, every year.  And for a season, even a day, we can have the faith of Mary; the Christ child can be born in us; and we can be made new, whole, ready for a new year.

May it be so.