Advent Vespers

St. Mary’s Vesper Service

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today, and to reflect upon what I would consider one of the most significant songs of this Advent and Christmas season—the Magnificat that Mary sings when she visits Elizabeth and is blessed by Elizabeth for the baby that is in her womb.  In addition to all of the lessons that you have heard this afternoon, I invite you to listen to the words of Mary once again, and allow these words to sink into your soul as you envision with Mary her hopes and dreams for the reign of God that would bring about the upheaval of the way things are in this world and introduce a whole new world order where God's justice and peace would rule the day.

"My soul magnifies my God and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God's name.  God's mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.  God has shown strength with a mighty arm and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  God has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.  God has helped the servant Israel in the remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise that God made with Abraham and Sarah and to their descendents forever."

At first glance, this song appears to be a description about a God who has turned everything upside down.  Those who are humble and lowly, like Mary, will replace those who are proud and powerful.  Those who are hungry and impoverished will replace those who are wealthy and have all the food they will ever want to eat.  Instead of this complete role reversal that always opens up the door for those who are the oppressed to become the oppressors, I like to think of this song more as a description about what it will take to level the playing field so that everyone has an equitable place at the table to decide what our common good will be and everyone will experience the equitable distribution of all of the wealth and food resources that are available in any community.

Such was not the environment in which Mary found herself as she prepared to deliver this baby.  Her country was occupied and controlled by the Romans.  Most of the land throughout her country was owned and operated by a wealthy elite that comprised no more than 10% of the population.  Her religious leaders were known for their hypocrisy, corruption, and oppression of their own people.  Mary's parents lived under the burden of a double taxation—by the Roman government and by the religious establishment—that kept the majority of the population living in abject poverty.

As far as we can surmise, Mary was a teenager when she became pregnant.  Whereas we often portray Mary as this sweet young radiant woman all dressed in bright blue clothing and usually Caucasian, in reality, Mary was a peasant woman who was subject to all of the norms of her day like not being able to own any property, being dominated by the men in her life, and having to work hard to support her family.  Now that she was pregnant, she faced the possibility of being publicly humiliated and ostracized by her community.  According to the letter of the law, she could have been stoned to death.  It's no wonder that Joseph wanted to break off the engagement.

In some respects, the decree from Rome requiring Joseph to go to the hometown of his ancestry in order to be counted and taxed was a good thing because it allowed Mary to escape the humiliation that she certainly would have had to endure had she stayed in her own community.  As far as we know from archeological reports, Bethlehem was a very small town of about 200 - 300 residents at that time.  Even though Bethlehem was the place of Joseph's ancestry, he had been gone long enough that apparently he didn’t know anyone who currently lived there.  Otherwise, he and Mary might have had a place to stay.  Instead, as the story goes, after failing to find room in an inn, they were allowed to sleep in a stable where Mary gave birth to her son.  At this moment in her life, she and Joseph would qualify for what we call today “being homeless.”

Most of my ministry has been with homeless people, especially with homeless women.  I can tell you that given the plight of women in our country, even in this 21st century, the story of Mary gets played out over and over a hundred thousand times every single day as homeless and at-risk women seek shelter, safety, warmth, food, clothing, hygiene amenities, support services, housing, and most of all, community.  As the "me-too" movement gains momentum in our country, we cannot forget all of the homeless and at-risk women whose voice may never make the news, but who have as much right as anyone in terms of their freedom from the way that they are harassed, abused, prostituted, trafficked, and cast to the wind as if they can be used up and discarded like someone's object. 

Mary's song comes out of her own plight in life as she sees this gift of a child as a sign of what is to come, not only for herself, but also for all of the other women in her life who have been treated as mere chattel.  According to the Gospel of Luke, in which this Magnificat is recorded, Jesus is portrayed as having a strong preference for women in his day.  They are mentioned as being part of his company of followers.  Women often are the recipients of Jesus' healing touch.  Widows get Jesus' special attention because they are the ones most liable to end up begging on the streets.  Jesus welcomes women into the audience of his teaching—a place that only men belonged.  The women who cry out to God for justice are told by Jesus that God will hear and respond to their plea.  Even as Jesus is marched off to his crucifixion, he notices the women who are beating their breasts and wailing for him because they recognize the injustice that is being done in putting this innocent advocate on their behalf to death.  Jesus urges them to weep not for him, but for themselves because of the devastation that will come if the vision of his mother Mary doesn't see the light of day.

Every Wednesday as we gather for our midweek Advent service, we begin the service with the chant, "Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world, a light that no darkness can overcome."  I have seen this light of Christ in so many homeless women who have shared with me their faith journey and held on to the hope of a better day when the song of Mary will become their reality—a reality where they will have a permanent roof over their heads, enough food on the table each and every day, a steady source of income to make ends meet, and an opportunity to be reunited with their children and their families without living with the fear of what the men in their lives will do to them. 

Therefore, as we listen once again to Mary's description about a God who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty, keep in mind all of the women who, like Mary, are on the margins of society, living in make-shift stables, dressed only in the ragged clothes on their backs, and longing for the day when they not only will be free from all of the suffering and pain that they have had to endure, but also will find themselves with a place at the table where they will be able to speak out as Mary has and offer a vision of justice and righteousness that we all can celebrate as we await the coming of the One who promises to make all things new and who will guide all of our feet into the way of peace.  May this peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Savior Immanuel.  Amen.