From Mary's Lips to Our Ears
17 December 2017, 14:00
© Stacey Steck
This weekend marks the release of yet another film in that popular Star Wars franchise. If you’ve seen it already, please don’t spoil it for the rest of us. Going back to 1977 when the first film came out, and we lined up to see it over and over again, critics have hailed it as an intergalactic version of a classic morality play that incorporated elements of so many of the great stories of the ages, the Biblical story included, of the struggle of good versus evil. The good guys and gals, the Luke Skywalkers and the Princess Leias, are the underdogs, trying to offer resistance against the evil empire, personified by the faceless, masked characters of Darth Vader and his Storm Trooper minions. Through faith, determination, and a little bit of the mysteriously spiritual Force, good triumphs over evil and order is restored to the galaxy.
Maybe it’s more than coincidence that the creator of Star Wars was named George Lucas, because the story he tells of Luke Skywalker could be ripped from the pages of the Gospel of Lucas, or Luke, as we know him here in the United States. What was it that humble Mary was saying? “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty?” Yes, Mary, God has destroyed the Evil Empire with the coming of Jesus Christ in the manger. So why do Luke and Leia still have to use their light sabers to fend off the empire hundreds or thousands of years into the future?
Yes, it was to empire, from the Latin, imperium, to rule or command, that Mary was singing her song. You’re going down, Caesar. There’s a new king in town, with more power in his back pocket than you have in all your legions. Your days are number Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, and all the rest. How come all their names ended in “us?” Even Jesus ends in “us.” But empires are never about “us,” are they? They are about themselves, and about those who have the rule preserving that rule by whatever means necessary. Maybe Emperor Augustus hadn’t mastered Darth Vader’s famous chokehold, -- “I find your lack of faith disturbing” – but he had his own devices, including taxes, conscription, slavery, and crucifixion to maintain power and order. And yet Emperor Augustus, with all that power at his command, was powerless to stop God breaking into the world in a poor, uneducated, unmarried teenager’s womb to fulfill a promise made long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Oops, sorry. Wrong story.
The Biblical story may not be located in a galaxy far, far, away, but it might as well be for how we hear this story. You see, we read this story as if Mary were one of us, as if she were the neighbor on the next farm over, and Jesus her son who will one day attend Mt. Ulla Elementary School. This is a pretty obscure corner of the world, right, just like Nazareth? We are the good guys, right? We are the ones struggling against the Evil Empire, yes? Well, if Mary lives around here, her name is María, and it’s little Jesús who’s headed to Mt. Ulla, and maybe even our tutoring program if he falls a little behind. We talk about ourselves as if we are being systematically oppressed by Washington insiders who want to control every aspect of our lives, but we don’t have the first clue about how Mary in the first century, or even Maria in our own century experience the full weight of Empire. We might get occasional glimpses when our medical bills become overwhelming, or when crop prices aren’t as favorable as we might like, but we will never know what soul-crushing, body-breaking, powers and principalities oppression is all about. I lived in a third world country for ten years and I just scratched the surface of understanding oppression and Empire. If we choose, we can ignore the statistics about global poverty and stateless refugees, and we can close our eyes to the images of bombed out villages and emaciated children, but make no mistake, by any measure, whether we like it or not, we are the Evil Empire. We may not be Augustus or Herod or Pilate, but we are citizens of their empire, and now as then, we citizens enjoy the benefits of simply being born into our circumstances.
And that’s why Mary’s beautiful words, words which have been put to some of the most achingly beautiful music ever produced, words which have been remembered for thousands of years, words which even get their own shorthand title, the Magnificat, should put a chill into our hearts, rather than the sense of joy we celebrate on this third Sunday of Advent. You see, we are the proud and the powerful, scattered and brought down from our thrones. We are the rich sent away empty while the hungry are filled with good things. We are the objects of Mary’s scorn, and God’s justice. This is bad news for us, not good news. Should I just blow out the Advent candles now?
I don’t usually trade in guilt and shame. Unless I think they will work! So if it feels like I am trying to make you guilty for the sins of the empire, it’s because I am. I want you to feel, at least for the few minutes I have your attention, really uncomfortable, maybe even terror-stricken by the thought that God’s not on your side, that God is glad to see you acting charitably a few times a year, but wants even more to see you acting justly every day of the year, even if that means giving up some of the benefits of being a citizen of the empire. The guilt I want you to feel isn’t the guilt of being a sinful person. Every human being is a sinful person, you, me, Maria, Jesus, everyone in Syria, Yemen, Russia, and North Korea, and everyone in Britain, France, and Iceland, and Canada. No, the guilt I want you to feel is the guilt that comes with knowing that it is within your power as citizens of both the Evil Empire and the Kingdom of Heaven to do something that brings the life and hope Mary is proclaiming to the lowly whom she described God lifting up. It is within your power, and yet it remains undone. Have we, as the church of Jesus Christ, the one through whom Mary says all this radical transformation will take place, have we brought to life this Magnificat vision? Or have we been deluded into thinking that because we don’t sound rich or feel rich, we are just like the downtrodden Mary waiting for someone else to save us, sometime in the future?
Are you ready for the good news yet? The good news is that we can repent and do better. It is not an accomplished fact that we will be thrown down and utterly destroyed like the rulers Mary describes just because she spoke these words once upon a time, long ago and far away. It doesn’t have to be that way. But to avoid that, we need to be on the right side of God’s version of history. We can’t wait for history to show up on our side. That’s never going to happen. Yes, there is good news in Mary’s words, words of great joy even. You see, our judgment is still pending. We still have time to get down off our thrones and join the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night, and the sweatshop workers stitching together our cheap t-shirts, and the women trafficked in modern-day slavery. We still have time to pay teachers and nurses and farmers what they are worth. We still have time to demand affordable healthcare for everyone, and truly equal pay and opportunity for women, and an end to profiteering on the backs of the prison population. And these are just some of the ways to side with the Marys of just our own country, not to mention those of the rest of the world who villages are destroyed by the weapons we manufacture, and whose children are condemned to perpetual suffering by the regimes we support in the name of our national interest. It is not too late for us to be on the right side of both history and the interests of the Mighty One who has done great things not only for Mary but for us all.
Yes, the good news in this passage is that God’s grace still offers us a shot at redemption, a chance to turn from the dark side to light. That’s when our joy can truly ring out in the way that Mary’s did when she sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” When we climb down from our thrones is when we’ll magnify God with our acts of justice rather than minimize God through our rationalizations. When our hearts are reborn into the same circumstances as Mary’s child is when we’ll know what Mary means when she describes herself as a lowly servant upon whom the Lord looks with favor. That’s when generations to come will describe us as blessed. That’s when what God promised to Abraham will be accomplished, that all the nations and families of the world would be blessed through him, and this wonderful world will know shalom and sing with a joyful shout, that the world is about to turn.
A good part of the Advent season is dedicated to hearing those Biblical words of caution that remind us that we don’t know just when Christ will come again, and so we are to always be prepared to meet the Son of Man when he does. Mary’s words remind us what we need to do and be to make that reunion a joyful one, rather than a painful one. With all due respect to the wonderful sentiment we heard the children sing earlier, I think Mary would disagree and say Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in the world! Our own hearts are not enough. From Mary’s lips to our ears, may the Magnificat transform each of us, in the way Mary announces God is transforming the world. Amen.