The Third Sunday of Advent: December 11, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Today we got to sing the Magnificat, the song of Mary, the wonderful passage from the Gospel of Luke, of Mary’s song upon meeting her cousin Elizabeth. It’s a canticle, a song from scripture, that has been sung for centuries in our tradition at Evensong, the evening prayer service. It’s a standard part of the evening Daily Office in our Prayer Book. There are many beautiful settings for it, lovely works by every major composer of the church, English and American, including of course our own John Cantrell. But did you know…
+ that in India under British rule, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church? Banned by those most English of English people, the colonials.
+ that in the 1980s, the government in Guatemala also banned any public recitation of the Magnificat?
+ that in Argentina in the late 1970s, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—whose children were ‘disappeared’—placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song?
The words that Mary sings were deemed too radical – too subversive – too likely to give the poor ideas about change in the world. Too threatening to the powers that be. And you thought it was just another lovely old English hymn.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached on the Magnificat during Advent in 1933. He said, “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
I wonder if Mary will soon be attacked from Twitter as well.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
These are fighting words, my friends. Now do you see why we’re always telling you to say the Daily Office?
We heard today also a reading from the prophet Isaiah:
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
Isaiah is preaching these words to people in exile, living under oppressive regimes, people who are in captivity and away from their homeland. But it was not just a spiritual heavenly promise Isaiah preached to them about what God might do in the afterlife. It was actual liberation, the promise that the people of Israel, the blind, the deaf, and the lost alike, will be brought to full freedom again – redeemed from slavery and brought back to their own land.
Isaiah’s words about freedom for captives and release for prisoners have been used by abolitionists fighting against slavery in this country, by Martin Luther King in his last campaign for economic justice, by those working for prison reform today. These words inspired real change of a radical kind in our own country, and still inspire today. So now do you see why we’re always telling you to read the Bible?
So often we let all of this radical straight-up truth slip right on by us. So often we let these words be just “spiritual,” meaning “not related to actual everyday life.” We think of them as boring and archaic, maybe, too far off from our time to listen to. Or we think of them as words that just give us a nice feeling when we read them or sing them or hear them. They feel like respite from a terrible world. But we forget that they really mean what they say – and that they mean it for us too.
Which is what Jesus is getting at as he talks about John the Baptist, the fiery prophet of redemption who prepared the way for the Messiah to come. You all went out to hear him preach, he says. What did you go out in the wilderness to see? What were you looking for? Just another eloquent preacher in the desert? Were you just hoping for comfort? Were you hoping to feel a little better about life for a few moments? Or did you really believe what you heard?
Jesus might ask us too: What did you come to church to see? What were you looking for today?
I don’t know about you, but these days I need more than comfortable words. There’s a part of me that wants to turn off the news and hole up in some place off the grid entirely, but I know even that would not be enough – it’s not just the political news of the day, or the tragic events that unfold so regularly in our world. It’s the way people treat one another in ordinary life on the street, and the addictions we feed of fake interaction through our smartphones. It’s the ache of marking the anniversary of my sister’s death, and the pain of walking with others through their own losses and griefs. It’s the sadness of realizing how quickly my kids are growing up and the anticipation of losing my parents. It’s the bleak future of our radically warming planet, and my own inability to get things right. You name it, I can despair over it.
Which is why really showing up in prayer and the discipline of reading scripture actually does matter. We can be tempted to treat all of that as something nice to do that we should do more often, like eating leafy greens or stretching or writing our great-aunt. But it’s more than that. It’s the lifeblood for feeding hope. And it’s the basis for acting as God’s people in the world.
In January we’re going to enter into a process together called RenewalWorks, a program developed to assess and deepen our congregation’s spiritual growth. The premise is that congregations where more people attend to the spiritual disciplines of prayer and scripture reading and regular worship are congregations that are growing, financially sound, and making a difference in the lives of people around them. There’s even data to back this up. In other words, spiritual growth isn’t just a section of the self-help shelves or a good thing to do – it’s good for the world.
And Advent, maybe especially this Advent, is a good time to refocus on our spiritual selves. Even as the world might be pulling us toward greater distraction and filling our schedules with activity, many of us feel even more deeply that we’re not really up for all that. It’s hard to feel giddy and celebrate when the darkness around and within us is swirling with anxiety and uncertainty. The season of Advent calls us to stop and be still – to place ourselves in a posture of waiting, anticipation, looking for where God might be coming. We come into this church and we light one more candle and we strain to see the light that shines in the darkness. We sit in silence in a dark morning, nourish our souls with scripture on our lunch hour, let God kindle the hope we can’t manufacture on our own.
It is not an escape, nor a turning away from what is true in the world. It is, in fact, opening ourselves more to what is true. The mighty need to be cast down and the lowly lifted up. The hungry must be fed, the rich have too much. The world as it is, is not right. We don’t hide from that. We don’t lose ourselves in the dissipations of distraction. We look straight at it and see it as it is.
But we do not despair. ‘Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord,’ says James. The early and the late rains will come and the crop will sprout from the earth, even in the desert it will bloom and blossom forth. When we pray, when we read scripture, we immerse ourselves again in the promise – God’s promise, God’s agitating hope that does not allow us to stand on the sidelines. We show up, even though we may find ourselves more disturbed than comforted. We show up and listen, in silence, in music, in words we read and words we hear from one another. For the light does shine in the darkness; the light shines in us and through us and all around us in this world. And so we do not lose heart.
‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Isaiah tells us. God, Emmanuel, is with us. Through this, through us, through all things, made present in this world.