Sermon for Advent 4 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

You all know that I am sometimes a controversialist when it comes to theological claims that seem to have little bearing on what most people in church and society care about. These, I think, are usually meant to be jolly debates. I’m not talking here about disagreements on the nature of Christ or the Church or the Sacraments, which, you know, I tend to feel very strongly about my obligation to argue for what I take to be the orthodox position. I mean those less consequential debates about things like whether or not blue vestments are appropriate for Advent or whether liquid wax candles and artificial greenery are appropriate substitutes for the real deal. These are not matters on which one’s answer is significant in terms of salvation, at least as far as I can tell.

Sometimes, though, one stumbles into an argument which unintentionally hits a nerve. That being the case, I’ve tried over the years not to talk too much about my thoughts on the popular song “Mary Did You Know?” except to say that yes, Mary absolutely knew, because Gabriel told her. I suppose one can give the songwriter the benefit of the doubt, that it is just a rhetorical question, but it just occurred to me the other day, due to an article written by an Australian baptist theologian named Michael Frost last year, that might actually be a pretty sexist song. “It treats [Mary] like a clueless child,” Frost writes. “Could you imagine a song asking Abraham 17 times if he knew he’d be the father of a great nation?”

And, forgive me, just one parting shot, which those of you who tuned in to my dangerously borderline rubrics-bending mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception last week might be aware, the song’s claim that “this child that you delivered will soon deliver you” is debatable, because some of us (probably a minority of Anglicans, but presumably all Roman Catholics since it is for them a required dogma) believe that God bestowed upon his earthly mother as a gift outside normal, linear human salvation history, a special grace of redemption at her own Conception.

All that said, there is a point here. I am biased as a person with a deep love of and devotion to our Lady in a Christian Communion where this is not a given, but I think sometimes that we don’t give the Mother of Our Lord and Savior her due. We bring her out, all meek and mild, from the boxes in which we store our creche for eleven months of the year and then pack her away again. As an aside, a quick cross reference of some hymn-texts suggests to me that calling our Lady “mild” must have been an invention of Victorian translators- take for example Catherine Winkworth’s translation of Luther’s “Von Himmel hoch” where “Von einer Junfrau auserkorn” “of the virgin chosen one” gets translated “of Mary, chosen mother mild,” I guess because mild both rhymes with child and fits the Victorian image of a submissive little lady.

I just don’t see this sweet, retiring person in this week’s Gospel. We know from the bible that angels are not comforting apparitions, but pretty scary creatures who often have to start whatever message they have to deliver by saying “don’t be afraid.” So, this overwhelming, celestial being appears in the Virgin’s room, and without so much as a “how do you do” proceeds to tell her that the whole world is about to change and that she’s right at the center of this tremendous thing. And how does she respond? “Ἰδοὑ” is what she says in Greek. “Behold.” Look here, Gabriel, make it so!

Two of my favorite images of Our Lady capture the Virgin Mary I love. One is the image, found throughout sacred art, of the Virgin crushing a snake, indicating her active, courageous role in setting things in motion for the ultimate destruction of evil. The second is much more specific, though it carries essentially the same meaning. It’s an image from a 13th Century manuscript that depicts our Lady coldcocking Satan right in the nose. I have it as a refrigerator magnet, accompanied by the inscription “Hail Mary, full of grace, punch the devil in the face.”

The rest of Mary’s response, after this morning’s Gospel ends makes it even more apparent that this is not some wilting flower, but a woman of courage, faith, strength, and confidence in God’s plan. It is the song she sings, and which we call the Magnificat. I saw a thread online earlier this week between a congregationalist preacher and a modernist biblical scholar, where they were discussing the nature of this song. To paraphrase, one says, since this was written down 100 years later (first mistake, nobody thinks Luke was that late) and since we can assume Mary didn’t say this, where did it come from? The other responds with something like, maybe an elderly Mary or Elizabeth fashioned something like this much later, and the author of Luke got some version of it from an intermediary, but that this seemed a little too much like wishful thinking. Notice, both of these fellows (of course, they’re fellows), immediately assume that Mary couldn’t have said these things (I guess because she couldn’t have spoken poetically), that the Holy Spirit could not have inspired Luke to record them accurately, and that the burden of proof lay on those who claim the scriptures contain a trustworthy record rather than those who reject it. This approach is called “applying a hermeneutic of suspicion” and sadly it has become the default posture among those who want to be taken seriously in some academic circles. Incredulity is reckoned smart and faith is reckoned dumb.

So, here for another of my regular exercises in outing myself as a religious troglodyte, here’s what I think: Mary said it, I believe it, that settles it. And what did she say? It’s a familiar text to many of us, but perhaps sometimes so familiar that we forget how powerful and radical our Lady’s words are. They speak of a God who is coming to change everything for the better, to lift up the lowly and lay low the powerful. And they remind us of a woman, not meek and mild, but so full of faith that she speaks of this radical reorientation of all creation as if it has already happened. These are the words of the Blessed Mother we honor and with these words I will close:

My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
     and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded *
     the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth *
     all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, *
     and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him *
     throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
     he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
     and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
     and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, *
     as he promised to our forefathers,
     Abraham and his seed for ever.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.