Sunday, December 7, 2014
We know these mothers’ songs. We’ve heard them many times before. Year after year, Mary’s Magnificat is requisite fare for Advent celebrations everywhere. We often use these texts on Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, when the watchword is joy. Surely there is exultation, hope, promise, joy in both these mothers’ songs. But today we hear them on a Sunday when we gather in longing for peace, for shalom, for justice, reconciliation and well-being for all.
How many of your mothers sang? I have many fond memories of my mother singing. Her soprano was a staple of family harmony as we passed the miles on road trips between Kansas, California or Idaho and Louisiana. But, even more than that, she sang around the house. Mostly she sang hymns and songs from the church of her childhood – “In the Sweet By and By,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “Just as I Am,” or more recent favorites like “How Great Thou Art.” The songs were familiar, reassuring, beloved. Whatever the intention of their authors, when my mother sang them they were about a deep, heart-filled faith in the goodness of God and value of family. There were also folk songs like “Red River Valley” and “Springtime in the Rockies” and lullabies like “Rock-a-bye Baby” and “Lullaby and Good Night.” Mother’s songs were an important part of my own growing up. How about yours?
I suppose our memories are more sentimental than what Luke had in mind when he gave these songs to the mothers of John and Jesus. He gave them something profound, promising, prophetic to sing. Each, in her way, sings good news critical to Luke’s gospel.
Elizabeth is no longer young. By all rights her child-bearing days are behind. Brian McLaren invites us to, “Imagine a woman in the ancient world who longed all her life to have children. She married young, maybe around the age of fifteen. At sixteen, still no pregnancy. At twenty, still no pregnancy. At twenty-five, imagine how she prayed. At thirty, imagine her anxiety as her prayers were mixed with tears of shame and disappointment – for herself, for her husband. At forty, imagine hope slipping away as she wondered if it even made sense to pray anymore. Imagine her sense of loss and regret at fifty. Why pray now?” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 67).
Then the miraculous pregnancy! Such hope! Such joy! By the time her cousin, Mary, comes to visit, Elizabeth is practically giddy with expectation. Her response, her song, seems downright Pentecostal. The text says she “…was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry…” This is no lullaby; it’s a wake up song. Nor is this one of those familiar songs my mother used to hum around the house. This is a powerful, prophetic word that comes bubbling up from Elizabeth’s womb. This is a holy hymn the origin of which is the heart of God. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” She is singing to her cousin, but she is also singing her own story of patient faithfulness over a lifetime. Blessed are those who believe that God’s promises will be fulfilled for them, in them and through them! This is an Advent song for you and me.
Then, not to be outdone, Mary launches into her own song. Playing off Elizabeth’s song, as in any good opera or musical, she launches into an aria that Richard Vinson calls “Handelian” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, Luke, p. 41). In reality, it’s an improbable song for a peasant girl from Galilee. Luke takes this opportunity to lay out one of the major themes of his gospel – the great reversal of fortune between the arrogant rich and the oppressed poor that will come with God’s reign on earth. Vinson writes of Mary’s song, “Like her son, she can ‘begin with Moses and all the prophets’ and rattle off the themes of God’s salvation: mercy to the poor, judgment on the wealthy; honor to the humble, confusion to the proud; faithfulness to the promises made to Israel through Abraham and the patriarchs” (op. cit., p. 44).
Again, this is a holy hymn that comes from deep within God’s intent and desire for God’s people and all creation. From Luke’s pen, this mother’s song is also profoundly prophetic, foretelling the good news that her son will bring from heaven to earth: God is a merciful helper who keeps his promise to hold all life with steadfast love. This, too, is an Advent song for you and me.
But these are not the only songs mothers sing – these songs of exultation, hope, promise, joy. Another singer sings a song of painful memory and wistful longing. In her poem, “I Ask My Mother to Sing,” Li-Young Lee writes with poignant grace,
She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and swing like a boat.
I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.
But I love to hear it sung:
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.
Both women have begun to cry,
But neither stops her song.
Sometimes mothers’ songs are sung through tears – tears of loss and longing, tears of pain and passion, tears of anger and admonition. I hear the mothers’ songs wailed in lament by the mothers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and all the other victims of our mean streets and racial injustice. I hear the sad songs sung from mothers confined to refugee camps or living on the street. I hear the aching arias of mothers whose children have been lost to human trafficking, to shooting and shooting up, to mental illness and suicide. I hear the cries of mothers sending their children alone across the desert in search of a better life. Last night, Kath Donley, pastor in Albany, New York, commented on a Facebook posting about Argentina’s Mothers of the Lost, women whose children and spouses disappeared during the years of political oppression in the 1970s: “I just learned today that the Magnificat was banned in Argentina after the Mothers of the Disappeared sang it and put it on posters. You probably knew that already. But it’s a revolutionary song of peace for Advent and every season.” I did not know this but it is clear that Mary’s song about liberation and justice rings true for mothers of every time.
Also last night, Sharon Fennema, the new professor of Christian Worship at Pacific School of Religion, posted to Facebook from the protests in Berkeley where she had taken to the streets along with Doug’s wife, Jennifer, worship professor at the American Baptist Seminary of the West. She wrote, “This diverse crew of protestors, there for many different reasons, all held that moment together, as if our lives depended on it. ‘If we remember, they still live,’” was the chant we’d been saying moments before.” This is exactly the sort of song of hope and promise that mothers sing through their tears and rage. Sharon continues, “What would happen, I wondered, if all of us really did remember those who’ve been victims of systemic racism? How might the world change if we all took just a moment to imagine ourselves in that position? Perhaps it was not so powerful for those whose lives are constantly threatened by a system that sees them as disposable, but for those of us with white privilege, with the privilege to think that the police are there to protect us, this kind of radical empathy, I hope, could be life-changing.”
She concludes her reflection with this challenge for all of us: “In this Advent season of longing and waiting, may all the world yearn for and work for the day when Love is made flesh among us. We just want things to change. O come, Emanuel, and ransom your captive people.”
In the end, Elizabeth and Mary will also sing songs of lament and protest. Each of their boys, who begin with such hope and promise, will be executed, victims of arrogant power, obscene wealth and cowardly fear of change. The powers that be will murder both boys who heard and believed their mothers’ songs, who gave themselves over to God’s promise of fulfillment and who trusted in God’s steadfast love. So, does this mean that my message this Advent morning is one without hope, one that sees peace as impossible, that lives with lament and cannot look to a good and justice future? No, that’s not my purpose. For the witness of mothers who cry out still holds hope that God’s will may be done, that peace is possible and that God’s reign can come on earth. I hear the mothers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner singing through tears and anguish, singing songs of hope for peace and good will, crying out that their sons will not have died in vain, urging us from these lost lives to see and understand that black lives matter and that every person on earth ought to have the opportunity to breathe freely. I hear Elizabeth and Mary carrying forward their deep faith in the God of their ancestors and of their own lives, singing through agonized weeping songs of prophetic trust that the witness of their sons will yet lead to the light that illuminates the darkness and to the love that redeems, resurrects and restores. Mothers’ songs sing the whole story from beginning to end. They cry against injustice and for peace and good will. They weep for pain and suffering, loss and death. And they celebrate the hope and peace, joy and love that rises from the tears and fears of all the years to restore us all. Mothers’ songs declare that, in spite of everything, God comes again and again, seeking her own in love and compassion, making all things new.
For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet[s all] foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.