First of all, I just want to thank all of you who came to my party, and those who helped put it on, and who contributed to getting such a generous birthday gift for me and my family. But now it’s time to move on, so I’d like to talk about someone else…my daughter. Every month, McKinley Elementary School, picks a positive “character trait,” and gives awards to children who exemplify that quality. Early last week, Risa’s mother and I got an email from her teacher, inviting us to a school assembly at 8:30 on Friday morning to see Risa receive a student-of-the-month award for December’s virtue of “compassion.” It was going to be a surprise, so I didn’t say anything when I dropped Risa off at school, but sat in the car for ten minutes finishing up my breakfast. Then Meg, who had driven separately so as not to arouse suspicion, arrived, and we slipped quietly into the back of the multi-purpose room, where the students were already assembled.
After the conclusion of a brief recital by the Advanced Band, Mr. Taylor, the principal, went up to the podium and began the presentation of student-of-the-month awards. It quickly became apparent that this was not as exclusive an honor as I had thought. Mr. Taylor started with one of the fourth-grade classes and called out a girl’s name. She walked up on the stage and he read the paragraph of endorsement written by her teacher and handed her a certificate. Then she went and collected a prize from a couple of sixth-grade girls standing there, and took her place on the steps of the stage, facing the audience. Then a second student from the same teacher’s class was called up to receive her student-of-the-month award.
By the time Mr. Taylor called Risa’s name, there were at least a dozen students-of-the-month already standing on the steps, holding their certificates. Clearly compassion is not in short supply at McKinley Elementary. Still, I couldn’t help cracking a big smile as she walked up to receive her reward, and listened to the glowing words her teacher had written. My heart swelled with a feeling I suppose you might call “pride,” if our tradition didn’t single pride out as a sin. It was not a feeling of superiority over other parents because of the accomplishments of my child. But when we see our children, or grandchildren, or just children in our community whom we know and love, beginning to unfold their own destinies and make their own impact in the world, I think it’s natural to feel gratitude for who this person is, and to wonder who she will become. And in that wonder there is also hope for the future of the world.
The Gospel of Luke this morning describes a meeting of two women for whom that wonder and hope begins before their sons are even born. Because neither of them has any business conceiving a child at all. Elizabeth has been infertile, and is now advanced in age past normal childbearing years. While Mary, is an even more unlikely candidate for motherhood, for reasons I’m sure most of you know about. Their pregnancies are miraculous, the handiwork of God, and in both cases a messenger of God has come to visit, to announce the holy purpose, and the name, of the child who is to come. But it is one thing to hear a promise, and another to see it fulfilled. And it is one thing to listen to a messenger of God, and it is another to become one.
When the angel first appeared and hailed Mary as the one favored by the Lord, she was perplexed and asked herself, “What can this greeting mean?” And when he told her that she would conceive and bear the Son of God, the heir of David, to rule over Israel forever, she asked him, as anyone would in her situation, “How can this be?” And after she does, in fact, become pregnant, it’s not hard to imagine her wonder and amazement turning into doubt. Elizabeth’s pregnancy might have made her neighbors shake their heads in disbelief, but still they would have met her with smiles and laughter, and warm congratulations. But Mary can look forward to neighbors who cluck their tongues in scorn, to cold stares and scandalized whispers that follow her wherever she goes.
We can imagine her sense of loneliness, as the implications of what she has agreed to sink in. She needs someone she can talk to, someone she can trust, an older, wiser friend, whose support she can count on. So she goes to the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth. And as soon as she gets there, in the very moment when she sees her cousin and says hello, something happens that confirms the truth of what the angel said, something that tells Mary that she is not crazy, and she is not alone. The child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit.
Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel has already told us, through the mouth of the angel Gabriel, that it is the Holy Spirit who overshadows Mary with the power of God as she conceives her child. This section of Luke is dense with allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures, and maybe we see echoes in this description of the Creator spirit, who brooded over the deep at the beginning of time. And now here is the Holy Spirit who speaks through the prophets. Elizabeth is inspired with insight and clarity, to see with her own eyes things only God can see, to know things only God knows, and to cry these things aloud.
The work of the Spirit is not only to create the world, not only to give the words of prophecy; it also passes from heart to heart with the fire of communion in love. Elizabeth blesses Mary, and the Spirit passes to her, and Mary responds with her own inspired prophetic song. The great rabbi Heschel said that the Hebrew prophet shares in the pathos, the pain, of God at the injustice and oppression and affliction of his people. So, more often than not, the prophet’s speech takes the form of accusation, judgment, and lament. But there is also in our tradition a thin but unmistakable thread of prophetesses, who sing songs of exultation in the victory of God. It begins with another Miriam, the sister of Moses, whose triumphant song on the shores of the Red Sea is thought to be the oldest scrap of text in the Bible. This song is carried on by heroines like Deborah and Hannah, Judith and Susannah, and so passes on to the lips of this Miriam, the mother of the Lord.
And while the male prophets often answer their call with reluctance, and terror at being chosen to bear bad news to the powerful, the Song of Mary rings with confidence and strength. It is an ecstatic expression of joy that goes far beyond that of a woman hoping great things for her first-born child. Hers is the song of every soul has been lifted up from despair and degradation by the power and mercy of God. It resounds with the hope that animates all the prophecy of Israel, that God will remember his promise of justice and restore the rightful balance of the world. And instead of lamenting the sorrows of her people, or calling them angrily to repentance, Mary sings triumphantly of a promise of deliverance that is already fulfilled.
The Magnificat of Mary is one of a very small handful of the core liturgical texts of the church. In our Prayer Book it is the canticle of daily Evening Prayer, but it is also beloved in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many other traditions. So one can safely say that someone, somewhere in the world, is chanting it in every moment of every day, an unceasing recitation that has gone on for centuries. If our minds were quiet enough, maybe we could hear it—a strong and steady pulse of hope, nourishing the infant heartbeat of a new and different world. After all, the church, says the tradition, is a “she.” She is mother church, and daughter Zion, and the bride of Christ. So maybe the church is most truly herself when she is singing to her little ones, in the prisons and brothels and refugee camps, in the factories and fields, in the slums and shantytowns, the homeless shelters and hospitals, and on the battlegrounds—singing to her little ones of the favor and mercy, and the victory of their God.