Luke 1:46-55

“Joy” by Rosanna McFadden

Good morning! It is the third Sunday of Advent and we have lit the candle for Joy. Although practice varies from place to place, the candle for Joy is traditionally pink or rose-colored to represent a lighter, more joyful, version of the purple or deep blue candles than the other three candles of the season. This is also often the week when Mary, the mother of Jesus appears in the lectionary texts, and her words — particularly the passage which Tim just read — are filled with joy: which is pretty extraordinary, given her circumstances.

As a bit of review, on the first Sunday of Advent we heard from the prophet Jeremiah and I talked about Hope in terms of darkness and light: Hope is the light of Jesus Christ, which the darkness cannot overcome. Last Sunday our text was from the prophet Isaiah, and I talked about Peace: not merely as the absence of conflict, but working toward Christ’s purpose of reconciliation and transformation. Even when there is conflict around us, we can experience peace in shared calling and purpose.

This week we are hearing from another prophet. Her name is Mary, and she is a young woman from the town of Nazareth, a little backwater north of the capital city of Jerusalem and little town of Bethlehem. If you remember from the past two weeks, a prophet is someone who speaks for God. Mary is unique among all prophets of all time in that she not only speaks for God, she carries the infant Jesus, the Song of God and incarnate Word of God within her own body. There is — appropriately — a lot of veneration and speculation around Mary. Protestant tradition has been absent or kind of late to that party, but we are actually given maddeningly little information about her in the gospels. I’m sure you know that of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, only two — Matthew and Luke — have any account of Jesus’ birth, and Matthew doesn’t give us much more than Mary’s name–the woman who was engaged to Joseph. Of course, Mary is present at Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but only the gospel of Luke tells us anything about a visit from the angel Gabriel to tell Mary she was going to bear God’s Son, or Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth — which we’ll talk about next week. This longer passage of Mary’s song is found no where else but the gospel of Luke.

In a culture which valued children, especially male children, pregnancy would be cause for rejoicing. But this was also a culture with very strict prohibitions about sexual relations outside of marriage, which could be cause for death — typically for the woman who conceived out of wedlock, unless the man was actually caught in the act. Mary said, or possibly sang, this prophet-song while she was pregnant with Jesus: likely in the first half of that pregnancy, since she doesn’t return home to Nazareth until three months later.

Mary doesn’t mention her pregnancy specifically, or refer to Jesus by name, but she is ringing all the same changes that resonate through the prophecies of the Old Testament: praise and promise with a few notes of caution thrown in. Mary sings of the fear of the Lord and God’s faithfulness, God’s strength and power, God’s justice and mercy; God’s care for the poor and the humble. Mary’s spirit rejoices, and magnifies, or enlarges God’s praise. It is that biblical verb “magnifies” which gives this hymn its name The Magnificat. Although we have no record of original music, The Magnificat has been set to music by scores of composers, from medieval to modern. The Magnificat also has the distinction of being perhaps the only passage of scripture banned for public reading by the Church in some places. This is not the church’s finest hour, I have to say. For a bit of that history, I went to blogger Craig Greenfield describes Christmas pageants as allowing kids to pay with dynamite. Here’s what he says:

And that dynamite is explosively revealed in the Christmas Carol of Justice sung by a pregnant Mary in Luke 1:46-56 (known as the Magnificat). It’s the rebel yell of a new Kingdom that will UPTURN everything we take for granted.

In the last few decades, this Freedom Song for the Poor has only occasionally been recognized by the church for what it really is – a direct challenge on Empire – a letter of warning that the clock is ticking on our status quo. Yet, it has been banned all over the world by oppressive dictatorships. Here are a few examples:

During the British rule in India, the singing of the Magnificat in church was prohibited because of its incendiary lyrics. So, on the final day of British rule in India, Gandhi, who was not a Christian, requested that this song be read in all places where the British flag was being lowered.

During the 1980s, the government of Guatemala found the ideas raised by Mary’s proclamation of God’s special concern for the poor to be so dangerous and revolutionary that the government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words.

The junta in Argentina banned Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza.

The government of El Salvador banned this song in the 1980’s. And so on and so on – all over the world, oppressive defenders of Empire have found these words too explosive for everyday use.

It is amazing, under the circumstances, that we associate this song with Joy. Clearly this is not good news for the powerful, the rich, and the well-fed. Jesus’ birth is coming — in less than six months, and Mary is giving God’s people promise and hope. Well, at least some of God’s people. That’s why dictators did their best to suppress these words.

Two weeks ago I shared Vincent Van Goh’s “The Starry Night” in relation to Hope, and last week you saw John August Swanson’s “Peaceable Kingdom” as an illustration of Peace. This morning I want to share a piece of art by a living artist. It is not a direct narrative representation of this text, and I share it with you in order to stretch your imagination a bit. [Slide Magnificat]

This painting is called Magnificat. I want to give you a few moments to pay attention not only to what you see, but how this artwork makes you feel.

The artist is Robyn Sand Anderson; she is a native of Decorah, IA, and has been a professional artist specializing in transparent watercolor and acrylic for over thirty years. She describes herself as an Abstract Expressionist painter. This piece was created with acrylic paint. I am no art expert, and I don’t have the artist’s comments on this piece specifically, but here is some of what I see: deep jewel-tones surrounding a figure of light. A column with straight sides coming down — or going up — it could be either–and the suggestion of a mother and child, each with a halo around their heads; the way traditional artists have distinguished saints and divinity. I don’t see the dark color as threatening or fearful; it is more of a foil for the light. I am especially drawn to the rose color in the upper right-hand corner.

Here’s what I found out about the artist from her website; it made this image even more compelling for me. After decades as a professional artist, in 2008, Sand Anderson was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She suffered extreme and constant pain and fatigue for over two years, at one point she believed that she would no longer be able to paint. It took medication, rest, healthy food and exercise for her to be able to begin painting again in 2010. And her work changed from representational to abstract art, in order to express mysteries which are hard to understand or explain. She interprets choral and orchestral music in her painting and combines visual art with music. She finds that she “sees” color when listening to music. [Some people literally see color with music: this is called synesthesia; I wish I could experience it] Since her own diagnosis she is especially attuned to those who suffer and wants her artwork to be a visual voice for hope and healing. [Slide down]

Whatever your thoughts about abstract expressionist art — and they don’t have to be the same as my thoughts — I admire someone who can transform suffering into hope and joy, and anyone who finds a way to share that gift to encourage others. You are likely to see a lot of Mary, meek and mild artwork at this time of year: an Anglo teenager with a flawless complexion, wearing a blue headcovering, with her hands folded and her eyes cast down in prayer or reverence. There may be joy there, but not much of a prophetic spirit. I prefer to picture Mary as an independent young woman, pregnant and determined, giving a rebel yell of a new Kingdom and putting the status quo on notice: this woman and her Son are about to shake things up. Praise be to the Mighty One for the promise of Jesus Christ and faithfulness to all generations. May our souls be filled with joy! Amen.