Location, location, location
Mary’s song of joy, known as the Magnificat, is understood differently depending on the setting. If read in a fancy hotel room among ritzy buildings in a well-to-do location such as Maui or Rodeo Drive, the words might stick and stutter in your throat. Among the rich and famous, images of the proud being scattered, the mighty being pulled down, and the rich being sent away empty can confuse the mind and unsettle the soul—the same soul that God magnified in Mary.
Mary’s soul is magnified because she didn’t grow up among haughty people, and thus the words take on a joyful tone. You can try it yourself. Take a bus to a neighborhood with boarded-up buildings and broken streetlights. Look around and sit a spell. Allow your senses to take it in, especially your senses of smell and hearing. Then read these words to yourself very slowly: “God has exalted the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.”
You will be forgiven if you wonder when all this will happen. It is a promise that has future implications. God is busy making radical changes in the world, but this never seems to happen on our timeline. But I invite you to have an in-this-time experience. Read this scripture, all of it, in two different settings as mentioned above. You won’t likely have to travel far. Just find the wealthiest location and read the words. Then do the same thing in an impoverished community. Take note of the emotional difference and experience.
While we are waiting, come
Some among us are not gifted with waiting, especially for divine promises that never seem to materialize. If you know these visceral feelings, take heart. The beginning of Mary’s song will be more to your liking. Yes, there is a reference to what will happen at a later date (“henceforth all generations will call me blessed”). But start at the beginning. Now, in this moment, Mary is magnified and her spirit rejoices. She has been regarded, and God has done great things for her because God is holy.
These affirmations are a far cry from our introduction to Mary, who is greatly troubled when Gabriel brings the news of her favored status. When she hears that God’s presence in her life means that she is to bear a child, we can forgive her for skipping over the great things this child will do and wondering, “How can this be?” I never hear these words without adding in my mind what I assume she might have been thinking, “How can this be good?”
All it takes for Mary to shift her thinking is a little time to take in the news and a visit with her older kinswoman, Elizabeth. She starts her journey troubled and emotionally confused. Mary is not unaware of God’s promises for her people, and she has memorized the prayer song of Hannah, mother of Samuel, which she now proclaims.
The turning point in her journey from confusion to faith occurs in the presence of Elizabeth. Perhaps it was seeing Elizabeth, pregnant with a surprising gift of new life within her. Here they are, two women of unequal age and life experience, both caught up on the latest drama and hope that God was bringing to their people after years of desolation and fear.
These things are at work in this meeting as each woman brings her faith to bear witness along with the presence of the Holy Spirit. We should not be surprised at the power that emanates from the lips of Mary nor that this same power is at work in our world today.
Hear Duane Grady read the remainder of this article in a special Christmas episode of Messenger Radio. Kara Miller and Nancy Miner play the piano.
A special Christmas Eve
Pastor Bob had grown to dislike Christmas Eve. The church where he served held two candlelight services, one at 7 p.m. and the other ending at midnight. Each service had a full house and, in the dim light, Pastor Bob could see that many of those in attendance were not people he knew or recognized from regular Sunday services. He felt pressure to provide a meaningful and “special” worship event. In the five years he had been pastor of this church, the Christmas Eve service had started to feel too familiar and trite. This service bore a stark resemblance to the cheap grace of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Even without two worship services, Christmas Eve was a hectic day. The church offered boxes of food and treats to its neighbors, and Pastor Bob, along with Deacon Shirley, hand-delivered them to 35 homes. It was an impossible task that could only be completed if Bob and Shirley split up the list and went their separate ways. Bob wanted it to feel like a sincere service project, but he was burdened by an unfinished sermon and the simple reality that there was a lot to do in too short a time.
His angst deepened because he had never liked the idea of connecting sugar cookies to the birth of the world’s savior. “How will people ever grasp the divine meaning for their lives and comprehend the wonder of the Christ Child if all we do is fling food and packaged treats at them,” he muttered aloud as he drove from one low-income house to another. Shirley had taken the deliveries to the nursing homes, and Pastor Bob was stuck going to homes in the undesirable section of town. Lord knows, he didn’t want to be there.
It gets dark early on Christmas Eve, and Bob had two more deliveries to go. All this rushing around and fake pretending of joy he shared at each delivery was not helping improve his sermon. Bob still needed to drive home, shower, dress, and fake pretend that Christmas Eve was his favorite time of the year. It was not as if he hadn’t done that before.
All his plans were tossed aside at his next to final delivery. Three children met Bob’s knock on the door, none older than seven. When Bob realized that these kids were home alone without adult supervision, he knew he couldn’t leave. He could imagine no good scenarios, and his frustration and anxiety grew by the second. All Pastor Bob could think to do was to invite the children to sit on or near his lap while he read one of the children’s books in the gift box he was delivering.
He hadn’t read more than a few pages when the children’s grandmother arrived, sputtering excuses about a stalled car and a long wait for a taxi. Frankly, he didn’t care as he struggled to extricate himself from the situation as quickly as possible so that he could continue with the agenda that cluttered his mind. As he was leaving, one of the children, a four-year-old girl, asked him a question he would hear in his mind for the next 42 years. She asked, “Mister, are you, Jesus?” “Thank you so much,” said the grandmother.
Pastor Bob does not remember much about the Christmas Eve services that night. People tell him worship went very well and that his message was meaningful. All he remembers from the time he left that house until sometime the next day is the girl’s haunting question. How could he possibly respond? Who was this child, and why was she placed into his life?
During the second service, a few minutes before midnight, he also remembers how he felt the weight of his pride and the burden of emptiness. At that moment, he was more open to blessing by the Mighty One than at any other time in his life. He felt a slow and powerful lifting up, and an everflowing stream of mercy.
Pastor Bob opened a precious gift that would never leave him that Christmas Day. He knew the answer to the girl’s question and would often proclaim it in the years to come. “No, I am not Jesus. But I know who is, and that makes all the difference in the world. Would you like to know him also?”
Duane Grady is a retired Church of the Brethren minister living in Goshen, Indiana.