Third Sunday of Advent
December 17 2017
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; Luke 1.39-55
Rev Loren McGrail, United Church of Christ
We need to wait together to keep each other at home spiritually, so that when the word comes it can become flesh in us.
The Gospel story from Luke reminds us that for us to live into God’s promise we must live in a community of people who can affirm, deepen, or strengthen our faith. This is why Miryam traveled so far and risked so much to be with her cousin Elizabeth. The peasant girl Miryam traveled to the borderlands of Palestine, Roman occupied territory complete with checkpoints and patrols, surveillance and ethnic profiling, to share this special time of waiting, to offer what Maren Tirabassi calls “improbable blessings” with her cousin Elizabeth. These were, as the poet John O’Donohue says, “Two women locked in a story of birth. Each mirrors the secret the other heard.”
The women spend three to four months eating, gossiping, and singing to each other. Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy at age 90 helped Miryam accept her own miraculous birth for they each needed to talk about how to handle God’s intention for them.
Elizabeth’s acceptance of Mary overturns social expectations when she welcomes her unmarried pregnant cousin into her home and offers her the gift of sanctuary. Elizabeth takes on the role of a prophet when she acknowledges Mary as the Mother of their Lord and then blesses her. She celebrates Mary’s willingness to trust in God’s promise and her courage to risk, “Yes.”
God’s transformation of the world rests upon one woman laying her hands upon another’s belly and declaring the fruit of her womb blessed. The blessing stirs even their foetuses to jump with joy in recognition of each other (Luke 1:41-45).
In the final essay in John O’Donohue’s book, To Bless the Space between Us, he writes about the power of blessings this way:
We never see the script of our lives; nor do we know what is coming toward us, or why our life takes on this particular shape or sequence. A blessing is different from a greeting, a hug, a salute, or an affirmation; it opens a different door in human encounter. One enters into the forecourt of the soul, the source of intimacy and the compass of destiny.
“This longing for the eternal kindles our imagination to bless,” he says. Elizabeth, the Blesser, recognizes where God is working in the world and calls it out to bring this work to completion. Her blessing unleashes Mary’s song. It was a song of joy and praise. It was also as Dietrich Bonheoffer said, “At once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. “
These are the tones of the women prophets from the Old Testament now come to life in Mary’s mouth. This Galilean woman stands in a long Jewish tradition of female singers from Miriam with her tambourine (Exodus 15:2-210 to Deborah (Judges 5: 1-3), to Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10). Scholars think the Magnifcat comes out of the long history of political struggle of the Jewish people against their oppressors.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their from their thrones
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
– Luke 1.51-53
Others like historian Richard Horsely believe that Galilee was the spawning ground for first-century revolts against the repressive Roman occupation and that this is a victory song turned into a song of revolution. Could this be why missionaries in Africa were forbidden to share it with their converts? Or why it was banned in India under the British rule and then later sung everywhere when the British flag was lowered? The recitation of the song was also banned in Argentina after the Mothers of the Disappeared used it to call for the nonviolent resistance to the military junta.
And still others, like feminist Elizabeth Johnson, see it as dangerous and subversive because it reminds us that the Holy One of Israel protects, defends, saves, and rescues the “nobodies” of this world, including unwed mothers. It is dangerous because this image of Mother Miryam challenges our vision of women as submissive to authority.
Whether it is a victory song of old or a new call to revolution, Miryam’s song of praise is also a call to nonviolent resistance. Her willingness to make herself vulnerable and her exchange of blessings with her cousin have led her to now dream and imagine deliverance for her unborn child and all her people. Her “Yes” to solidarity with God’s project led her to say “No” to oppression and domination of all kinds.
It is for these reasons that she has become the image of the woman of faith. It is her faith in things not seen and in her ability to submit her life for the future liberation of her people that we lift her up and call her blessed among women.
She is indeed the image of the woman of faith, and as a Protestant woman minister I have boundless love of her. Therefore, when I went to Beit Gemal monastery in October to pay a solidarity visit to the priests and sisters, I was overcome with grief when I saw her statute lying smashed in front of one of the side altars. The monastery has been vandalized twice before. This time, however, they were bold enough to go into the fourth-century chapel and knock out the faces of the saints in the stained glass windows, destroy the altar, and smash the statue of Mary.
In response to this horrible event I wrote the following poem/prayer. I sent it to the sisters at the monastery who gave me some broken pottery to make an art piece in memory of this terrible event.
Hail Mary, full of grace and the Lord is with thee
even lying shattered on the floor
your beautiful face still shines
your curled fingers still reach out
who behold you
in this slant of dying autumn light
between Rosh Hashanah’s
quiet time of repentance and
Yom Kippur’s day of shouts and blessings
between illegal outposts being evacuated
and olive trees ripening
You who live into the future in the past tense
scare us with your ability to read
our broken hearts, twisted minds,
predict our demise and the kin-dom coming
You who sing revolution –
how the power arrangements must change –
lie trampled and smashed yourself now.
We fear and revere you still, Mother of God
Queen of the Apostles and Martyrs
no longer looking down on us
from your heavenly perch
head too strong to smash
Pray for us all
Mother of our Redeemer
Mirror of Justice
for your world yet to be born
eye to eye now
charge us to be
your promised threat
Miryam charges us to sing and work for the birth of love and justice. Miryam says we should expect that this birth would turn our lives upside down and inside out. Miryam, the pregnant and poor unwed mom, asks us to sing for the upheaval of the world, the expected reversal. She also asks us to pray for a world without war or conflict or violence. She asks us to hold our leaders accountable for their actions and inactions – their thoughts and their deeds, their votes of support and their votes against dignity and freedom. She asks us to divest from and boycott their stranglehold of economic, social, and political power. She asks us to feed the hungry by lifting their sieges, shaking off their occupation, and breaking down their walls of hostility and concrete. She asks us to dream about the way the world would look if things were reversed, if the Beloved Community could be made manifest. She asks us to dream it in the past tense as if it were already taking place.
Finally, Miryam, the mother of Jesus, asks us to affirm God being born not only in her real womb but also in the womb of human suffering. She asks us to imagine, to sing, and work to make it so.
 John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008)