One of the problems with the Christmas story is that we have heard it so many times that we know how it turns out. It is hard to capture the initial shock. As the familiar words are read, it is easy to tune them out because we know what comes next. It is sad that a story as profound as this one becomes ho-hum. Our ability to take it all in stride is strange to people of other faiths. NPR ran a segment several years ago with some Muslims wondering why Christians celebrate Christmas by opening gifts under a tree. Why don’t we observe Christmas by saying a prayer or going to church? Many years ago British writer Dorothy Sayers rebuked Christians by saying, “You have the greatest news on earth—the incarnation of God in human life—and you treat it as an insignificant news item fit for page 14 of the chronicle of daily events.” (Homiletics 1999, p.59)
Perhaps we need to be reminded that this is no ordinary story we are dealing with—it is a story of God turning creation upside down. We know Mary went along with the angel, but do we remember that she had a choice? Frederick Buechner gives us a glimpse into the weight of this choice as he describes the angel Gabriel:
“’You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation now hung on the answer of a girl.” (Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who p. 44)
Do you realize that God placed the future of the world into the hands of someone we don’t think is old enough to drive? It is enough to make us question God’s judgment. How could God stake so much on a young girl? It’s crazy until you look around and see who God is counting on today.
Mary agrees to take her place in God’s plan and the next thing we know she is on a journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth who has just experienced an amazing, unexpected pregnancy herself. We don’t know what Mary was thinking. We miss all the fear, the questions that ask why me and “are you kidding?” She must have been overwhelmed beyond belief, but we don’t hear about that in scripture. She arrives at Elizabeth’s home and rather than comparing notes on pregnancy, morning sickness, preparing the nursery, or wondering how it will all work out, Elizabeth greets her with a blessing. The scripture we heard this morning is Mary’s response. She sings. Does that strike you as strange? She is poor, pregnant, and unmarried. She sings a song of freedom on behalf of all who are poor. Her song says that God will make a way where there is no way. The song seems to come from deep within her. It is as if she can do nothing else.
Mary sings in the midst of uncertainty with only the words of an angel—a promise to keep her going. It reminds me of the traditional Shaker Hymn:
My life goes on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
We call Mary’s song Magnificat. It is a powerful song that begins by acknowledging the blessing and quickly turns to what God’s coming will mean for all people. If you are an editor or an English scholar, you may want to look more carefully at her words. She’s gotten her tenses mixed up. The angel has just spoken, the baby is not yet born and yet she sings as if the poor have already been lifted up and the hungry fed. Barbara Brown Taylor says “prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it.” (Home by Another Way, p. 18)
Prophets aren’t concerned with distinctions between things that have happened and things that have not yet happened. They are content to allow the mystery to unfold. She praises God for what God has done as an expression of confidence. Her song is a profound declaration of praise and trust in God’s promise. Can you imagine? This is not a sweet lullaby like Away in a Manger; it is a radical song like “We Shall Overcome”. Music is powerful—it brings hope to the most hopeless of situations, it reminds us of God’s amazing acts of redemption and salvation, it proclaims freedom in the midst of oppression. Remember the spirituals from those enduring slavery? What about Paul and Silas who sang from prison until an earthquake shook the foundations, opened the doors, and unfastened the chains of the prisoners? (Acts 16:16-34)
Several years ago, the government of Pretoria banned the lighting of candles and singing of Christmas carols in Soweto. When asked why by the press, the spokesperson replied, “You know how emotional black women are. Christmas carols have an emotional effect on them.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 27, 1985) You let a poor Jewish woman like Mary or a black mother in Soweto sing, and you better hang on because you don’t know where it might lead.
My friend Jan Richardson wrote a beautiful book called Night Visions and in her book, she describes Mary’s song:
“Mary knows in her soul, in her womb, that radical hope is found at the boundary where the outrageous gives way to the possible…Mary knows that some things are so outrageous that sometimes we have to talk about them as if they have already happened in order to believe that they could ever come about…Hope starts small, even as a seed in the womb, but it feeds on outrageous possibilities.” (pp. 56-57)
This story is not ordinary. It is as radical as they come. The overthrow of the powerful has not come through the mounting up of the weak in rebellion, but through the coming of God in the weakness of a child. (New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, p. 55) Many years ago, I saw a plaque that said, “When God wants something great done in this world, God doesn’t send an army…God sends a baby and then waits.” How do we respond to a God like that? It is just too much. The profound truth of this story should have us shaking in our pews—God entrusted a child to us. God sent a baby to bring freedom to those who are oppressed, to feed those who are hungry, to bring justice to our world. A baby?! That’s it? There are no words for a God like this. What can we do, but sing?
While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ‘round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
Music is the song of our souls. It tells our stories. It shapes us and gives expression to our deepest longings, to our praise, to our pain, to our joy; to our awe at this amazing mystery we call God. We can work hard to explain the virgin birth. We can attempt to take away all the mystery, but there are pieces of the story that are beyond explanation. There are pieces of the story that can only be sung. It is through music that we teach the faith to our children. Throughout our lives, music marks significant events.
My earliest church memory is singing in the children’s cantata 100% Chance of Rain! When I was in college, I was in a program that profoundly shaped my identity as a person and as a minister. Our theme song was “We are going; heaven knows where we are going. We’ll know we’re there. We will get there; heaven knows how we will get there. We know we will.” After I finished seminary in Atlanta, I hoped to move west where I could complete the ordination process in a church that was open to all people. While in a worship service on a retreat, we sang “Here I am Lord, is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” I knew it was time to move. A week later, the way opened and soon I moved to Oregon where I was ordained.
Singing is essential to our faith. We sing when we want to express the inexpressible. We sing before we know what the outcome will be. “All Mary has is her unreasonable willingness to believe that God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next—and that, apparently, is enough to make her burst into song. She does not wait to see how things will turn out first. She sings ahead of time, and all the angels with her.” (Home by Another Way, p. 18) God has done great things for us. God has blessed us mightily. We know how this part of the story comes out, but there is more to come. All we can do is wait, and sing while we wait:
I lift my eyes, the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since I first learned to love it.
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am Christ’s--
How can I keep from singing?
Sing it again, Mary. Sing to us of your God. Sing on, Mary; sing on, until your song becomes ours. Sing, until the entire world hears you and makes your song its own.
Buechner, Frederick. Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. New York:
Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. Nashville: Abingdon
Richardson, Jan. Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and
Christmas. Cleveland: United Church Press, 1998.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Home By Another Way. Boston: Cowley, 1999.
*How Can I Keep From Singing? Author unknown. Attributed to Robert Lowry.