December 11, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1: 46b-55
Some of you have noticed and commented that I’ve become a bit of a fashionista with my vestments. I design and make all of my stoles. One reason is that I find that most of what’s available out there is rather boring. The second reason is that stoles are expensive and if I bought them I could only have a few. The third reason is I like working with my hands. Whether it’s weeding in the summer or doing needle work in the winter, keeping my hands busy doing mindless work allows me to focus; reflect. I get some of my best problem-solving done during these activities. So this week I was embroidering on a stole that I’m making for Christmas and it came to me that embroidery is all about tension. If I make my stitches too loose, the end result looks like a tangled mess. If my tension is too tight, I have nice looking lines, but the material bunches up. Just the right amount of tension is needed; a balance between not too tight and not too loose.
Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas who was deeply influenced by him define virtue as the balance between extremes. So, for example, courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness. To achieve virtue we need to be willing to hold a tension between excesses. We need to dance between limits.
In Mary’s beautiful prayer today we have a perfect example of that balance – the tension between self-deprecation and pride. To get the full significance of Mary’s words it’s helpful to know what occurred just previous to what Lamar proclaimed this morning. Mary finds out that she will bear a Son, Jesus, and also that her cousin Elizabeth, who had no children and was thought to be too old to become pregnant is also expecting. So Mary decides to take a trip and go visit Elizabeth. When Mary arrives Elizabeth greets her ecstatically by saying, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” The older relative is gushing with praise for her young cousin and almost embarrassed that she should have taken the trouble to travel to see her.
So, how does Mary respond to this? The words that she utters celebrate the greatness of God.
It was customary in Jewish prayers to recite God’s past faithfulness to His people. Mary followed that convention as she recalled how God had helped Israel, in fulfillment of all His promises. Now her own child would be the living fulfillment of God’s saving promise. Mary’s worship was clearly from the heart. She was plainly consumed by the wonder of God’s grace to her. Her joy flows from the personal experience of God’s looking with kindness upon her.
In her song Mary never claimed or pretended to be anything more than a humble handmaiden of the Lord. Her words indicate that she recognizes both that she is perfectly ordinary and at the same time that the Mighty has done great things for and in her. She is extraordinary because God uses her in an awesome way; to become the Mother of the Messiah. And because of this, she predicts that this same proclamation made by Elizabeth will be extended, increased, and continue throughout history, For the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name. Mary joyfully held in tension her ordinariness and her significance.
Her importance derived from her being a person in and through whom God worked his purpose and will. Mary’s was an experience of being lifted ; He has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things. That sounds like a good thing. The experiences of being lifted up and filled are positive ones. But as Luther once commented, we are to remember that God cannot fill us before we are hungry. We have to experience hunger and want in order to recognize God’s help . We need to acknowledge our need to be lifted up if we are to allow it. We live in a world where self-sufficiency is glorified and where success that is the result of our hard-work somehow makes us superior to those who are struggling. Our achievements may be the result of our efforts, but they also come from our God-given gifts, opportunities and the support and encouragement of others. This recognition is at the root of humility.
At Christmas we will celebrate that our humble God comes as a child to humble people like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds; and us, if we accept our need, our desire.
Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus said, “humility is truth”. The truth is that we are imperfect and we all have room to grow; and also that we are precious; made in God’s image, imbued with the divine spirit.
Sometimes our need to be lifted up is because of our having stomped ourselves down for not being perfect. Many translations of Luke’s “Magnificat” use the wonderful phrase God has regarded me in my lowliness. This French-based word regardez means to look at twice, or look at again, or look at deeply. Perhaps we need to look into ourselves more deeply and see ourselves through the eyes of a loving and merciful God who recognizes our beauty and our goodness and wants to lift us up and feed us with good things.
In our first reading, Yahweh is transforming the wilderness into fertile land, creating a new land of almost Utopian richness. We are that land. And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind and unplug the ears of the deaf. Open to God’s grace we can see our own loveableness and begin to fathom our immeasurable worth.
Unlike happiness that is dependent on things such as job satisfaction, good personal relationships and the quality of our lifestyle; recognition and acceptance of our inestimable value brings with it a deep sense of joy and gratitude not easily influenced by outside events or the opinions of others. This joy grounds us and poises us to put ourselves out there to do what needs doing without feeling exposed or vulnerable.
The most common translation of the Magnificat begins: My soul magnifies the Lord.
When I was growing up, decorating the Christmas tree was, like for many of you, a big event in our family. Each year, one evening after dinner my dad would put up the tree in the living room and then string all the lights. Then the rest of us would come in and begin unpacking and hanging the ornaments. Our lights in those days were large tear-shaped colored lights. And on some sets my father attached star-shaped, cupped metal reflectors. They magnified the brilliance of the light bulb in front of it. I’d always ask my dad to put the reflectors on the lights that were in my favorite colors because it made those colors stand out in the tree. When we hold the tension between our human imperfection and thus our need for God, and our exquisiteness, our pricelessness then we are poised like Mary, to magnify the Lord, to be in our every-day lives reflections of God-with-us. Then we will be able to sing with full voice and without reservation the Magnificat like this one transposed by pastor and author Brian McLaren:
All the parts of my innermost being – intellect, imagination, emotions, intuition, desire, volition – unite to celebrate aloud the magnificence of the Lord. My innermost being jubilates in the God who liberates me. God has smiled upon me, God’s down-to-earth servant, so I know all will be well. Countless descendants from future generations will look back, knowing I was blessed, for Divine Power has worked powerfully on my behalf. May God’s mysterious Name be ever revered. Amen and Amen.