By Rev. Bob Thompson
Luke 1: 46-55
I have said that what we believe, and what the stories of our faith say to us, depend on the questions we bring to them – the experiences that have formed our thinking as we approach them. So, what questions and experiences formed my paraphrase of The Magnificat?
The stories of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke’s gospel are based on a belief that God, from time to time, intervenes to change the course of history, and bring a different outcome than would normally happen. Their story is that Jesus was born because God stepped into history and made a young woman pregnant. The child that was born of that union, Jesus, was half person and half God. If you believe in that kind of God that steps in to change history, then the stories are quite plausible.
But that has not been my experience of God. I experience God-presence in quite different ways. That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience or believe in the uniqueness of Jesus, but I need to look for that uniqueness in a different place. And even if you do believe in the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth by God’s intervention, you still have to admit that he wasn’t born with a fully developed adult mind, with the knowledge of what his mission was to be, and how he was to accomplish it. He still had to somehow learn all of that. So, where did his knowledge and his commitment to his call, come from.
As I read the Magnificat, I can see that the girl who uttered those words would be the kind of mother who would raise Jesus with the values and confidence that would prepare him to be the man he became. And perhaps Joseph too, though we know so little about him. But I can’t imagine a man marrying someone like the Mary of the Magnificat without knowing that his family would be quite different, because of the values and commitment of this young woman.
And I don’t believe those values and that commitment were created in a vacuum. That is why, in my paraphrase of the Magnificat, her parents had such an influence on the story – and perhaps Joseph’s parents too. The values that Mary obviously instilled in Jesus, were not the kind of values that most people in her society experienced. But they were there, in the mystic and prophetic voices of her religious tradition that had existed at the edge of that tradition down through the ages, with a promise of a different community than people normally experienced. That different community was expressed in the words of the Magnificat.
So, of course, right away, we are faced with the question of whether Mary actually said the words of the Magnificat. Do I believe that the Magnificat is really Mary’s words? And I have to say that I don’t know. The text suggests that Elizabeth heard her say that, but there doesn’t seem to be any way that the words would have been recorded. But I’d say that it isn’t so important that Mary said those words, so much as that the tradition says that she said them. Luke attributes those words to Mary, and I don’t think he would have, if the primitive Christian community hadn’t seen her as that kind of woman.
It seems to me that the Church, down through subsequent ages, has tried to paint a quite different picture of Mary. The idea of Mary that I have always held, taught to me as I grew up, was a kind of gentle Mary, meek and mild, whose only role was to do the will of God. That kind of Mary would not have had much role in raising the kind of man that Jesus became. In the Magnificat, Mary is recorded saying “for God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant”. But I believe Mary was underselling herself. When I read the statement called the Magnificat, I think, if God was looking for a girl to be the mother of his only begotten Son, then this spirited young woman would surely have been at the top of the list of candidates!
And so, Mary his mother, is the next woman in Jesus’ life, and the man he became was because of her. How could Mary accomplish all of that? She was after all, very young, a simple peasant woman. If I don’t believe in a God who intervened in history to make Jesus who he was, doesn’t it seem improbable, impossible, that this young mother could accomplish that?
And then I think of the women I mentioned last week – the women of Jesus’ genealogy, and of the things they accomplished because of their fierce loyalty to their families, and the sacrifices they were willing to make to provide for those families. And it does seem possible to me, that Mary, by being a devoted mother, instilling in Jesus the values and dreams that she expresses in the Magnificat, could have helped form the person who became Jesus.
For more than 20 years now, I have had breakfast every Wednesday morning with a small group of men in Vernon. Two of those men are not happy with the carbon taxes that the provincial and federal governments are imposing on us in an effort to slow down climate change. Their answer is always something to the effect that we really don’t matter, and in the scheme of things, whatever we do will make no impact on the trajectory of climate change. It is an answer that all of us, including me, find far too easy to voice. If Mary had taken that attitude, and accepted that answer, perhaps there would have been no Jesus as we know him.
I read this piece in Richard Wagamese’s meditation book “Embers” the other day, that I think speaks to this:
“Me: What does it mean to believe?
Old Woman: It means to trust with your whole heart, to have faith. It means to have courage to act out of your belief.
Me: How do I do that?
Old Woman: You have to be honest.
Me: What do you mean?
Old Woman: You have to live your belief every day. To believe in something and not live it, is dishonest.
I became a better human being after that.”
And so, with the words of Richard Wagamese ringing in my ears, and the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus, I believe I’m faced every day with the question of: What I can do, to make the world a more peaceful and compassionate place? And the answer always is that I can live by what I believe. I can have the courage each day, to act out my belief.
Sometimes, that’s the hard road – going out of my way to help another, speaking up for another who is being victimized, holding to what I believe when others dismiss those beliefs.
I often wonder how Jesus held on to his vision of the Kin-dom community, when the dominant culture around him had a quite different, often opposite idea of how humans are supposed to interact. I believe that for us it is easier because the dominant culture today is much more compassionate and just than it was then, despite all the violence and suffering we see around us. But still, the view of the dominant culture toward the future, that we see all around us, and in the news each night, is a vision that is built on fear. And on feeling helpless.
I was moved recently, by the words of another aboriginal person who is also a retired Episcopalian bishop. Steven Charleston said, “the roots of fear run deep. The hope we embrace must run just as deep.” Just look at how deep the roots of hope ran in Mary. And what it accomplished!