“Is There Anything to Sing About?”
Dec. 19, 2021
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
Mary’s Song of Praise
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
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 thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
This is the final Sunday of Advent and every three years we are served the story of Mary and Elizabeth, two pregnant women, both in extraordinary circumstances. This story has been the basis for millions of children’s Christmas pageants which often occur on this day.
One very memorable pageant is recalled by Pastor Barb who experienced it while serving a small Lutheran congregation on the East coast. She was asked to play her guitar as background music in the pageant put on not by the children, but by the women of the church. Admittedly, she approached the event with a skeptical smile. “I had seen shepherds tugging at their bathrobes, which were always too big. I had giggled as crowns fell off wise men and as angels popped up at the wrong time from behind the pulpit. But those were children’s pageants where everyone excused such mistakes while saying, ‘Aren’t the little ones cute!’”
But how, she wondered, could one excuse adult women if they tripped on bathrobes too big on their way to Bethlehem. Pastor Barb told herself to be open‑minded, and took her place at the back of the church basement fellowship hall.
The lights clicked off one by one, and she began to play. “Barb, do not laugh,” she reminded herself, “just keep playing the guitar.” The shepherds wore their own bathrobes so all went smoothly with them. The three wise women made it through their reading by candlelight. As these characters moved out, she kept playing. Only Mary and Joseph remained on stage near the piano.
Now, it was also a tradition in the congregation to allow one man to be part of this pageant. Jimmie Hall, age 72, played Joseph. His wife, Inez, played Mary. Jimmie came to all the women’s meetings anyway, since his wife was president.
Pastor Barb kept playing as the shepherds returned to their seats. Someone banged into a folding chair in the darkness, causing a bit of laughter near the manger. Then, out of the darkness, the Kodak slide projector, which served as a spotlight came on. Only then, did Barb look up. Without a cue, she stopped playing. Mary and Joseph stood silently, not the youngsters of pageants of years gone by, but two older black people, far too old to have a baby. Gently, serenely, they cradled their beautiful black child. Jimmie looked proud as any first‑time father. Jimmie who had stayed alive during the Depression by eating at Father Divine’s soup kitchen in Harlem. Inez who could never bear children had a baby of her own that night.
Then in the silence, Pastor Barb heard music, even though no one was singing. She heard Mary’s song inside her head ‑ the song of pregnancy, now sung at the time of birth: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She heard Jimmie and Inez singing the song with aged Elizabeth and young Mary singing along with them: “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; For God who is mighty has done great things for me.” And even the women in the church basement were singing and the silent guitar joined in: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
In that moment, Jimmie and Inez stood in the light as the people of the promise. The baby was their baby and God’s baby. What Pastor Barb had expected, in her theological training, to be a silly scene, had instead become wondrous. In that moment, an elderly couple who had never had children, knew the baby could have been their own. They knew Jesus could indeed be the black baby cradled in the arms of Inez. And the cement blocks of the basement walls echoed Mary’s song.
This event of the divine coming to earth must be that ordinary. A church basement with folding chairs. A scene we suspect might be laughable. Mary’s son must catch us off guard. Interrupting our sophisticated smiles and surprising us when we think we are too old for surprises.
God chooses such unlikely scene for the coming of glory ‑ the promise of the Savior. God chooses people, needs people. Though we imagine God to be self‑sufficient, God needed Mary. God needed Jimmie and Inez to open some skeptical eyes. The God who created heaven and earth, who created you, this God needed a human being to bring the WORD, the promise to earth. It was not only God saying, “Mary, I will bless you,” but God saying, “Mary, I need you. I need you to bear my Word in your womb. I will wait with you nine months for my Word to take on flesh.” When Mary heard that word, through her laughter and her fear, she knew the name Immanuel meant not only “God‑with‑us” but God‑with‑me. It was then, she sang. She sang as people finally sing when they hear the Word: God‑with‑me. Even in the midst of evidence to the contrary, Mary sang a song of God’s victory.
Despite it all, Mary sang. Just think about what was going on when Mary sang. Rome was in charge, with Caesar Augustus still on the throne, with the census coming up and too little money for travel. Even knowing all that, Mary sang.
You may think Mary naive to sing such a revolutionary song when little around her was changing. But Mary’s song would not wait until the world changed to her liking. For Mary, it was enough to know that she had been chosen and blessed, not the emperor’s wife. Not a woman of great renown; not the mighty, but the lowly. God needed Mary to bring the Kingdom close at hand. God trusted the ordinary, the common to bring forth the Promise. For Mary, that was reason enough to sing! It was enough evidence that God’s reign was not to be known in powerful kings or wealthy landowners. While some people claim such things as success, wealth and power as signs of God’s favor, Mary knew better from that day forward.
Mary knew better. Just as centuries later, slaves in America heard God’s word and refused to believe that God had ordered their masters to rule over them. It was not the way things were supposed to be. The slaves began to sing, “Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn.” They sang, in spite of the evidence believing in their hearts that God had called them to help bring in a new day. God needed them to bring the fullness of the Word of God to the soil on which they stood.
In a church basement with the women’s group filling the chairs, the descendants of former slaves stood in the spotlight. They stood humbly with a baby. They knew the baby was God’s gift, and they dared to claim God’s blessing on their ordinary lives. They believed the Word had come, a child of their own dark flesh.
Jimmie died five years after this Christmas pageant. Pastor Barb saw him in her memory as she sat at the funeral. They were back in the basement again; it was Christmas. The scene of the manger and the reality of the casket mingled together like a double‑exposed photograph. The aged man had seen the promised child. And into the moment came another song: “Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people.”
They were the words of Simeon’s song, the old man who had waited for years to see the infant Jesus and like Mary burst into song upon the fulfillment of a promise. But the song could also be a refrain from Mary’s song. The young, pregnant woman. The old man. Both had seen the salvation of God. Both knew it was joined to their own flesh. God needed them to bear the Word. But they had not known that until God gave them the song. Once they knew, once they heard the blessing, they laughed and cried and sang their hearts out. Then the song swelled, inviting all people into the chorus, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For my own eyes have seen the salvation of God.”
May this be true for you, too.
Linda Donlin. My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord
Charles White. Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep. 1956
Simeon’s Moment: Artwork By Ron Dicianni