Sermon for Advent IV, Year C
Based on Lk. 1:46-55
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Mary’s song is bursting at the seams with joy, hope, and love. It is filled to the brim with Gospel promises. That’s why, down through the ages, so many different kinds of people have found it so inspiring and appealing. It is a foreshadowing of the heart and core of Christ’s own Gospel message. Its joy, hope, and love speak to all of humankind. Yet, it is a very particular story, likely best told from the perspective of womankind—perhaps young, poverty-stricken women—out of their lived experiences.
The following story—which comprises the bulk of this sermon—as told by Aruna Gnanadason, reflects upon what it might have been like if Mary gave birth to her son in present-day India. As the story unfolds, one is able to see a sense of solidarity, as Mary of Nazareth’s story parallels the story of Mary of India; along with the stories of millions of other Marys around the globe.
Mary carries the load on her head and climbs the precarious steps to the top of the building. “Hurry up, woman, I haven’t got a year,” shouts the contractor. She is just one of the many women he has employed. He is a building contractor. Mary carefully lowers the container with the cement, and for a moment stands holding her aching back. When will this long day be over, she wonders; when is she going to be able to lie down and rest? She does not tarry long, she is afraid the contractor will send her home; he was not too happy to employ her. No one has much use for a woman who is eight and a half months pregnant. Mary had got another day’s work by lying that she is only six months pregnant. Thank heavens it does not show too much. She balances the empty container on her head and climbs down again. She controls a spell of dizziness and clings on to the ladder lest she fall.
Clutching the four and a half rupees she collects from the contractor, Mary rushes home. She has only recently started wondering why men at the construction site are paid so much more than the women. After buying some rice, onions and chilies, she stops for a glass of tea which she guiltily gulps down—this is a luxury she can ill afford. She wonders when this day will end as she recollects all the work to be done in the house.
Even from a distance she hears the wailing of her son and the angry voice of her husband who is trying to quieten him down. Biting back the rising irritation, Mary opens the door of their little hut. Her three children have been quarrelling over a banana which one of them had got from an old lady on the street. Joseph, her husband, unable to stand all their squabbling after his hard day at the carpenter’s shop where he works, has beaten them all. While Mary’s daughter sulks in a corner, the elder son looks back at his father defiantly, the little boy cries loudly. Everyone turns to Mary to bring peace to the house. She quickly tucks the ten paise coins into the hands of the three children who run away, and Mary wonders when this day will end.
Joseph gives Mary five rupees out of his wages which she counts and puts away in a savings box to buy clothes for the children for Christmas—he takes away the other five rupees to the gambling hut….or maybe to the (liquor shop). Mary starts the chores—the collecting of water, the washing of the clothes, the cooking of the simple meal. Sitting in the smoke-filled hut, tears fill her eyes. When will this day end, she wonders, when can she rest her aching back?
And so the days go on, Christmas draws near. The savings for the clothes never reach the cloth shop, they are given to the man who owns the land on which their hut stands. The threat of eviction hovers over them daily, monetary appeasement once in a while is the only way out. The houses of the rich, around the slum, are decorated gaily with stars and lights. The children look hungrily at the cakes sweets, toys, clothes and firecrackers in the city’s many stores. Joseph makes a simple star with bamboo and newspaper and hangs it in front of the hut.
As she climbs the ladder the load feels extra heavy, the backache becomes worse. The shouting of the contractor keeps her going. But a little later she just cannot continue. The uneasy feeling makes her rush home, and she gets home just in time. With the help of her ten-year-old daughter, Mary delivers a baby boy. The women from neighbouring huts come in to help to make mother and child comfortable. A stray dog which roams the street, comes and peeps into the hut where there is great rejoicing. Joseph proudly looks on as people from the neighbouring huts move closer to see this babe that is born. The three leaders of the slum bring gifts—an old torn blanket, a bag of hay to make a bed and a glass of milk for Mary. The star that Joseph had put up welcomes one and all to that humble hut. Christmas is here; peace, joy and hope radiate from that unknown little slum, tucked away in a corner of that opulent city.
Mary looks at her little son and tears of joy well up in her eyes; the little babe is a symbol of hope (and love) to her. She remembers the construction site, the low wages, the empty savings box, the fear of eviction, the unsure future. To her the baby seems to be saying: “Why woman, why do you humbly and passively acquiesce in all this which oppresses you? Get up and resist—you are the woman of the Magnificat. (So sing your song and live in the power of its truth).”1
Mary’s song continues to bring joy, hope and love to all kinds of people, living in all sorts of situations. However, there is something in Mary’s song which is far more than just warm, fuzzy sentimentalism. The famous missionary, E. Stanley Jones once said: “The Magnificat is the most revolutionary document in the world.” We may be surprised by that statement and ask why, what makes it the most revolutionary document in the world? Listen carefully once again to some of those words: “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (or as the Revised English Bible translation puts it: “he has routed the proud and all their schemes; 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.”
Maybe you noticed the single, most important theme running through these verses—it’s the theme of God’s reversals. God’s ways are so much greater than our ways; God’s ways are, in these verses very revolutionary, because they are so vastly different than our ways. God acts to reverse the existing structures and orders of this world. It becomes crystal clear that God sides here with the weak, the forgotten, the poor, those who have little or no voice, power and influence in this world—the Marys of Nazareth, India, and everywhere around the globe.
(Mary’s song) speaks to those same questions of power and arrogance, oppression and materialism, that plague us today. It accounts for the brighter side in the record of the Christian church—the care for the poor and helpless, the founding of hospitals, the sharing of wealth, the support of the oppressed, the defiance of demonic powers.
I want us to all feel the impact of this Gospel according to Mary for it is the Gospel of her Son. What she is saying here is what he and his saints have done. They have turned the values of the secular world upside down.2
Mary’s song is a compelling invitation to take God’s reversals seriously. Seriously enough to strive to live out their truth in our daily existence. Whether we’re a young teenager girl from Nazareth, a poor city labourer-mother from India, a hard-working carpenter, or a prime minister; whoever we are, whatever our background, wherever we live; God comes into our lives and world to live among us. God, in the words of Mary’s song, calls each one of us to be on God’s side; to join with the Marys and Josephs everywhere, along with Jesus himself, by reversing the existing structures and orders of injustice, hatred, greed and violence; by turning them upside down with justice, love, giving generously and living in peace. Then the Christ, the fulfillment of Advent, the greatest gift of Christmas, will truly live among us and all peoples.
1 This story is told in: John Pobee & Barbel Von Wartenberg-Potter, New Eyes for Reading (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1986) pp. 53-55.
2 Cited from: David H.C. Read, “The Gospel According to Mary,” in: James Cox, editor, The Twentieth Century Pulpit (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978) p. 178.
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