December 19, 2021: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Mary Lee Wile

Visitation Sunday 2021

When I was a little girl, the closet in my bedroom had a back door. You pushed through clothes, unlatched a hook, and behind the door was a dark tunnel: a slanted crawl space that ran the length of the house. Among the various boxes stored there was an old green trunk, and when I was nine years old, I turned that trunk into an altar. I managed to sneak a candle upstairs, and sometimes I would go through both doors, light the candle, and just sit there, simply knowing that I was in the presence of God. – That is, until my mother needed something from one of those boxes and discovered my sanctuary. She explained that I could quite easily burn the house down by burning a candle in that small space, and she took the candle away. She was right, of course. It was dangerous. But I grieved the loss. Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck once wrote that “religion is like a language that one must have begun to learn before being able to grasp what is being said in it.” I didn’t have language for what I was doing at that age, but I knew it touched my soul.

Lindbeck’s idea that human beings are somehow called to worship before they even understand what it means takes me back not only to the little girl in the crawl space, but all the way back 2000 years to today’s gospel: to the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth and their unborn children.   John – still in the womb – already experiences that innate call to worship as he leaps with joy in the presence of the yet-unborn Jesus. And Elizabeth is the first person – way before Peter – Elizabeth is the first person to recognize who Jesus is: “my Lord.” “Who am I?” she asks. (The answer, of course, is that Elizabeth is a prophet in her own right, not just the mother of a prophet.) “Who am I,” she asks, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Then she blesses Mary: “blessed are you among women;” and she blesses Jesus: “blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

And it is immediately following these blessings that Mary offers her astonishing response, what we call her “Magnificat,” which we’ve recited every Sunday during Advent, and twice today. For years, one reason I loved Evening Prayer is that it routinely includes the Magnificat; for most of those years I would say or sing it, as Lindbeck says, without really “being able to grasp what is being said in it.” The language sounded beautiful and inspiring, touching my heart the way my illicit childhood candle did.

During those years of taking comfort in the Magnificat, I had no idea that Scottish theologian William Barclay named it a “bombshell” that has “revolutionary terror,” or that C. S. Lewis had called the Magnificat a “terrible song,” frightening and fearsome, or that Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to the Magnificat as “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”  I hadn’t read the Chicago Sun-Times article that notes: “In Guatemala, the mother of Jesus became a fulcrum for liberation theology’s social justice movement, compelling the government to ban the Magnificat as subversive [because] Mary proclaims that God will bring down the mighty, raise up the lowly and feed the hungry.” I didn’t know that during the British rule of India (mind you, this was done by our Anglican forebears), the Magnificat was banned from Evening Prayer because “You do not want the subordinated natives getting ideas….” As Bonhoeffer went on to say, the words of the Magnificat are not those of “the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings… This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic…tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song….”

Clearly for most of my life I had not grasped that the Magnificat could a be far more dangerous fire than my small candle; nor did I understand that its very subversive nature lights the way for Jesus’ message of comfort to the marginalized and warning to the comfortable.

So here I am, warm and well-fed and comfortably well-off. Not mighty, certainly, but privileged. And so I wonder: now that the eyes of my heart have been opened to the blazing power of this song, how can I speak Mary’s words with integrity, and not feel condemned?

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with Lindbeck that our faith begins in an inarticulate longing for God, that we need time alone in the light of God’s presence before we try to carry that light into the world, but staying crouched in a crawl space would be doing precisely what Jesus tells us not to do: don’t hide your light under a bushel.

There is much work to be done, just as there was when Mary first spoke those words. There are powerful people in this country, and around the world, who are deliberately seeking ways to lift the mighty higher, to crush the lowly, to neglect the hungry, and to disenfranchise those they consider unworthy. Darkness surrounds us.

But in less than a week, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Light of the world. John’s gospel reminds us that this Christ light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not –cannot – overcome it. We can ignore it, horde it, or hide it in a crawl space, but I think the best, most honest way those of us who live in relative comfort can sing Mary’s fearsome and magnificent song is to “grasp what is being said in it,” and follow her wild, subversive call out of the darkness and into the hard and holy work of justice, and peace.