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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Advent 4, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
December 20, 2015

Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55

‘Protest singers’

God made known
in the friendship of women,
the word of greeting
and unseen life enwombed:
give us the courage
of the teenage mother
who brings into the world
a song of joyful revolt
and a God who needs her love;
through Jesus Christ, the one who is to come.

Steven Shakespeare’s collect for today strikes a balance between intimacy (“friendship”) and social upheaval (“joyful revolt”). Several months ago some of us read and discussed a novel about Mother Miriam/Mary by Colm Toibin whose Testament emphasises Mary’s latter-day bitterness, while overlooking her revolutionary fervour. What Toibin chooses not to examine (not even in terms of background) is given prominence in Luke’s Gospel. According to Luke, Mary is a warm and passionate young woman; a protest singer. God be with you ...

It’s said (and perhaps this is Toibin’s chief concern) that Mary is too often portrayed as naïve and passive, but that too means overlooking Luke and the revolutionary passion Luke’s Gospel inspires.

Orthodox icons of the Annunciation (the angel Gabriel announcing the good news of miraculous birth) show two important features. First, Mary’s hands, one open to the angel, the other shunning the angel’s presence, indicate her thoughtfulness, her discernment. The act of deciding whether or not to accept this word of God. Her “yes” is born of questioning/struggle. Her “let it be” is committed, responsible, free.

The second feature is a scroll or book that indicates Mary’s knowledge of scripture, her scholarly mind and heart.

Today’s passage reveals the close relationship Mary has with her older kinswoman/cousin Elizabeth. The story is marked by boldness, respect, priestly/religious/spiritual understanding. Two intelligent and independent women, sharing individual experience and in the process finding fuller meaning. Certainly not naïve or passive.

Mary and Elizabeth (and Luke) come from the culture that produced Ecclesiastes: “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind …” (2:17).

The culture of Mary and Elizabeth produced the Psalms: “How long, OLord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me?…” (13:1-2).

Mary and Elizabeth lived in the shadow of the “Romans, who made synonyms of order and desolation …” (Marilynne Robinson). They knew the thrones of the powerful and “the humiliation of the slave” (some of the literal Greek of Luke1:48), in ways we can hardly imagine.

The scroll or book depicted by iconographers is said to be the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (in whose words Mary might discern a vocation). It might also reveal awareness of the prophet Samuel whose mother Hannah wrote a song very similar to Mary’s “Magnificat” (1 Samuel 2:1-10).

Boldness, respect, religious understanding, intelligence, independence, scholarship, artistic sensibility and skill. There is wisdom here worth attending to, at the risk of betraying our own naïvely modern, western views.

One commentator writes: “I think Mary and Elizabeth knew how ridiculous their situation was two women, one too old to bear a child, one so young she was not yet married, yet called to bear children of promise through whom God would change the world. And they probably knew how little account [a patriarchal] world would pay them, tucked away in the hill country of Judea, far from the courts of power and influence ...

“Yet when faced with the long odds of their situation, they did not retreat, or apologize, or despair, they [raised their voices]. [Mary] sang of [her] confidence in the Lord’s promise to upend the powers that be, reverse the fortunes of an unjust world, and lift up all those who had been oppressed. When your back is to the wall ... and all looks grim, one of the most unexpected and powerful things you can do is sing” (David Lose).

This kind of singing, hopeful singing, is a counterpoint to the dread headlines and falsely cheery carols of the “silly season”. When we sing some of our favourite carols on Christmas Day, perhaps we might then also share the reasons we are inspired by these carols when all seems hopelessly despairing or hopelessly optimistic/naïve.

Another commentator writes: “Notice how Mary’s view of God won’t let her resign to the current state of affairs. She refuses to view long-term suffering and the proliferation of victims as the sacrifices a society must offer to the guardians of the status quo in exchange for security.

“Therein lies her power. This young woman’s restlessness beautifully characterizes Advent not a season of slowing down or shopping, but a time when [believers] should survey the world and shout to God, ‘Enough already!’ Her revolutionary song embarrasses those of us who prefer to [simply] count our blessings. Its lyrics expose how docile and faltering we are in comparison ...” (Matthew L. Skinner).

About this Mary, poet Thomas John Carlisle wrote:“An offense against our apathy/ this pathetic refugee mother.”

Contending for a revolution that puts the flourishing God desires as the top priority, Mary still sings her song today.

Watch flickering Advent candles echo her stubborn confidence by refusing to let the darkness (as we’ve said: the despair/violence/selfishness/fear) win.

Listen for defiant hope voiced by protesters seeking gender equality and liberation; racial, social and ecological justice.

Pause for a moment by silent makeshift vigils that mourn the dead along roadsides, and by memorials outside buildings where people have used religious rhetoric and guns to terrorise and to murder.

Gather people you know and ask how long and lengthening wars, callous immigration policies, polluting technologies and ruthless systems have affected them.

Gather people you know and ask how disrespectful letters from government ministers have affected them; how obfuscation and lack of consultation have left them feeling there’s “no room at the inn” this Christmas-time.

Ask yourself this question on this Advent Sunday of Love: How will I use the power I have to declare and enact the future God promises?

Our Gospel is about two intelligent and independent women sharing individual experience and in the process finding fuller meaning. Indeed, many can do even more than a few. And since it is difficult to achieve any joint effort to bring about change, the protest singer’s passion is to state its inevitability. Songs like the “Magnificat” (“Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’”) do not argue for change. They proclaim it. They predict the demise of injustice. Things will be different.

The change will occur because people take the initiative to make change. And, paradoxically, they will take the initiative because they believe the change is inevitable (Martin Van Hees). Things have already changed, we might say, in the mind/heart of God. Things have already changed in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus; in the Spirit-filled community of those whose singing is resistance … whose singing is moral responsibility … whose singing is truly hopeful.

Let’s complete the homily together. Ask yourself: How will I use the power I have (the love that burns dimly or brightly in me) to declare and enact the future God promises, now in this time? ... Amen.