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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 23, 2018

Luke 1:39-55

‘Protest singers’

I love the song of Mary! Let’s begin and conclude the homily in prayer to the God of love …

God made known
in the friendship of women,
the word of greeting [Shalom!]
and unseen life in the womb:
give us the courage
of the prophet-teacher-mother
who brings into the world
a song of joyful revolt.

Several years ago some of us read and discussed a novel by Colm Toibin whose Testament emphasises Mary’s latter-day bitterness. 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. She is a protest singer. God be with you ...

It’s said (and perhaps this is Toibin’s chief concern) that Mary is too often sentimentalised, 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 (we see them, too, in Catherine Skipper’s artwork in the gallery). 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 stranger-angel, this strange word of God. Her “yes” is born of questioning. Her “let it be” is committed, responsible.

The second feature is a scroll or book that indicates Mary’s knowledge of scripture and tradition, her scholarly-prophetic 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 understanding. Two intelligent and independent women, sharing individual experience – engaging in heartfelt “spiritual conversation” (John Dear SJ) – and in the process finding fuller meaning.

The scroll or book depicted by iconographers is said to be the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (in whose words Mary discerns 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): “My heart delights in YHWH … The bows of warriors are broken,/ while those who stumble gain renewed strength …”

Boldness, respect, priestly understanding, intelligence, independence, scholarship, artistic sensibility and skill. There is wisdom 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 apologise, or despair, they [raised their voices]. [Mary] sang of [her] confidence in [God]’s promise to upend the powers that be, reverse the fortunes of an unjust world, and lift up all those who had been oppressed” (David Lose).

“Mary faces down every system –” writes Sr Joan Chittister, “nonviolently, but clearly nonetheless – to give birth to the Christ. And she prvails.” This kind of singing is a counterpoint to the dread headlines and falsely cheery carols of the “silly season”.

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 characterises Advent – not a season of slowing down or shopping, but a time when [believers] should survey the world and [sing out for justice]. 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).

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: despair/confusion/emotionalism and moralism/aggression) win.

Listen for defiant hope voiced by protesters seeking gender equality and liberation; racial, social and ecological justice – in the Spirit of Dorothy Day, Dorothy Stang, Etty Hillesum, Faith Bandler, the Women of Waterloo action group, the women of Malawi, Sudan, Palestine, Iraq, holding their dying, starving, starved, dead children … in the Spirit of the “Women in Black” groups who stand on the street corners of Jerusalem every Friday afternoon to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine … in the Spirit of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.

If we dare follow Mary in this same Spirit, a time will come when we too have to break through our culture’s silence and speak out publicly for God, siding with God, proclaiming God’s greatness, announcing God’s saving action, and denouncing the idolatrous violence that insults, betrays and blasphemes the God of peace and creation.

Our gospel is about 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 (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Change Is Gonna Come”, “Meat Is Murder”, “Just A Girl”, “Treaty”, “Standing In the Way of Control”, “January 26”, “Better Than That”) do not argue for change. They proclaim it. 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. Things have already changed, we might say, in the mind/heart of God (it’s not for nothing that the Magnificat is traditionally spoken at Vespers, at sunset, as reflection on what God has already done in the day).

Things have already changed in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus – who surely learned from his mother the power of nonviolence and love. Things have already changed in the Spirit-filled community of those whose singing is resistance … whose love is singing …

Let us share our experience of God in the consolation of prayers for the world and for one another. And as we move into small groups of two or three, let us listen to a song.

Ruby Hunter (1955-2010) was an acclaimed songwriter and performer who used music to champion the rights of Aboriginal women and children. A nurturing soul, she rose above the tragedy of being a member of the Stolen Generations to give a voice to the vulnerable and offer strength to those who needed it. This song is called “Ngarrindjeri Woman”.