What Mary DID Know
A few weeks ago, I got into a good-natured exchange on Facebook with a member of this congregation, as well as the bishop of our Synod, about my take on the popular Christmas song Mary, Did You Know.
It started when I posted this – I’ll admit - slightly snarky meme:
The pushback was thoughtful, pointing out that there were almost certainly elements of what would unfold that Mary did not know and could never have predicted at the beginning of the story. That, in fact, it would have been cruel for God to burden a 14-year-old girl with foreknowledge of her son’s crucifixion, and that however much you are told about a life-changing experience ahead of time, there is a different kind of knowledge that comes from actually living through it.
I recognize the truth of these arguments, although, I still wish the song could communicate the wonder of her experience as the mother of God without seeming to tell her about her own life.
But, whether or not we like the song, I want to suggest that there is a BETTER question that we can ask of Mary in this season: Rather than asking her if she knew what we now know, I want to ask her “what she did know.”
By asking this question, we give ourselves the opportunity not to insert into the narrative our own knowledge of the totality of the Christ story, but rather to listen to Mary’s own voice at its beginning: a voice that is strong, and faithful, and - shockingly - powerfully prophetic. You see, Mary had a profound understanding of what the miracle of her pregnancy really meant… an understanding that went far beyond the message of the Angel who announced the coming birth.
That’s not to underplay the importance of the annunciation that we just heard narrated. The angelic message was the beginning of Mary’s revelation, and it communicated important truth. The Angel Gabriel shared the astonishing news that God’s own son would be born through Mary. And this revelation contained at least two mind-blowing truths BEYOND the life-altering announcement of an unexpected pregnancy.
The first truth was that her child would be divine… God in human flesh; Her son would embody God’s commitment to be WITH humanity in a way that had never been experienced before.
The second truth was that God has chosen her for the task of nurturing, raising, and ushering this divine child into his ministry, and that this task was the result of the favor of God.
That’s a lot to take in. Even more so when you consider that Mary was an unmarried teenage peasant girl, in an occupied, impoverished country on the fringes of an Empire. Mary occupied one of the lowest rungs possible in her society, with no status or power, and no voice that anyone is at all likely to listen to. And yet, when she heard the angel’s words about the plan God was unfolding in her life and body, she took it all in and then… she interpreted it in what is probably the most famous song in the New Testament.
We heard Mary’s song, also known as the Magnificat, voiced by Ben in our worship this morning. It was a beautiful chant, but I wonder if we could appreciate the power of her words in that format. I wonder if, instead, we should have shouted it! Or spoken it as an impassioned proclamation. Because Mary’s so-called song, is really a breathtaking prophetic utterance.
She takes the angels words about what God is doing through her, and she proclaims what that action means with authority and insight. She declares that God has looked with favor on her low status, and that this favor teaches us something important about God, and the way God values and interacts with power… a way that is in stark contrast to the world.
It’s startling to hear such words in the mouth of a peasant girl, but even more startling when you consider her audience. Mary delivers her prophesy to Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, a Temple priest who had been chosen to enter the Holy of Holies, the place of communion with God. Zechariah was supposed to be an intermediary between God and God’s people, but Zechariah had not been prepared to accept the unconventional plans God’s angel revealed to him, so he had been silenced… made mute until the birth of his own son, John, who would one day proclaim Jesus’s coming.
The chosen priest of God was silenced, but the unknown girl speaks out. She tells the story of what God is doing through her, and then she tells us all what it means.
And this meaning is so much bigger than the miracles highlighted in that other song about Mary… the miracles of Jesus were just illustrations of his larger mission. Mary understood that God was coming to change the world. God was coming to upend established structures of power and privilege and to reveal the wildly different priorities of God’s way:
A way that’s about favoring the lowly;
A way that’s about showing mercy to those who are ready to bow before God’s supremacy, rather than defending their own importance and understanding;
A way that’s about scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful, while lifting up those who are disempowered, and meeting the needs of those who have been ignored.
In the baby she was carrying, Mary recognized a radical truth about the way that God chooses to be among us. As Rachel Held Evans describes, “it’s about surrendering power, setting aside privilege, and finding God in the smallness and vulnerability of a baby in the womb.”
Mary hears Gabriel’s announcement about the way God is coming into the world and she interprets it with the wisdom and power of a person who has always been told her voice doesn’t matter… until God tells her differently. And because of that insight, her song is a prophecy that explains the meaning of the incarnation to us. It explains that God’s way of drawing near to us is to empty himself of power and honor, and in the process to reverse the inequities that exclude and silence those without power in the world. It is the way of leveling inequities that leave some hungry while others have so much more than they need; of correcting the imbalances that allow some to hoard power and then use that power to step on others.
As Evan explains: “With the Magnificat, Mary not only announces a birth, she announces the inauguration of a new kingdom, one that stands in stark contrast to every other kingdom – past, present, and future – that relies on violence and exploitation to achieve ‘greatness.’ With the Magnificat, Mary declares that God has indeed chosen sides. And it’s not with the powerful, but with the humble. It’s not with the rich, but with the poor. It’s not with the occupying force, but with the people on the margins. It’s not with narcissistic kings, but with an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl entrusted with the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.”
Talk about God choosing sides might make us a bit uncomfortable, but this is not some new and radical way of reading Mary’s words. In the history of the church, and of Christian nations, Mary’s Magnificat has more than once been banned because of its subversive messages that threatened the powers of the day. The powers of many generations and contexts have tried to paint Mary as “meek and mild.” But, in scripture, Mary is a fiery prophet speaking truth to power, because she was nurturing that truth inside her very body.
It is no Christmas carol, pastel painting, docile Mary who speaks to us in this song, but this Mary is BETTER. Because she calls us into deep and powerful joy! My soul magnifies the Lord, she sings, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
The God whom she carries, and whose mission she prophesies is good news. Now, Mary, of all people, would in justified in questioning the goodness of God’s way of unsettling the world, but despite her situation of incredible risk Mary expresses joy and the change God is bringing. Mary trusts God, for her own life and for the world. She trusts that the reorientation begun by the incarnation, the rejection of violence and power, the provision for those who have been hungry and the honor for those who have been rejected… it is all good news.
It is all good news because Mary understood one other thing about God from her experience. She understood that God really does reject the way of coercive power, even when it comes to working out God’s own plan.
When the angel appeared to announce the miracle she was to experience, nothing happened until Mary consented. Before she became a mother OR a prophet, she had to say “yes.” She had to have her questions answered, and she had to say “Here I am… let it be with me according to your word.”
Before Mary prophesied to us the meaning of the incarnation, she modelled for us the way to respond. None of us have the chance to bear the Christ child in our bodies, but we have the chance to bear the message of the incarnation to the world: to allow God’s Spirit to plant the seed of Christ in our hearts, and to birth in our lives the way of God proclaimed in Mary’s Magnificat.
But God won’t force us. We have to say yes. That, my beloved community, is what Mary knew.
Thanks be to God.
 https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/unsentimental-advent  https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/unsentimental-advent  For examples, see https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2856