Scripture Passage: Luke 1:46-55
Responding with a Pure Heart
Good morning! I’m so happy that we’ve all made it to this joyful day, the day before Christmas Eve, and what better scripture for this joyful time than Mary’s Magnificat?! You will understand more of what I mean by this, as we go through this sermon. I always understood this song of praise as a song about radical role reversals and subversive ideas, but this week I gained another intriguing perspective as I studied the text. This time, the commentator looked at Mary’s song from a humorous, sarcastic perspective, which the people in the medieval and early modern Church did, too! He looked at it like it was sort of a medieval version of that movie, National Lampoon’s Vacation, starring Chevy Chase, with the Magnificat as a lampooning of the power structures of the society. The Magnificat is completely respectful though, with no obscenities or crudeness, like in the movie. This was my first exposure to this comical view of the Magnificat. In fact, the medieval and early modern Church actually acted out the Magnificat as a comedy during the “Feast of the Fools,” a light-hearted, sarcastic interpretation of the role reversals. There were donkeys, whom they rode into the church as a symbol of the donkey transporting Mary to Bethlehem, and they sneered at the priest and choir, as a sarcastic comment about the power and hierarchies of the Church!
I loved learning about the Feast of the Fools and this comical take on the power structures of the society and Church, and I’m so thankful that people, today, still have pure hearts like Mary and are taking a sarcastic view at our sometimes absurd power structures and taking a stand to reverse them. Sometimes, these people are even youth! My nephew, William Lum, is planning to study music and become a classical musician on the Euphonium. Now, most of you are probably scratching your heads and wondering, “What in the world is a Euphonium?” A Euphonium is like a small tuba and similar to the baritone horn. He recently auditioned for and was accepted to the University of Arizona and is waiting to hear from other colleges, so he’s on his way, praise God! So, Will, like young Mary, has decided to take a stand against the power structures and values of our society, and use his musical gift and music to volunteer at a nursing home in Silicon Valley. Rather than focusing on practicing and getting good enough to play at a famous place like Carnegie Hall, Davies Hall, or the Royal Opera House in London, Will and his musician friends from Homestead High decided that they would spend some of their time, playing their music and lifting up the spirits of some of the most forgotten folks in our society. That, I think, is pretty subversive to our society’s values about power, fame and fortune! And, Will and these other musicians are very young and just teenagers, like Mary was. Will told me that just their presence, in walking into the nursing home, has a powerful impact in the residents and their faces immediately light up, when they see them. The residents are also doing Will and his musician friends a favor and supporting them in their musical development, because they are providing them with a safe, non-threatening forum, in which to perform and refine their musical skills.
Well, Mary also found a safe, non-threatening message from the Angel Gabriel, that she was the special, chosen young woman, to be the Mother of the Messiah, who would lead the society in all kinds of role reversals to justice and love. I think that just the fact that God chose Mary, a teen aged woman, to be the honorable one, to herald the good news about this long-awaited Messiah shows God’s sense of humor and sarcasm toward that very patriarchal, hierarchical society! God chose a young woman, rather than a male priest, scribe or king to proclaim the good news about the birth of the Messiah and his coming reign of justice and love, and to be the Mother of the Messiah. I would say this is pretty subversive and reflects some of God’s sarcasm about the society’s values on power. Mary also proclaims subversive ideas about the role reversals. The rich will now go away hungry, while the poor are well-fed and satisfied. Again, with the help of the commentator and remembering the Feast of the Fools, we can see the humor and sarcasm in this! Well, that is, if you’re one of the “poor”; this song would not seem so humorous or light-hearted to someone, who is rich and powerful and neglects the poor! Obviously, Mary’s song was relief and literally “music to the ears” of all the poor peasant people of that day. I can just see them laughing sarcastically in their hearts and with each other, and saying something like, “Well, well, well, it’s about time, that our Messiah came to bring down the proud, rich and powerful kings, governors and landlords, who’ve been making our lives miserable!” They were probably feeling so relieved and joyful, and scoffing at the ‘powers to be’ oppressing them, behind their backs. In the Feast of the Fools, they actually had men act out the Magnificat, who wore spectacles made out of orange peels and funny costumes, who scoffed at the priests and bishops in the Church, as a statement against the ‘powers to be’ in their medieval Church and society.
So indeed, this rather sarcastic and definitely subversive song is proclaiming good news to the poor and lowly people in the society! And, this was all being done, through a lowly, pregnant teen aged woman. When we think about how God chose to proclaim these important messages through a teen aged peasant woman, that in itself seems like a sarcastic statement against the norms of that society. Also, Mary was visiting her cousin, Elizabeth, another pregnant woman, who would bear John the Baptizer, the forerunner of the Messiah. So, instead of a scene of all male leaders, like priests, synagogue leaders and emperors, we have a scene of 2 lowly pregnant women, which is sort of comical for the people in that conservative society. However, in this sarcastic, comical context comes some of the best news for the common people: Jesus, their Messiah would bring down the proud and rich and lift up the lowly and poor! This miraculously-conceived baby was going to liberate them from all the oppression of these unjust political leaders and abusive landlords. All the regular roles in their society would now be reversed, and Mary is so confident that this will happen, that she sings about it in the past tense!
Well, Will is also so confident that the residents at the nursing home will always be positive in their response to the music and to them, that he never feels intimidated to play for them! The residents usually give them lots of compliments and encouragement! So, Will is the leader of this musical group, which visits the nursing home, and he’s been trying to encourage all his musician friends to join him more and to convince them that they don’t need to be afraid of the residents being critical and that they will be very supportive. I know from listening to “From the Top”, a weekly radio broadcast on classical station,
, which showcases the rising young classical musicians, that other teen aged musicians have also taken on programs, like Will has, in playing their music or singing at nursing homes. So, Will and these rising, young musicians are doing something subversive with their music to change the world. They are making a sarcastic statement about their American society, which is so focused on gaining fame, fortune and power for oneself and getting ahead, by saying, “I’m going to use my music, not just to become a world-class musician, but also to encourage and lift up the spirits of those, who are most likely to be neglected in our society. Often times, the residents light up, just by the young musicians pausing to talk with them and ‘give them the time of day’. The residents are often lonely and discouraged by aging, isolation from their family and friends, illness and death. Just seeing these young musicians in the facility, as well as listening to their cheerful music, really brightens their day and makes a huge difference. The residents are reminded, like the peasants were reminded in Mary’s day, that no, God has not forgotten them, and God is extending God’s compassion and love to them, through the inspiring music and presence of these teenagers!
So, may each of us feel light-hearted and joyful, as we reflect on Mary’s song and the good work Will and his musician friends are doing, and God’s sarcastic, subversive reversal of all that is so wrong in the power structures of our nation. May we revel in this time of good news and joy, in celebrating the birth of our Lord! Christmas blessings and joy to each of you!