Faith In Real Life Blog: “Sing a Song of Transformation”
Faith In Real Life Blog
Sing a New Song: “Sing a Song of Transformation”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
February 15, 2023
46 And Mary said, my soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name; 50 indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has come to the aid of his child Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
It is a bit odd for us to have the Magnificat as our scripture on the cusp of Lent rather than early in Advent. But as is so often the case, this ‘out of context’ reading’ has given me fresh eyes. I learned early that the Magnificat was in the tradition of Hana’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and Psalm 113 but what was new to me was a small footnote which read “Other ancient authorities read Elizabeth”. The tradition and the setting of Advent has placed this poetry in the mouth of Mary so firmly that I had never paid attention to an alternate reading. But when I considered the possibility, the Magnificat became a song that could have been sung by any of us. It was not just a singular song of joy sung by the mother of Jesus. It was an expression of wonder and joy that belongs to anyone who has experienced the transforming power of God’s love.
Today I want to look at the way the Magnificat can be a song for each of us. But first I will look at the particular human predicaments in the lives of Hanna, Elizabeth and Mary. Each of these women faced social stigma, Hanna and Elizabeth for not having a child and Mary for being an unmarried woman. It was terrible for a woman to be childless in biblical times. Even today women who yearn for a child often ask: “What is wrong with me?” “Why me and not someone else?” Other women are having children they don’t even want. They are likely to have some combination of irritation and hurt when asked “Are you planning a child? Such questions can easily cross a line but even when the question is ‘appropriate’, it is often difficult to say, “I want a child very much but I’m having trouble getting pregnant.” An important part of the difficulty is that there is an internal stigma attached to the difficulty. Inability to give birth still has an air of personal failure to it. It is ‘supposed’ to be natural and when it isn’t, it is easy to slide into self doubt. This was especially true in biblical times.
Hanna went to the temple every year to pray for a child. She had a supportive husband who did what he could, but she remained barren. It was hard enough to have her deepest longing frustrated, but her husband’s second wife, Phinehah , “…used to provoke her (Hanna) severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year…” (1 Samuel 1:6-7).} Hanna’s disappointment was used against her.
Elizabeth also longed for a child. She was a priest’s wife and is explicitly recognized as a righteous woman but she remained childless. Both of these women suffered from the expectations of their secular worlds. They were taught to be ashamed of who they were— childless women. They were judged by others, and they judged themselves. It is painful enough to have a deep longing unmet but the idea that there is ‘something wrong’ goes well beyond biological facts into self-judgment. The stigmatization, whether it comes from within or from without only adds to suffering.
Mary felt this pressure in another way.. She was pregnant out of wedlock and subject to ostracism if not outright condemnation. It was not that long ago that young women simply disappeared from school if they got pregnant. Pregnancy was blamed on ‘loose living’ and bad decisions. Again, it was a personal failure that should be kept secret—as if all of the rest of us have not made foolish choices that were never exposed.
When stigma and prejudice are added to an already difficult situation, people are likely to ‘not talk about it’ and to keep secrets. Those secrets become like an infected wound that is covered over rather than cleaned out. You might get by but you run the serious risk that the infection will become toxic. It can literally cost you your life. It is really hard to be relaxed, much less hold your head up when you fear “If people really knew…“. Spiritually, confession is the doorway to grace. It is certainly counter intuitive, but thankfully, God does not follow human examples. God wants us to love and be loved—period. All the rest are guideposts to help us experience that love.
All three of these women spoke their pain aloud. And all three rejoiced when what the world dismissed and judged, God treasured. These were possibilities outside of their imagination. And each found new life. In one of the origin stories (i923) for the Netflix series ‘Yellowstone’, a young woman had her wedding day delayed through a series of painful setbacks. She was living in the home of her fiancé, and she told her future mother-in-law, she needed to push the wedding forward instead of back. The mother-in-law says, “We’ll aim for spring” to which the young woman says, “I don’t think I’ll fit into my clothes in the spring. It takes a minute before the mother-in-law realizes what she is being told. She covers her face and the anxiety in the young woman is palpable. Then the unexpected happens. The older woman says, “This is the best news I’ve heard in months. We will have a small family wedding and find a parson who knows how to backdate a marriage license. “She was not going to allow secular judgment and stigma to interfere with joy. I imagine Elizabeth offering the same kind of acceptance to Mary.
Please stop reading. Listen to this Taizé chant. Stay still long enough for the repetition to enter your heart. In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful. Lyric video (StF 776) (SEE BELOW FOR LINK). It is less than 3 minutes.
There is a reason the chant repeats. There is a reason that Hanna’s song echoes through history. We need to hear the promises over and over again before they can reach below our thinking and into our hearts and souls. When that happens we begin to live into the image of God. Behold, we are a new creation.
Now imagine Elizabeth singing this song of transformation to Mary and watching Mary’s transformation from a frightened pregnant teenager to a young woman willing to stand tall in a community that could well reject her. She trusted that God was working his purposes out.
“In the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful. In the Lord I will rejoice. Look to God. Do not be afraid. Lift up your voices, The Lord is near.” Hanna, Elizabeth, and Mary heard this song. It gave them courage to face disapproval. It gave them courage to face life when they were labeled disappointments. It gave them new life.
I imagine Mary’s joy at Elizabeth’s love for her when she makes the ancient song her own song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.” The Magnificat moves from the personal experience of Gods’ love to the realization that love extends to all people. God does not accept human claims to superiority or inferiority—”he has scattered the proud….He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly…. he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” This dramatic inversion of what is really important in life is what we believe will transform the world.
In FIRL we talked about women becoming deacons and elders in the face of social expectations within the church that suggested that these were a man’s job. It is only recently that women could be ordained. Stereotypes limit and diminish people and one of the worst our ideas of who we ‘should’ be. We are supposed to be self-sufficient. So when we need others we become needy. We are supposed to have ‘good’ marriages. So, when our relationships show fracture lines, we are as likely to clam up and/or blame as to talk with one another. We are supposed to be faithful. So we conceal our doubts and our questions. We are fallible broken creatures and when we claim anything else or if we use secular standards to evaluate ourselves, we deceive ourselves. We will fail. And we will have to keep that secret too. Own the ways you have failed. Own the ways you have disappointed. It is what each of these women found the courage to do.
Instead of a life of fear, songs of transformation offer a way to live fully. That was the promise that each of these women lived into. “In the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful. In the Lord I will rejoice. Look to God. Do not be afraid. Lift up your voices, The Lord is near.” Let this song be an earworm that finds your heart. Let it be so.