This week, the song The Angel Gabriel has been running through my mind over and over. Our choir sang the song at Advent Lessons and Carols a few weeks ago. The lyrics go, “The angel Gabriel from heaven came, With wings as drifted snow, with eyes as flame: ‘All hail to thee, O lowly maiden Mary, Most highly favored lady.’ Gloria!” When sung the song has a soft, gentle feel to it. You can almost sense the intimacy of the encounter between the Angel Gabriel and Mary. The lyrics go on to say, “Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head; ‘To me be as it pleaseth God,’ she said. ‘My soul shall laud and magnify God’s holy name.’ Most highly favored lady. Gloria!” The description of Mary as a “most highly favored lady,” and her humble, bowed acceptance of God’s call all depict a meek and mild version of Mary, someone who obediently follows God’s will at the sacrifice of her own will.
Of course, that path is one that her son will take later in his life. We remember the scene of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. As Jesus wrestles with God in prayer, he prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Like his mother who faced the impossibility of a virgin birth at a young age, Jesus faced a violent death. And both responded with humble submission. They gave over their lives to God, not knowing what was ahead, but trusting fully in the Lord.
My problem with our scripture this week is that the scripture just does not jive with what is happening in our world. These last couple of weeks I have been overwhelmed with the sheer volume of stories about violence and degradation: from the excessive use of force toward persons of color by the police force, to stories of sexual assault on college campuses, to the execution of children by terrorists in Pakistan. As wave after wave of bad news comes, I keep hearing echoes of Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe.” That is how these stories have made me feel – like I cannot breathe. I ponder how our country has gotten to the point where black people feel like their lives do not matter. I wrestle with how some of our young men have come to believe that they can exercise power over and violate women. I am perplexed at how a group of faithful people can use that faith to justify killing others. With these visceral stories bombarding me from every direction, the last kind of lesson I want to hear about is a lesson about how one should mildly and meekly submit to God. I do not want to submit to God – I want to act!
What I really wanted to hear from scripture today was not the Angel Gabriel calling Mary a lowly maiden, but instead the Magnificat, Mary’s song that we sang today, which is found just a few verses after the gospel lesson today in Luke. Right after Gabriel leaves, Mary reunites with Elizabeth. When they connect over their miracle pregnancies, Mary sings a song of praise called the Magnificat. In that song she proclaims, “…the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 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.”[i] This is the kind of song I wanted to hear this week when current events are so dire. I want the promise of a God who favors the oppressed, the hungry, and the violated. I want a God who lifts up the poor and scatters the proud. The Magnificat has all sorts of musical settings because Mary’s song is sung at the service of Evensong throughout the year. Some of the settings are meek and mild, like our gospel reading today. But some are actually quite powerful, connoting the strong victory you hear in Mary’s song. I realized that is what I want to hear from scripture today – not a story of mild submission, but of victorious uprising and justice.
But the more I struggled this week with Luke’s words, the more I realized a deeper truth. I have been looking to God for answers – some sort of response about how God could let these things happen, and why I feel like our world is falling apart. But what I realized the more I heard these two competing songs in my mind is that victory for God does not always feel like victory for God’s agent. So, yes, Jesus is ultimately victorious when he rises from the dead. But at that moment of Gethsemane, he humbly submits to God, not knowing what evil awaits. Likewise with Mary: she will become the venerated mother, the one whom people will pray through for centuries. God is victorious through her. And yet, she is still a mother whose son is murdered by the officials. In fact, being highly favored, as Gabriel claims Mary is, may not feel like being highly favored. Months later, when Jesus is presented as a baby at the Temple, Simeon confirms this hard truth. Simeon says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”[ii]
Of course, that is the way that being called to serve God usually is. Though Moses was called by God in a dazzling display of a burning bush, he was also almost murdered by pharaoh and the very people he had saved. Though David was the blessed and anointed king of Israel, David also had to flee for his life when Saul became jealous of God’s favor for David. Though Thomas Cranmer was the Archbishop who basically founded and shaped the liturgy of the Church of England, and by association the Episcopal Church, he was also martyred for his commitment to the reformation of the Church. Though eventually Nelson Mandela became the leader of South Africa and the facilitator for ending apartheid, he was first imprisoned for twenty-seven years. That is the sad truth of Mary this week. Favor in God’s eyes does not mean a smooth, satisfied, simple life. When we accept God’s call, when we humbly submit to God’s invitation to serve in our own lives, we can only expect to journey through trials on the way to glory. That is the sobering truth Mary offers us today.
But that is not the end of the story. I think that the reason the songs about Mary have been battling in my head this week is because there will never be one victor. Being highly favored in God’s sight is neither an invitation to a life of mild obedience and suffering, nor a life of victorious dominance. Being favored in God’s sight is a bit of both. So though Mandela suffered, he also came to know and love his prison guards. He found hope and grace in the midst of darkness and oppression. I think the same is happening in our current events today. Despite the destruction caused by riots in Ferguson and the arrests from protests in Staten Island, people across racial lines are encountering one another. A white police chief in Richmond, CA was photographed standing with other protestors holding a sign that read, “#Black Lives Matter.” And when two officers were murdered in retaliation for Eric Garner yesterday, the black community immediately spoke out against such violent retaliation. Despite the flurry of stories about sexual assault on college campuses, college campuses are now taking seriously their handling of the violence. Despite the horror of students being murdered in Pakistan, advocates for change are beginning to see how desperate the need for change and collaboration is. In the darkness of our world, God is using God’s favored ones to be light.
That is our invitation today. Through Mary, we are reminded that answering God’s call on our lives will not be easy or even pleasant at times. There will be times when serving the Lord will feel like more of a burden than a joy. But when we submit to our God, God can use us in powerful ways. God can make us agents of light, in a world that is striving to find a way out of the darkness. Mary responds to that invitation with the words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” You can say those words today too, accepting God’s desire to use you as an agent of light.[iii] The promise of being highly favored holds many blessings waiting to unfold. Amen.
[i] Luke 1.49-53
[ii] Luke 2.34-35
[iii] David Lose, “Favored Ones,” December 11, 2011 found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1611 on December 16, 2014.