Commentary

The Song of Mary is our song too

Rev. Jay Carlson

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

—Luke 1: 47-55

While we are used to hearing the Magnicat of Mary during the Advent Season, we also read it on the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, near August 15, which is the saints day for remembering Mary, the mother of Jesus. We see her in Christmas pageants and nativity scenes, usually holding the newborn Jesus and quietly pondering in her heart the miraculous events surrounding his birth. So why a day for Mary in August?

August 15 has traditionally been a time for remembering Mary’s death, the end of her life. In the Orthodox Church, they call it the feast of Mary’s dormition, which literally means “falling asleep.” In the Catholic Church, they call it the day of Mary’s assumption, meaning a time she was carried bodily into heaven and did not undergo a natural death as human beings usually do. In any case, this has been the day for commemorating the end of Mary’s earthly life, however it happened.

But more than that, more than the traditional observance of this festival day, I think that August is a good time to think about Mary because it gives us a chance to hear her story apart from all the traditions of Advent and Christmas. The Season after Pentecost is a time for reflecting on the life and growth and mission of the Christian Church in the world, so we can ask, “What might Mary mean for our discipleship today? What does her story say not just about the birth of Jesus but about following Jesus?” In Pentecost we might have different questions to ask than we do in late December.

What does discipleship mean today?

Now, I understand why many churches, particularly Lutheran churches, choose to not observe a day set aside for Mary. It may be because spending time on Mary just seems too Catholic. But also, it may be that talking about Mary means having to deal with some problematic miracle stories. For instance, what’s our response to this idea of the assumption or to the doctrine in that church that Mary was the first person miraculously “born without sin.” What do we do with those stories that come from Latin America of Mary appearing to peasants in the countryside? Could her image really have been supernaturally imprinted on a cloak or a shroud, or for that matter, on a grilled cheese sandwich? Having heard a few years ago that there was such a sandwich that sold on eBay for $28,000, I’m also tempted to just avoid the whole subject of Mary altogether.

But, again, there’s more to Mary’s story than Christmas pageants and mysterious legends. For hers is a story not just about bearing the Son of God but about bearing the Word of God. In her song and in her life, the earth-shattering, world-upsetting, life-transforming promise of Christ. In August, we can remember Mary the prophet.

Rather than the Mary who is pictured for us by the great Renaissance artists sitting serenely under a halo with her eyes and mouth closed, let’s remember the Mary of Luke’s Gospel, who looked at the world around her with eyes wide open and was ready to proclaim with strength and conviction God’s radical good news. That Mary deserves even more attention.

Mary’s humility was not a spiritual discipline; it was not something she chose.

Bishop William Willimon tells about a conversation he had back when he was the dean of the chapel at Duke University. One day, a student came in to talk to him and said that he was feeling distraught and that he was losing his faith. Willimon asked him some questions about the faith he had — about what kind of faith he was losing. Eventually, the student said that he had a problem. The problem was the virgin birth of Jesus; he just couldn’t accept it anymore. So at first Willimon suggested to this student that he read the Gospel of Mark for a while. That gospel starts when Jesus is about 30 years old; there’s nothing in it about Christmas at all. But the student protested: “Don’t I need to believe the miraculous birth of Jesus in order to believe in Jesus?” he asked. “Don’t I need to believe this miracle to be a Christian?”

“In one sense, ‘no,’” Willimon answered. “Yet in another sense, ‘yes.’ We ask you to believe in the virginal conception of Jesus and, if we can get you to swallow that without choking, then there’s no telling what someone can get you to believe. Come back next week and we’ll try to convince you that the poor are royalty and the rich are in big trouble, that God, not nations, rules the world, and on and on. We start you out with something small, like the virgin birth, and then work you up to even more outrageous assertions.”

Is the Magnificat good news?

Today we hear those truly outrageous assertions proclaimed in Mary’s song: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” It’s outrageous because when we look around it appears that the rich and powerful are becoming more rich and powerful all the time while the poor are receiving fewer and fewer good things. It appears that the ones who are blessed are the well-to-do, the educated, the talented, the beautiful people. Yet Mary sings of a profound and unexpected promise that runs throughout scripture and right down the middle of our faith: God has a different way of valuing things.

Mary is often praised for being humble. That’s true, but her humility was not a spiritual discipline; it was not something she chose. Mary was humble simply in that she was poor, young, a woman, unmarried, lowly. Mary was humble because the world around her considered her insignificant. I think we do her a dishonor, actually, to suppose that she was born with some special or divine qualities because the miracle here is that even in her humble circumstances, Mary knew deep down that God had chosen to work through her. She knew that God has a different way of valuing things and choosing people. She knew that insignificance, as defined by the rest of the world, no longer matters.

And so, on Mary’s festival day in August, Mary teaches us to look to unexpected places for God’s presence and blessing, even in those places where we ourselves have been made humble.

The Christian Church, the very body of Christ, should be known first and foremost for its commitment to serving our neighbors. And if we are, then Mary’s song becomes our song.

Jay Carlson is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis. This article is an excerpt from his sermon on the Festival of Mary’s Assumption.

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