I’ve been reading W. H. Auden’s great poem: “For the Time Being” this Advent. Published in 1944, it very much reflects the mood of the time, the great struggle of good and evil that was playing out in World War II. It also reflects the struggles in the poet’s personal life. And yet, it is also universal and speaks to our situation, our world. It is a poem, meant to be an oratorio, of Advent and Christmas, of Incarnation.
It begins on a somber, dark note. And even if we haven’t felt blasts of cold winter air or snowstorms yet this year, we do know the darkness of the season. I’m grateful for a sunny day today but it’s not just that Friday was the shortest day of the year, it seems like we’ve had more overcast days this December than usual and the gloom outside can be oppressive. We are also aware of all of the suffering in the world. Auden writes:
The prophet’s lantern is out
And gone the boundary stone,
Cold the heart and cold the stove,
Ice condenses on the bone:
Winter completes an age.
Advent is a season of and in darkness. It challenges us to see ourselves and the world as we are, enmeshed in sin, captive to evil, eager to escape the realities in which we live with fatuous entertainment, thrill-seeking, and overindulgence. Our scripture readings throughout the season confront us with the stark realities of our situation and our vain efforts to escape them.
As I look back at sermons I’ve preached at Grace during Advent, I was reminded by the darkness and evil that has been visited upon our lives in these December weeks over the years. In 2012 Newtown, the Sandy Hook school shootings. I could recite in detail the tragedies we’ve seen in subsequent years, horrific violence and the like. My sermons more recently, especially this year, have come to include a litany of the evils, suffering, and injustice that is revealed day by day in the news headlines and video from around the world. But perhaps this year is the darkest of all: with our deep divisions, hatred and white supremacy undermining our society and civil discourse, the suffering on our borders, attack on the rule of law and the constitution, the stock market in a tailspin, and a government shutdown.
Auden was living and writing in the midst of a war that seemed to be revealing the darkness and evil at the heart of humanity, with its outcome uncertain and the full horrors of the holocaust and the power and devastation of nuclear weapons yet unknown. Decades later, we seem to be living on the edge of the abyss, or perhaps even now hurtling down into it.
Advent is not all just doom, judgment, and terror. In the midst of our experiences of all these things, in the presence of our tradition’s demand that we face and explicitly name and repent these evils in the world and in ourselves, Advent also opens us up to the possibility of another way, another future, God’s reign.
Luke’s story of the birth of Christ juxtaposes the harsh, unjust reality of the present with the justice of God’s coming reign with beautiful imagery and poetry. At the beginning of his story, he firmly situates it in the context of the Roman Empire, the most powerful empire the world had yet seen, and one that would continue to dominate the Mediterranean region for centuries. And then, after detailing the geopolitical situation, Luke focuses in on the story he wants to tell, the story of the birth of John the Baptist, and then, the birth of Christ.
In his telling, these two related stories are not just origin stories, not just fanciful myths or unlikely biographies. They carry within them the promise of salvation and redemption; the stories tell the story of God’s triumph over evil, injustice, and oppression. They sing of God’s victory.
Nowhere is God’s victory sung with greater power or beauty than in Mary’s Song, the Magnificat. A young girl, twelve or thirteen years, we guess because of what we know of 1stcentury Jewish marriage practices, confronted with an imaginable future—visited by an angel, told she would give birth to the Son of God. Mary, a girl from a small town in an occupied province, vulnerable, frightened. Her response to Gabriel’s announcement, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s assent reminds me of what some rabbis said about Abraham. What set Abraham apart from everyone else was not that God chose him, but that he said yes to God’s call. Mary’s assent made all the difference.
Her depiction in Christian art, devotion, and theology is often rather different: “Virgin Mother, meek and mild” … passive, receptive, innocent. But that overlooks what we know about her from Luke—hers wasn’t merely passive assent, she said yes to the angel, yes to God, yes to that future.
In today’s gospel reading, we see her visiting her elderly cousin. Why did she go, this young pregnant woman? Why did she make the journey, very likely on foot? Was it because her pregnancy had brought shame on her family and they wanted to be rid of her for a time?
Whatever fear or shame she was feeling when she came to her elderly cousin’s house, was likely overwhelmed by the greeting and embrace she received from Elizabeth: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Words of affirmation and reassurance that have become the words of adoration said by millions of Christians over the centuries.
Whatever might have been going through her head in the three months since she had learned she would give birth, whatever she had been thinking since she said “yes” to God: “Let it be with me according to your word.” Whatever she had been thinking as she left her home and made her way to her cousin’s home, we don’t know. Her fears, doubts, shame, and uncertainty, even perhaps, feeling abandoned by her parents, her fiancé, her community
One hopes all of those worries, shame, and doubt were overwhelmed by Elizabeth’s embrace and greeting: “Blessed are you and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
And then, Mary herself finds her voice and sings:
“My soul magnifies the Lord…”
It is a hymn, like that of Zechariah’s, saturated with biblical imagery and language. It is praise, poetry, prophecy.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
She quickly moves over to praise for God’s past actions in history:
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
Think of Mary singing these words. Think of the early Christians, whose hymn Luke adapted for this purpose. Think of all of the Christians over the centuries, who have sung this hymn in whatever circumstances. In the midst of suffering and oppression, in the midst of hunger and violence, in the midst of despair.
Think of the fact that Mary sang about God’s mighty acts in the past tense. These were things God had done: scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly; sending the rich away empty and filling the hungry with good things. What was it Mary saw that others didn’t see? What was it Mary saw that we need to see?
Mary’s hymn, our hymn is a song in praise of God’s mighty acts in history and God’s continuing acts in the present. We may not see them; we may not believe they are taking place, or that our salvation, our redemption is nigh. Yet that is precisely what our faith proclaims. God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has scattered the proud in their conceit.
As we look ahead to Christmas, to the coming of Christ, may we see and know that God is at work in the world around us, doing mighty things. May our hearts be filled with hope and courage. Like Mary, may we sing of God’s mighty acts!