Magnificat. Here on this third Sunday in Advent we join in the song of Mary. A song of praise, of magnifying the greatness of God. A song of awe and wonder at the mystery of God’s awesome power dwelling in the womb of a young woman. A song that rises above the chaos, noise and violence of our world. A song that turns the world upside down.
These words are the outpouring of Mary’s soul upon hearing the news that she was to be the mother of the Holy One. They are the text for the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25, a significant nine months before the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas Day. We have been singing them for centuries, in daily morning and monastic prayer, in choral anthems and in newer versions like the one we will sing today from Holden Evening prayer from the Lutheran retreat community at the top of Lake Chelan.
These are words of prophecy and promise. They echo the song of Hannah from the Hebrew Scriptures: she who glorified God when her long period of infertility was transformed by a late in life pregnancy. They speak of the many periods of extreme danger, imminent disaster and hopelessness faced by God’s people in the past and present. Times when the powerful oppressed and abused them. Times when fear and anxiety overwhelmed them. Times when the nightmare of war, violence and destruction threatened their lives, their future and their identity.
Mary’s Magnificat recalls the promise of the prophet Isaiah who describes the blossoming of a barren desert; the healing of the blind, deaf and lame; a garden which had once been a desolate wilderness; and the flourishing of all creation.
She sings the song of those who are humble and lowly, often unnoticed or overlooked. She sings for the hungry and poor, those who have been left behind by life’s circumstances. And her song has been strength, comfort and an in dominatable hope for all those who have been ignored or downtrodden.
In the midst of the apocalyptic messages and images of Advent, we find the calm, peace and joy of this “Gaudate” or Rejoice Sunday. The Sunday we light the pink candle and wear the pink vestments so that our eyes along with our ears may receive the gift of Mary, she who was brave and willing in her affirmation of God’s word and promise.
The moment of Mary’s “yes” to the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel is one that has been depicted in art for centuries, most famously in Fra Angelico’s jewel of a painting complete with Gabriel in a pink robe with delicate wings. It has often been the subject of holy icons, “written,” rather than painted so that they might communicate the multi-dimensional divine through the simplicity of a two-dimensional work.
Last year, my husband Bryon learned about an artist from Lviv, Ukraine who created sacred art in a contemporary mode. He wrote to Ivanka Demchuk to order a print of her version of the Annunciation as a present for me. Christmas came and went without the arrival of the work and he became concerned. He contacted her again and, assuming it had become lost along the way, she prepared another print, wrapped it in brown paper, hand-addressed it to us and sent it off. It arrived on February 25, just one month prior to the Feast of the Annunciation and the day after Russian invaded Ukraine.
Ivanka and her family are still living in Lviv. And now, we learned that she has just given birth. She has carried her child through the violence, death and destruction of war and given birth in a winter in which large parts of the country are without adequate electricity and resources.
Her world turned upside down in just a few days. Her country is fighting, not just for its independence and freedom, but for its very existence. The war has created refugees, widows, orphans and ordinary men who have turned to war from their regular professions.
She could not have imagined any of this when she painted her Annunciation many years before but as I have spent time with this image, it’s all there: the glorious light breaking into the grey of everyday life; the attentiveness and preparation of Mary as she studies Scripture and reflects in solitude; the moment of revelation just about to take place; the glorious angel and the waiting woman; the extraordinary breaking into the ordinary; revelation and a receptive heart; joy and sorrow; hope and fear; life and death.
In the field where the angel stands are bare branches with red berries, like drops of blood. In the open window where the light breaks in is a pomegranate whose many seeds point to the resurrection. By Mary’s feet is the fig tree, yearning and leaning towards the light, growing up with the promise of bearing fruit. And then there are the stripy pillows! I have no idea what they mean but to me they are a burst of the creativity and beauty of the Spirit’s presence.
Here is how the artist describes her work: “My favorite topics are victory and loss; the birth of life and death; motherhood; sacrifice; human transformation. These themes are close to my heart as they often overlap with current pressing issues. In my art, God comes to man again in human form. My saints are placed in modern interiors or imaginary landscapes, close to humans today. We can look at the traditional icons but see in them the people around us.”
In the midst of an ordinary life, in a time of great difficulty, the light, grace and hope of God breaks in and changes everything. It doesn’t make life easier for Mary, in fact she will endure great sorrow as she watches the suffering and death of her son, Jesus. God’s promise is not that everything will be all right and that things will always work out. Instead, we see into the world from God’s eyes, where the lowly and ignored are valued and lifted up and the mighty and proud do not ultimately triumph.
In Advent we’re paying attention. We’re awake to the pain and suffering in Ukraine, Palestine, Sudan, Colorado Springs, Ingraham High School, Indigenous communities and our own friends and family who are struggling. We aren’t papering over the real trauma with early Christmas cheer. We recognize the nightmare that this world has become for so many vulnerable people.
And yet, with Mary, we wait on the precipice of promise and revelation. We watch in hope for the dawn from on high to break upon us. We sing songs of lament but also songs of hope and protest and joy. And, when it is in our power, we offer ourselves as the Body of Christ for the sake of those who are in need or any kind of danger.
Yesterday, one of the guys from the streets came to the church door in desperation. A man, who is severely mentally ill and a regular guest of Edible Hope had been on the floor of the porta potty in the park for over an hour and was in terrible pain. Everyone just walked by. And he didn’t have a phone to call 911. Even the medics wouldn’t listen to him and turned away the first time we called because they didn’t believe him.
But dear Carol, our groundskeeper, tried again and was finally able to get them to come and provide medical care and assistance. It may not be enough to help him and services are so limited that he will probably be released again to the streets but we cannot turn away from those the world ignores and rejects. We follow the One who came as a poor baby, born to a peasant girl in a backwater town in an occupied country. We have been touched by the glory of God in a tiny babe, who came to change the world into the dream God has for it.
Even the very least and last and lost are greater to God in God’s Kingdom than the powers and princes of this world. We may feel overwhelmed by the needs around us, but like Mary, we are not alone, nor are we without the power to participate in the transformation of this world.
So rejoice! Sing! Light candles! Wear pink! Feed the hungry. Pay attention to the lowly. Pray for Ukraine. Maybe order a painting from Ivanka Demchuk.
May the light of Christ shine in our lives.