I hope you all enjoyed the blizzard of 2009. It came as one of those out-of-the-blue gifts that we never asked for. All of a sudden all the plans for a very busy weekend had to change. The Cathedral calendar had been jammed with events all weekend and then everything shifted, and we were given a day of quiet, of being at home, of taking in the beauty of our world transformed by a blanket of pure white. Advent has been calling us to be still and quiet. God took things into his own hands.
Today is Mary’s Sunday, and in many ways it’s one of the tenderest parts of the Christmas story. This young woman has been visited by a messenger from God announcing that, unmarried as she is, she will conceive a child who will be the Messiah. Mary is confused and afraid. She’s very young, and engaged to Joseph. What is she to say to her fiancé, or her parents?
So she goes to visit Elizabeth, an older relative, who welcomes and embraces her in spite of the strangeness of it all, and declares, “Blessed are you among women.” And with that Mary breaks into a great speech, a song really, that we have come to call the Magnificat. It’s a song this Cathedral and churches around the world say or sing every single day as part of evensong or evening prayer. It’s Mary’s testimony of faith:
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…
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
She sings the praises of what God has done from generation to generation, but then she veers into provocative territory:
[God] has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
I wonder if any of you have put those words on your Christmas cards. That’s not exactly what we expect from this young mother. Mary must be trying to make sense of the fact that God has chosen this poor, vulnerable peasant girl to give birth to the Savior of the world. Why not a strong, mature woman of power in her society? Could it be that for God there is something about who she is that is essential for who God is and how God works? Could it be that God comes most naturally to the lowly?
Mary is saying bold things: that the way the world is currently put together is not God’s will, that God is ready to turn the whole order of things upside down and intends to get started soon with the birth of her son. The world has gone awry. The mighty and privileged rule, and the rest are left to fend for themselves, and God intends to start a revolution to change things.
There’s a new film out you may have heard about, called Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, that’s all about the gap between the mighty and the lowly. It seems to have been made for just this moment in American culture. Clooney plays the role of Ryan Bingham, a corporate road warrior, hired to travel from city to city to carry out the lay-offs for companies that don’t want to do the unpleasant work for themselves, and he has his work down to a science. Ryan seems to spend just about all of his life in the air; in fact, he’s about to receive the airline’s highest award for 10 million frequent flier miles.
This high-flying corporate culture is played off against the people who are actually getting laid off—people caught in an economic trap with no escape. These are middle-class workers who are seeing their offices turned into deserts of dead phones, empty desk chairs, and vacant office buildings. The movie begins and ends with brief interviews the director conducted with real-life laid off workers, and you see the mixture of fear, anger, and desperation in their faces as they try to absorb the fact that they have been let go.
Meanwhile, business is good for Ryan. His boss says, “Retailers are down 20 percent. Auto industry is in the dump. Housing market doesn’t have a heartbeat. It is one of the worst times on record for America. This is our moment.” And much of the plot centers on the efforts of a dynamic young woman who has come up with the innovative strategy of carrying out these in-person firings through long-distance teleconferencing and so saving all the cost of travel.
Frank Rich in the New York Times finds in the movie a parable of the disconnect between the corporate culture and the lives of their workers, between Wall Street and Main Street. It’s a world where high-level investors made disastrous decisions the consequences of which many of them were able to avoid, but that devastated the lives of small investors, retirees, and mortgage holders. We watch Ryan as he begins slowly to find his own moorings and humanity in this world, but it’s going to be a long haul.
“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,” Mary says. The haves and have-nots, the powerful and the weak, business and economics—it sounds like politics intruding as we make our way up to the edge of Christmas! Some would say it sounds more like Karl Marx, or a revolutionary like Che Guevara.
Mary is talking about a revolution in how we understand God, how we understand our lives, and how we are meant to live with each other. We are so accustomed to a certain set of arrangements—power is best, success is the whole point, wealth is essential. But Mary’s song is the newest expression of what God has been about all along—caring especially for the poor, the left out, the vulnerable. Jesus came, he said, “to bring good news to the poor.”
But Jesus wasn’t interested in demonizing the rich or simply celebrating the virtues of the poor. He had wealthy friends, for example Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. He wanted for everyone the capacity to know God’s love for themselves. He was after a revolution for sure. And it threatened then and threatens now the way we put our economic life together, but the revolution he was after always began with the individual’s being willing to push aside the clutter of his or her throne to make room for God.
The hard truth is that if your life is already full, if you are already on your throne, you don’t really have room for God. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., put it this way in an essay a few years ago:
When life is good, our prayers for the kingdom get a little faint. We whisper our prayers for the kingdom so that God can’t quite hear them…. When our kingdom has had a good year, we aren’t necessarily looking for God’s kingdom. When life is good, redemption doesn’t sound so good.
Who really wants to hear about “casting the mighty from their thrones” if they happen to be on their thrones now?
But here’s the dilemma. For all of our fullness, we are not full. For all of the ways we have stuffed our lives until things are spilling over the rim, the deepest yearnings of our heart—for love, for belonging, for peace, for a just world for everyone, for a purpose in our lives—often go unmet. For all of the hyperactivity of the character Ryan in Up in the Air, by the end he is looking for more. He is beginning to want to come down from the clouds, to connect again with ordinary people, to take seriously the responsibility of relationships he has been avoiding all his life.
You know, we naturally think of things that aren’t working in our lives as our enemies—our mistakes, our wounds, our brokenness, when our jobs or friendships or home lives aren’t working, when a sinking sense of unworthiness catches us from behind sometimes. Those are times when life has cast the mighty in you from its throne. And it’s in those times that God can actually get through. They open us up, they show us we aren’t masters of our own performances, that we aren’t God. And the lowly things in us—patience, compassion, forgiveness, joy in small things, gratitude for every day—can be lifted up.
As I’ve been thinking of Mary in this particular season, though, of this young woman’s boldness and passion and determination, I’ve been thinking of the remarkable work being done to address the immense problem of gender inequality in the developing world. One of the most significant causes of desperate poverty in the developing world is the lack of basic human rights for women—the ability to vote, to own property, to make their own decisions about marriage and reproduction.
A little over a year ago former Secretary of State Madeline Albright gave the keynote address in this Cathedral for the opening of the Breakthrough Summit of women leaders in faith, development, and social service organizations around the globe. “We are present at the creation of a new era based on a big idea,” she said, ”that investments in women and girls hold the key to an achievable goal: the elimination of extreme poverty and injustice.” She spoke of a developing world where women don’t own land, aren’t taught to read, can’t obtain credit, and don’t get paid.
And her answer was to “lift up the lowly,” not by doing it for them, but by enabling them to claim their full dignity for themselves. “When women have the power to make their own choices, the chains of poverty can be broken; families are strengthened; the environment protected; the spread of sexually-transmitted disease slows; and socially-constructed values are more likely to be handed down to the young.”
It’s a massive undertaking. In fact it’s revolutionary. It’s about changing the structures of societies from the bottom up. The chief source of hope for the developing world is Mary’s revolution—casting down the mighty, lifting up the lowly.
It’s almost Christmas. And a young, pregnant woman is looking for a world turned upside down. The song she sings has the power to change the ways we live our days. Maybe we’ve been up in the air long enough, self-important, unconnected, pushing everything aside except the job we’re doing. Maybe it’s time to embrace our own flawed, limited humanity—our need for peace and connection and belonging. And maybe it’s time for Mary’s Magnificat to make us so uncomfortable with the poverty of the developing world, and especially its women and children, that we find some way to respond.
A child is about to be born. Mary is saying that ‘God wants to do something new, healing, life-giving in you, and with you.’ The revolution has begun.