Present with Mary and Elizabeth

December 24, 2023
Luke 1: 26-55

The magnificat – Our new Mennonite songbook, Voices Together, has at least five versions and several other hymns that reference Mary’s song. The magnificat is so central, so essential, to the Christian message it is sung or spoken each night as part of the evening service in monasteries, convents, and churches around the world where vesper services are held.

The magnificat has been set to music by composers across the centuries and around the world. There are short little iterations like we sang this morning from the Taize community in France and there is the glorious half hour version for soloists, choir, and orchestra written by JS Bach and there are many versions in between. While Mary’s song is patterned after Hannah’s song in I Samuel, it also has echoes of other prophetic texts. For a young woman early in an unplanned pregnancy, the song is quite a feat.

The magnificat may be tucked away in the middle of the first chapter of Luke, before the  beloved story of the birth in a barn (chapter 2,) but those who need this song, find it. The magnificat continues to fill and comfort people living in poverty and oppression. And Mary’s song is a choking mouthful for those who hold power and prestige. Though it is celebrated nightly in churches around the world, it can be a threat; it has at times been banned by authoritarian governments in Argentina, Guatemala and India.

The magnificat is a daily reading in liturgical congregations, yet in other churches, in particular white evangelical churches, this passage from Luke’s gospel is often passed over. In 2018 DL Mayfield asked evangelical Christians on Twitter about the passage, and more than 1,100 responded: 28 percent said they had never heard the title Magnificat” (Latin for magnify”); another 43 percent said their churches never read or discussed it; 21 percent said they had encountered it just a few times; and 8 percent said they read it every year.

 Mayfield also notes that the first few verses of the passage – My spirit rejoices in you O God, all generations will call me blessed. You have done great things for me, holy is your name. Your mercy reaches from age to age… –  these verses are used in “popular evangelical songs.” But these same songs stop quoting Mary’s song before it gets to the “powerful being brought low” and “the rich sent empty away.” It is all much too disconcerting if we are honest, even for comfortable Mennonites.

Still, Mennonites have been singing Mary’s song with gusto since 2007 – my heart shall sing of the day you bring, when the version called The Canticle of the Turning appeared in Sing the Story. (Voices Together 412) As Mennonites, we can sometimes be better at singing our theology and living it out – than trying to explain it or share our testimonies. It makes me wonder how this favorite version of Mary’s song has formed us theologically and spiritually the past 16 years. Have we been paying attention to what we are singing? Let the fires of your justice burn.

In particular, I wonder if this song had any influence on the several young adults who started the new group Mennonite Action to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Did it play a part in 1800 people joining in that action? Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me…

 How can Mary, born an insignificant soul in an occupied country, how can she magnify God in her inexplicable pregnancy, through her pregnancy? Her magnificat is not sung in a vacuum; it emerges from her life experience. She calls on her Jewish faith tradition and finds strength in her connection with her elder cousin Elizabeth – who is also impossibly pregnant out of season. Mary and Elizabeth’s presence for each other, their presence with each other, strengthens and enlarges God’s loving presence in the world.

I thought of Mary and Elizabeth last Tuesday as the local Mennonite Action group gathered at the post office in Upper Marlboro. The national group gave guidance and help in planning speeches, songs and prayers. Now it was on us, our small choir of 20 people, acting in concert with other Mennonites across the US and Canada, to visit legislators and demand a ceasefire in Gaza. The Maryland group had representatives from HMC and Community House Church, the MCC Washington Office and other Mennonites and friends.

When we arrived at the office of Glenn Ivey, we were told the congressman was not available but we peacefully made our way into the hallway anyhow, singing as we went. We held homemade signs that said “Mennonites for Ceasefire” “No more arms to Israel” “Stop the genocide” and “Let Gaza live.” We kept singing with no promise of an audience but in a few minutes there was Congressman Ivey, opening the door and inviting us in. He cleared the meeting area and took a seat while we stood with our signs and shared our heartfelt songs, poems, and stories about people that have been killed in Gaza. Some of us wept with the emotion of it all.

When we finished, Representative Ivey thanked us for singing – and not yelling. He said he could hear us better when we weren’t yelling. (Is that part of the reason Mary’s song has endured? It is not a scream fest about injustice, it is a song envisioning justice.) Then Rep. Ivey gave us his viewpoint – and said he would like to continue the conversation. To that end, his staff and I have been in touch. Rep Ivey is scheduled to worship with us next Sunday morning, Dec. 31.

The whole Mennonite Action movement (if six weeks of activity can be called a movement) made me feel like Elizabeth, the older person being led by the young, the young Marys. I am witness to their revelation that a small group of people who are organized and care about injustice can live out faith when they sing and pray for peace.

I imagine our whole congregation a bit like Elizabeth. We have been around the block a time or two. We have seen prophets come and go. We are used to big events, to protests, to groups coming to DC to make their voices heard. But this time it is our younger cousins, the young Mennonites, who have a vision, who are singing the song. They are coming and bringing all generations to DC January 14-16. (And like young Mary, they will need a place to sleep. We have offered our humble church house and even the church building.) These young people, and even the older Mennonites, are journeying across the hill country to our house, bringing their surprising upside down world vision that together we can be a presence for peace.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, when we light the Love candle, I am grateful for the model of Mary and Elizabeth. They share love and support with each other. And by being present to each other, they are able to be present in the world, in a grounded and authentic way. Mary goes home and prepares herself to be a mother. Elizabeth continues life with her silent husband, Zechariah, who will not be able to speak again until after their son is born. They show love to each other and that love empowers them to extend love in the world.

At least that’s the beautiful way we tell the story. It looks so quick and simple in the biblical text, a wonderful scene that has been painted of Mary and Elizabeth. It took decades of Mary and Elizabeth nurturing their sons, teaching them the song, until they were ready to share their message with the world – and we know how that turned out for those families. Living out justice in the shadows of the empire is a risky business.

When the Mennonites were called to show up in love and call for a ceasefire, I hesitated. How many more injustices can I, can we, get involved with? And it is such a complicated situation in Israel/Palestine. There is so much history I don’t know. How does one step into the middle of a conflict that has been going on for more than a hundred years, for centuries, without being called antisemitic, Islamophobic, white Christian savior? How do we check our own selves for prejudice and privilege when we might not even know what to look for? Historians have exposed Mennonites as antisemitic in action during WW II and in theology for generations. Do these young people know what they are doing?

It was one of those times when I felt whiny – and afraid that I would say the wrong thing or be insensitive. What about my Jewish friends and family, my Muslim neighbors? What do they think about the “correct” response to the violence, the hostage taking, the ongoing bloodshed and blockades? The starvation and disease?

It has been important to remind myself that, like other times when we decide take the risk to work for justice, mistakes will be made. And if the riskiest thing for me is to look foolish or use the wrong language or get called antisemitic (even though I hope I am not) well, that is a small risk compared to the people in Gaza who are struggling to feed their families anything at all, the Israelis who remain hostages, the thousands of families who grieve their dead loved ones, the almost 2 million people who have had to flee their homes – even if the home was a refugee camp. I don’t want my addiction to perfection to be stronger than the need for presence (and action) where there is injustice.

After a few weeks of seeing notices, getting emails, even receiving a phone call, the enthusiastic Marys won me over. The young adults who organized and shared their vision so passionately, who came singing with prophetic imagination about the power of working together, they helped me overcome my need to be perfect.

So here I am now, Elizabeth, joining in the song, encouraging more Mennonites to join this movement, acting out of love and presence. We join together not out of fear or anger but out of love for our neighbors here and far away. Our power is not military might but love and presence. Our power is the relationships that Mennonites have been building in Palestine and Israel for many decades. Our power is the love we have for Rep. Ivey who is one of God’s beloveds, made in the image of God – as are those in Palestine and Israel, and even Mennonites. Our power is being present in love to those in danger far away and present with love to those who broker power.

Mary and Elizabeth had each other, supported each other, maybe even raised their children together, Jesus and John. The beauty of the Mennonite Action on December 19 was that we acted together. Though we were in 42 different locations across the U.S. and Canada, we were all making our voices heard by those on the thrones of power. Our small group was one of the first, knocking on Rep. Ivey’s door at 10am. The next day I read this comment online:

Im Jess and I helped organize the Tucson action. I just want to share that in the morning when I was getting myself ready, my body felt racked with fear and anxiety. I was nauseated and just kind of trembling. Then I sat down and took some deep breaths and watched Maryland Mennonites sing to their representative in real time, and the power of our witness washed over me. My body felt safe again, and I could keep going. There is so much power in doing this together. Thank you to every single person who chose to be part of this beloved community yesterday.

While we were trying to be faithful (amidst our own nervousness) our presence was a support to Mennonites in the next time zones. Our presence and unified voice for a ceasefire was a gift to those who struggle in Palestine, to some Muslims and Jews who live with fear in this country. We were all Mary, we were all Elizabeth. We sang our songs together across time and space, hoping in faith, that it makes a difference.

I am grateful that Mary and Elizabeth were willing to take the risks of becoming mothers, present to each other and present to the vision of justice from their Jewish tradition. I am grateful that Nick and Adam, Lauren and Emma, Becca and Emily, took the risk to share their vision of action and peace from their Mennonite tradition. These young Marys took the risk to invite Mennonites across this hemisphere to join the song for justice.

And let us not forget, in the midst our Mennonite exuberance, that in Bethlehem this year they do not read the birth story to celebrate Christmas. Instead they stand next to a baby Jesus in a pile of rubble. They read the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. In Bethlehem in 2023 at Christmas they read, and live, what Matthew wrote quoting the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice is heard in Ramah,

weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children

and refusing to be comforted

because they are no more.  (Matthew 2:18)

Let us join Mary in her faithful song. Remembering Mary and Elizabeth’s presence with each other, may we be present in and through our faith, in this season of darkness and death, in this season of presence and incarnation. May we be present where there is injustice, singing and acting until the hungry are fed and the lowly are raised.

We are not alone, the people of Gaza, the people of Israel, are not alone. The Mystery of Love, Emmanuel, is with us. May we be present to that Love, present in that Love.