| Dec 25, 2012
Among the settings often associated with Christmas throughout much of the world is the chapel of Kings College, Cambridge
, from which the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols is broadcast each year. The soaring perpendicular architecture of the chapel is matched by the soaring voices of one of the world’s finest choirs in a service of utter simplicity (scripture lessons are read, hymns and anthems are sung) and grandeur (in which much of the heavy lifting is performed by the architecture).
A few years ago, while I was in Cambridge to present a lecture, I slipped into King’s College chapel toward the end of the day for the Evensong service. It was there that I was confronted with one of the most magnificent displays of gospel incongruity of my life. Amid a setting of opulence, wealth and privilege beyond description, I heard sung the words of a very young, poor and vulnerable woman, unwed, powerless and pregnant, crying out for justice. The words were intoned elegantly by the King’s College choir; but the elegance of their presentation could not for a moment disguise the longing and lament in her words.
“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 descendents forever.” (Saint Luke 1: 46-55)
What faith must it have taken to raise courage to such eloquence! What faith must it have taken to bring this young woman to stand and to speak such words!
The thundering prophets of the Old Testament, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, wrote nothing more powerful or more prophetic. The psalmists uttered nothing more lyrical. While we, Protestants, often mark the continuity between Jesus of Nazareth and the prophets through John the Baptist, we seldom note that Jesus’ spiritual lineage to the prophets was established even closer to home. Jesus was his mother’s child. His sermon on the mount, in places, reads like an exposition of his mother’s prayer.
Hearing these words sung years ago amid the grand architecture in a collegiate institution of wealth and prestige, while some tourists stared blankly at the ceiling and other visitors tried to ignore the words for the sake of the tune, I was struck by more than incongruity. I was struck by the power of these words to break through, to hammer away at our consciousness, to demand a response.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon he preached in London during Advent in 1933, said of Mary’s song (also called the Magnificat): “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is also the most passionate, the wildest, and one might almost say the most revolutionary Advent hymn that has ever been sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary as we often see her portrayed in paintings. The Mary who is speaking here is passionate, carried away, proud, enthusiastic…. This is the sound of the prophetic women of the Old Testament – Deborah, Judith, Miriam – coming to life in the mouth of Mary. Mary, who was seized by the power of the Holy Spirit, who humbly and obediently lets it be done unto her as the Spirit commands her, who lets the Spirit blow where it wills – she speaks, by the power of this Spirit, about God’s coming into the world, about the Advent of Jesus Christ.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Sermon on Luke 1: 46-55” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 13: London, 1933-1935, English edition, Keith Clements, English translation, Israel Best, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 342-343.]
Bonhoeffer hastens to observe that Mary awaits the coming of the Messiah as no one else in the world does, as his mother, as the one who carries the Christ inside her, as the one who will cradle and protect and nourish him. All of this speaks to the miracle of Christmas, says Bonhoeffer. But, as Mary understood, the greatest miracle of all, the miracle toward which the miracle of the incarnation proclaims in flesh and blood, “the miracle of miracles” is “that God loves the lowly so much that God becomes lowly, bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. According to Mary, the prophet and mother of Jesus, God looks with favor upon the lowliness of God’s servants. As Bonhoeffer says: “God is in the midst of lowliness – that is the revolutionary, passionate word.” That is Mary’s message, the message of Christmas.
I remember something that happened many years ago when I was a green young associate pastor, in charge of youth ministries, in a suburban church. Our youth group was involved in raising money for victims of famine. They had put together a rather shocking poster that they placed in the Narthex of the sanctuary on Christmas Eve. On this poster, by which the whole congregation passed on their way into the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols, was a photograph of a starving child. As I recall very little else was on that poster. It may have asked for donations. It probably indicated how to give. But one thing stood out on a piece of black poster board: the face of a starving child, his mouth open, wailing, his limbs withered, the skin of his face shrunken against the skull, his belly distended with gas.
A member of the church stopped me as the choir and the ministers made our way into the building, lining up for the procession. She was furious. This picture in the narthex, in a place of beauty and holiness, had spoiled Christmas for her. “I don’t come to church to see such things on Christmas!”
I do not recall my response, though I doubt it manifested the best of pastoral sensitivity. But I do remember even then being aware of the incongruity that is essential to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The incongruity of the gospel is a persistent affront. It never stops being a scandal. And that incongruity is seen nowhere more powerfully, more poignantly or more beautifully than in that song, that prayer, which begins: “My soul magnifies the Lord” and then goes on to say why my soul must magnify the Lord.
Merry Christmas! And may the blessings of God be with you in this season of expectation, joy and hope!