Mary might have been named after Moses’ sister, Miriam. Miriam is the Hebrew form of Mary. A devout Jewish family would be proud to name their daughter after such an important female figure in the faith. Miriam is credited with shaping a legacy of gratitude for her people. After God parted the waters for the Hebrew slaves to escape from the Egyptians, they found themselves safe and free on the opposite shore of the Red Sea. Their captors drowned in the waters that had momentarily opened to produce dry ground for the Jews. Astonished, they must have jumped for joy that God saw fit to liberate them. Amidst the yelling and leaping and hugging, Miriam understood who needed to be thanked. Before they moved into their new life of freedom, she sang her song, one of the first praise songs in the Old Testament. In Exodus 15 we read, “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.’” She danced her way through a song of gratitude to a God who rescued them.
Mark Hillmer writes, “Without that praise elicited by Miriam, Israel may well have gone the silent ways of the literature-less, liturgy-less, and history-less Philistines and Syrians whom God also ‘brought up’ at the end of the Late Bronze period. Thanks to Miriam, God’s chosen people Israel took their significant place in human history. Her call to praise founded Israel on the rock of thanksgiving. Because of her, Israel stopped to give God the glory, a task that became uniquely Israel’s.”
Years later Hannah prayed to God that she might be able to have a child. A year later, she held a boy named Samuel in her arms. When the child was weaned, Hannah dedicated him to the service of the Lord, entrusting him to an old priest named Eli. Before departing the temple, she sang a song of praise to the God who gave her this son who would grow up to anoint the first Israelite kings into service: “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance. There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God…” Hannah learned from Miriam the necessity of praising God before moving on with the miracle.
So Mary sang her magnificat as part of a lineage of women who knew to pause in a moment of triumph. They had been taught to give God the glory when a gift appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed…”
How does God turn the world order on its head, exalting the meek and bringing down the mighty? By moving in the hearts of the marginalized. People looking in on their simple lives would find nothing worthy of celebration. But Miriam, Hannah, and Mary modeled worship at its best with their heartfelt songs of praise to the God who turned their mourning to dancing. Martin Luther acknowledged the power of Mary’s song when he wrote of “the hiddenness of God in the lowliness of Mary.”
God is the subject of the impressive array of verbs used in her song. God has done great things, extended mercy, performed mighty deeds, scattered the proud, brought down rulers, lifted up the humble, filled the hungry with good things… Mary’s Magnificat tells the story of a God who loves her and her people. This God has a distinctive way of ruling that exalts the lowly and humbles the lofty. Mary sang of a reversal of a system that had oppressed the poor for generations. When God is at work, the world radiates a holy light!
God’s salvation of the world was announced in the meeting of two women who could be easily overlooked. Elizabeth was so old that she might have been regarded as “no longer a woman.” Mary was so young that she might have been “not yet a woman.” They are both shocked by their unexpected pregnancy yet each embraces the truth that nothing is impossible when God is at work! These two share a dream that one day the promises of God, spoken through the prophets, would come true. God would have to win a victory over those in thrones and chariots. Elizabeth and Mary lived in the jurisdiction of Herod the Great whose renowned cruelty received backing from the Roman army. How could anything of importance happen without his knowledge or approval? Yet these two related women met in the power of the Spirit. A baby leapt in the womb. Mary felt her world shift as Elizabeth spoke prophecy about her child. God took the initiative and is the hidden hero in the narrative.
No sooner than their initial greeting was exchanged and Mary began to sing. She sang of God’s love for her and a world of struggling nobodies. Her melody exuded hope that the power structures that used good people for personal gain would be overturned. Her pure voice broke the darkness as she magnified God for choosing her for such a holy task. Though her life was threatened by this illegitimate pregnancy, Mary expressed joy. Not because she was getting what she wanted. She rejoiced because she was in God’s holy presence so she could trust her future, no matter how unconventional. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “It is there, in that wilderness, in that empty-handed, I-give-up surrender that joy is most likely to occur. Don’t ask me why. It just does. And that is how you know God is present—because no one else knows how to make life out of death. No one else knows how to come into a dark room and turn on all the lights, surprising everyone inside with the last thing any of them ever expected: pure, unkillable joy.”
Isn’t that the surprise element in many of our favorite Christmas stories? Scrooge couldn’t take the joy from Bob Cratchett and his family because they knew that love is the best gift of the season. Mr. Potter wasn’t able to ruin George Bailey’s business because the Bailey family had lovingly served their community for decades. Those same neighbors in small-town USA sacrificed from their meager means to restore hope to George and his family. And a hard-working angel earns his wings! Even after the Grinch made off with the treats and toys in every single home, the Whos in Whoville gathered in the city square on Christmas morning. They sang a song welcoming the holy occasion. Their pure joy wrought a miracle in the Grinch’s chest: his undersized heart grew three sizes that day! Caught up in an unfamiliar feeling of love, he returned the goods to a people who easily forgave him.
Finally, we think of Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Charles Schulz was asked and willing to craft a story that would be televised in American homes in 1965. But he insisted that the true story of Christmas needed to be told. Otherwise, he stated, “Why bother doing it?” A project backed by the mega-corporation, Coca-Cola, they never balked at the idea of including New Testament passages in this made-for-TV special. Even though poor Charlie Brown selected a pathetic tree for the pageant, Linus redeemed his failure with the assurance of what Christmas is really all about. A young boy’s voice filled thousands of living rooms in what the producer called, “the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation.” Forgetting their disappointment with Charlie Brown, all was forgiven as Linus recited from Luke 2: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
With the focus back where it belongs, Charlie Brown’s friends forgave him. They were able to see the potential in his modest tree. They broke into singing around a glittering tree, their joy unmistakable.
Our favorite holiday movies reflect the theme that joy is available for those who understand the true meaning for the season. The joy that Mary and Elizabeth shared is not contingent on circumstances. It is deeper than happiness, more lasting than LOL. It is unmatched by even the best present or a table full of your favorite people. When God is the mover and shaker behind our holidays and our year, bursting into a song of praise ought not to surprise us! When we encounter God, no one can keep us from rejoicing!
That may seem like a tall tale given the chaos in our world right now. How dare we smile when bigotry continues to limit potential and hate talk fuels angry diatribes on line and in families. As natural disasters wreak havoc and wars leave children orphaned, isn’t it irreverent to sing God’s praises? As a virus knocks us down, claiming lives and impairing futures, where do we discern our Creator’s work?
When has God broken through your hardship and filled you with joy? When have you discovered that God’s plans for your life are better than anything you could ever devise? When has the God of Jesus Christ turned your world on its head, standing up for the needs of the lowly? Rescuing you from a mess of your own making? Letting you know that all is well even if it seems like all is lost? Miriam, Hannah and Mary remind us of our spiritual heritage. We are part of a long lineage of folks whose impulse is to praise our Maker in all circumstances. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us of this inheritance through her words: “The only condition for joy is the presence of God. Joy happens when God is present and people know it, which means it can erupt in a depressed economy, in the middle of a war, in an intensive care waiting room.”
This week we welcome Jesus into our world once again. Mary’s little boy was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He wasn’t the King His people expected but He gave them much more than they ever would have requested. Whatever your circumstances, no matter your past, Jesus will transform your life. His promise to His disciples still gives us hope: “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:22)