singing

I love, love, love how Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth. There is singing all over the place. Zechariah sings. Mary sings. The angels sing. Simeon sings. And, if all that singing weren’t enough, it has one of the very few stories where two women talk to each other. Mary runs to visit Elizabeth and song and prophecy erupts from their friendship. Our text for Sunday encompassed their conversation and Mary’s song.

Paired with all of that singing, we also held our annual service of remembrance at Bethany. Traditionally held during advent, the service offers a chance for us to pause in the midst of all the Christmas cheer and acknowledge other realities that may weigh on our hearts. It was a moving service and reminded me that by God’s grace, we encounter Christ in our dark nights and times of mourning just as in out times of dancing and cheer.

The reflection from Sunday is below. Text is after the jump.

Let’s back up. A few months before this, Elizabeth, who is past childbearing age, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. And then, just before this, a messenger from God came to Mary, a young woman, maybe even a teen, who doesn’t have a lot of money, and isn’t married, and told her she was going to have a child.

And then she goes to visit her cousin and sings this song we just read.

We have a couple of young women here today—teens or almost teens, right? I have a question for you: if you received news like Mary’s would a song like this leap to your lips? No! Mine either. In fact, I can’t think of anything I’d be less likely to do after receiving earth-shaking, earth-shattering news like this. Freak out, yes. Re-organize my spice cabinet, absolutely. Go visit a friend, the way Mary went to visit Elizabeth, that part makes sense. But, sing? Sing a new song telling of God’s power, God’s goodness? Unlikely.

How on earth did Mary come to sing a song like this? You know, I think no small part of the why is that she wasn’t alone.

It’s as if she said, I need reinforcements. I can’t do this on my own. Mary, even in her youth, was wise.

I imagine her arriving on Elizabeth’s doorstep out of breath, hair flying in the wind, bursting with questions and hopes and fears. And Elizabeth, already six months pregnant, opens the door, gray-haired, calmer, full of compassion. Mary’s eyes get wide when she sees Elizabeth’s big round belly—this is really happening.

No one has told Elizabeth what’s going on, why her young cousin is standing, out-of-breath, wild-eyed at her door. But then, the child leaps in her womb and the Spirit covers her. Elizabeth cries out in recognition.

These two women, each in turmoil, come together. The Holy Spirit descends, and suddenly they can see. It’s like when the fog lifts and the sound is there sparkling in the clear light of day.

I think Mary’s song starts right here in this sacred moment of friendship and Spirit-filled recognition. The fog lifts and Mary and Elizabeth see: this is holy. God is here. And what a surprise this all is. This is holy. God is here. And what a surprise this all is.

This is holy. It’s not just excitement, upheaval and stress. This is more than that. It’s sacred. It’s holy. Elizabeth and Mary can’t help but cry out.

God is here! In me! In you! In this new life taking shape within and among us! Without God this is just a story about two unplanned pregnancies—one happy, one potentially tragic, both complicated. But together, by the power of the Spirit, Elizabeth and Mary are able to see God’s presence in their lives.

And what a surprise it all is. Mary sings out and reminds us that our God is nothing if not surprising. With God, the proud are humbled and the hungry filled. Young, pregnant, overwhelmed women are prophets singing out in gorgeous proclamation. This is who our God is. God is good.

But. Maybe this isn’t where you are today. Today is our annual service of remembrance. We pause in the midst of the busyness and cheer of the Christmas season to attend to other feelings we may carry—loss, grief, heartache.

And maybe that’s more where you are today. Not pregnant with new life and hope. Not bursting with song. Not amazed at the surprising goodness of God.

Maybe you are sad that faces who joined you last year will not be at Christmas this year, or mourning someone who died many years ago. Maybe you’re worried about what this coming year holds. Maybe you feel like you should be happy like Mary, everything works out on paper, but you just can’t shake the blues. Maybe the nights have simply gotten too long and the days too short. And in the cold old injuries ache.

And all this singing and shouting just adds insult to injury. Why, of all texts, is this the one for today? Mary is singing about what great things God’s already done, and life might feel very undone for you right now.

We have this text today because the lectionary hands it to us, and because I have a hard time walking away from any biblical story with two women. But God is certainly surprising, and I think, if we listen carefully, there may be a word or two even if you find yourself singing songs of lament today.

When Elizabeth and Mary come together, the Spirit opens their eyes to see three things: this is holy, God is here, and God is doing surprising things.

Those three things are just as true in times of heartbreak.

That’s the truth of the cross, the deep, darker side of the incarnation—even in death and darkness lies holiness, love does not shy away but enters in, and even in the dark Love is at work.

As the author of John put it, God so loved this world… not just parts of the world, or parts of our lives. In Jesus we see that every bit of our human condition is holy. The beautiful, easy days, and the hard, gray days. All of them.

Whether the day is good or bad, the truth remains: this is holy, God is here, and God is doing surprising things.

Perhaps, though, you can’t see that today. You can’t imagine saying those words to the pain you carry. Instead you find yourself wondering when will this end, why it feels like God has forsaken you, and whether there’s even a God at all.

Here is the second thing we find with Elizabeth and Mary: we aren’t meant to bear burdens alone. We bear them within the community of faith. We hold the faith for each other.

Mary couldn’t sing until she got to Elizabeth. Elizabeth didn’t know the truth of the situation until she was with Mary. And even the words Mary sang carry echoes of a song sung by another unexpected mother, Hannah, centuries before.  Mary didn’t sing alone.

So if you can’t sing today. If your heart is full, and not with joy. If you can’t imagine breaking out in praise, that’s okay. Your neighbor will weep with you and sing for you. And perhaps next week you’ll sing for him.

Christ is present when two or three are gathered—not just here, but over your kitchen table too, or in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, or at a graveside. The Spirit comes and is within us and among us. And even when utterly alone, we are surrounded by a mighty cloud of witness, a great communion of saints. This, friends, is the church.

When you doubt all you once held dear, when you can’t possibly summon the hope to say, this is holy, God is here, and even now God is doing surprising things, when your voice breaks before the words come, maybe Mary can say it for you. Elizabeth will hold those words for you until you are ready. The person on your left or your right, she or he will carry this faith for you.

This is the good news of the gospel. We are not in this alone. And there is no darkness so deep that dawn will not break. No matter where you find yourself today, rejoicing or lamenting, the Spirit is with you and among you. God has called you into community with the people here. Christ laughs with you and weeps with you. And Elizabeth and Mary? They sing.

by Sarah W. Wiles
December 11, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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One Response to singing

  1. Jean Bone says:

    Wow, what a powerful service Sunday! Sharing is highly spiritual and necessary- whether it be our joy, surprises, sadness or pain. You tied the story of Elizabeth and Mary together well with the personal candle lighting. It was very meaningful for me. Thanks for your leadership and message of hope Sarah!

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