Last week our message centered on Zechariah and Elizabeth and God’s astounding news that they—after many, many years—would finally become parents. And what’s more, this child of theirs would have a divine purpose, walking in the power and spirit of Elijah, helping prepare people’s hearts and minds for the arrival of the son of God. It had been roughly 400 years since God last spoke to the prophets—that’s 20 generations, the time between George Fox’s birth and now. And with the angel’s visit to Zechariah, it seemed that God was preparing to take part in human events once again. Something big was afoot, although it’s likely that few people realized that at the time.
That’s because the angel Gabriel took steps to keep the developing plan a secret. He silenced Zechariah until John’s birth to make sure the news wasn’t spilled too early. And the scripture last week told us Elizabeth went into seclusion for five months—we don’t know exactly what that means but perhaps she stayed home or went to visit a relative—so she wasn’t seen in the village market or drawing water at the well.
But all the while, God’s plan was quietly unfolding in human time.
We pick up the story this week by once again following archangel Gabriel as he goes on another visit to deliver divine news. This time he is going to the poor and struggling town of Nazareth to see a very special young woman—likely a teenager—named Mary. She is a quiet, faithful girl with a beautiful, tender heart, and she is engaged to an older man named Joseph, a carpenter who is a descendant in the line of David, but whose lineage had fallen on hard times. The whole backdrop for the story of the nativity is one of poverty. Into these ordinary, everyday, effort-and-faith-filled human lives, Christ—the bearer of Light, the son of God–would be born.
We know little about Mary beyond what the story tells us. We can understand her initial confusion and discomfort at Gabriel’s initial greeting. Perhaps she didn’t understand—or trust—this stranger’s words at first. Why would he say she was favored by God—how would he know? The story says she was “greatly troubled at his words and wondered what type of greeting this might be.” As he had done with Zechariah, Gabriel reassures her, telling her not to be afraid. He repeats that she has found favor with God. He tells her she will be the mother of the Son of the Most High, who will sit on the throne of David and rule over a kingdom that will never end.
This just must have been incomprehensible to this young and inexperienced woman. To hear those words, to try to understand their meaning in that moment, it must have been too much. It would have been, for any of us. Mary asks how this could be and Gabriel explains what can be explained. By way of offering support, it seems, he tells her that her cousin Elizabeth, too, is going to have a child and that God had something to do with that as well. They are both part of God’s unfolding purpose in the world. “For no word from God will ever fail,” Gabriel tells her.
In contrast to Zechariah’s response as we heard last week, Mary’s answer—once her few questions have been answered—was simple acceptance and trust. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she tells the angel. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
In my Life with God Bible, edited by Richard Foster, the commentary on this passage points out that Mary had been living with God in her heart long before this encounter with Gabriel ever happened. Her faith had made her good, her belief had made her strong. She had the discernment to recognize God’s leading in her life and so now—in this unthinkably high and life-changing moment—she responds with awe and honor, humility and grace.
Following the angel’s idea, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth and when they see each other the baby Elizabeth is carrying leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice. This must have been a tender and affirming moment for Mary, evidence of God’s presence and confirmation that they were truly living the miracle of God’s plan. She is filled with emotion and says—or sings—what’s come to be known as Mary’s Song:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
We can hear clearly in Mary’s song where her hope arises. She is full of joy as she thinks of who God is and all that God has done, stretching all the way back to the ancient days of her ancestors—God has kept his promise to them all, as Gabriel said, “No word from God will ever fail.” Her song reaches forward into coming generations that she knows will call her blessed. Even though the reality around her is a time of struggle and economic hardship, in this moment, Mary has a vision not of what is but of what is coming. She is filled with trust and feels an indestructible confidence that arises from her direct encounter with God. That is the radiant hope at the center of her song and now, at the center of her life.
That kind of hope is a life-changing hope, the kind that arises out of our direct experience of God’s presence in our lives. We can look back and feel grateful for the way God has faithfully led us, helped us, taught us to see and love and forgive in a new way. That kind of hope tells us that good is coming, because that’s who God is—it’s not naively wishing things will go well or grasping at straws and trying to make the best of a bad situation—it’s having confidence that the One who Loves Us is with us, and as Gabriel said, “No word from God will ever fail.”
I love the idea that Mary was so full of gratitude in that moment, she simply overflowed with it: it spilled out in song. She saw clearly that her life was firmly established in the flow of God’s goodness. We too may have moments like that, when we feel so grateful, so sure of God’s love and comfort, we feel all filled up with it, full to overflowing. That’s how I felt yesterday hearing Ruth’s good news as I was writing this section of this message—good news we’ve been praying and hoping for. God is so good! I feel that overflowing feeling of gratefulness when my heart is touched by the good actions of others, when I see peace and beauty in the world, when hope—hope in people, hope in goodness, hope in God’s ocean of Light blessing all the world with peace and joy—when that blossoms into confidence, it spills out into song and praise and prayer.
In her book, Practicing Peace: A Devotional Walk though the Quaker Tradition, author Catherine Whitmire tells the story of Albie Sachs, a barrister in South Africa, who was repeatedly imprisoned for speaking out against racial discrimination during Apartheid. During a long stretch in solitary confinement, he was suffering physically and emotionally and began losing hope that he—or his country—could survive that terrible time. On a particularly difficult day, in his isolated, echoing cell, he began whistling the beautiful melody of Antonin Dvorak’s “Going Home,” and to his astonishment an answering whistle met his own. As the two whistled back and forth, sharing the melody, he felt his heart lift and later said it felt like a miracle. His almost-gone hope that things could change for the better began to strengthen into a flame once again.
Years later he was in London speaking to an audience when he told that story and Dorothy Adams, a South African Quaker who was in the audience that day, went forward and told him she had been his fellow whistler. They soon started working together and after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, they both returned to South Africa to be part of the effort toward peace and healing.
Whitmire adds here,” We are all rescued again and again from despair by the ephemeral songs of hope that rise from the shards of our shattered dreams and broken hearts. But sometimes when the din of our grief and suffering overpowers these melodies, God sends us hope through the singing of others.”
That’s what Mary’s song does for us even today, reminding us that none of God’s words have ever failed and we are all—still—part of the unfolding and ultimately triumphant plan of divine Love in this world. Something Quaker Dorothy Steere wrote back in 1955 fits here:
“I believe with all my heart
that every act, every word, every attitude and longing
… is caught up in the heart of the Eternal and is preserved…
What each one of us does is more important than it would appear,
and hope can “spring eternal,”
for its triumph, if we are in the hands of God, is ultimate.”
Researchers tell us that singing—whether we sing on-key or not—helps us emotionally and psychologically and physically. When we sing, our mind is focused only on our song and the action of singing. There is no room for doubt or worry when we sing. Singing exercises our lungs, it helps us breathe more deeply, it gets our blood flowing, it stimulates our minds and lifts our hearts. It is hard to be discouraged or feel completely sapped of energy when we sing.
Singing also has a bigger purpose, a shared blessing. It bonds us to one another and heals our separateness, if only for a few moments, almost magically transforming us from so many individual souls into one voice, with one focus, and one hope. That’s what we’re doing when we sing our benediction hymn, “Let their be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” It’s a prayer and a vision, not only for each of us individually, but offered to God as one voice, one hope, one vision with a power for peace that can spread around the world.
Whether we sing about it out loud or simply hold it in our hearts, hope is contagious. It helps us remember—and believe, and share–that good is on the way. Solutions come. Help arrives. Things that aren’t answered right now will have their answers. Relationships that are frayed will find their way again. Wounds will heal. Visions will return. Christmas—with its eternally good news and gift of Light and Life—is right around the corner. In fact, it’s already underway. And not too far beyond that—spring!
We Friends are a hopeful people. And while we may be of the quieter sort, not likely to burst out in grateful song like Mary did, we do share her trusting and yielded spirit. We know God well enough to know that God is faithful, and present, and good. We can see in our lives the quiet effects of God’s goodness each day, smoothing out the details, inspiring us to act with integrity and shower kindness—generously—wherever we go, whatever our circumstances.
Quaker Thomas Kelly writes powerfully about the evidence he’s seen for the hope he finds in God’s people:
“Have you ever seen a miracle? I have. Have you ever seen the water of ordinary human nature changed into the wine of divine creative living? I have. Have you ever seen men and women whose outer world was repellent, or tragic, or barren, or hopeless, yet who walked serene, triumphant, radiant, released, undismayed, living constructively, as if they were already in Eternity, and drew not their encouragement from time? I have. We all have. Such persons have meat to eat that the world knows not of. Their secret of life is not outside of them, or around them, it is within them. In a rocky land, they have a well of water springing up within them unto Eternal Life. Are you such a miracle of radiant eternity lived in the midst of time? Am I such a miracle? Are we people whose lives cannot be explained by our environment, but only by saying, The Eternal Life and Love are breaking through into time, at these points [in me]?”
That was the heart of Mary’s song of hope as her grateful joy and awe overflowed at Elizabeth’s house that day so long ago. Eternal Life and Love were breaking through into time—into this world, for all time—through her. And the Light of Christ continues to arrive, moment by moment, heart by heart, in this time too—present with us always, in our personal, lived experience. Perhaps this Christmas we will grasp what an indestructible hope, a constant comfort—and a genuine miracle—that is.
- OT Isaiah 9:2
- NT Luke 1: 26-45
- Dvorak, Antonin. Goin’ Home. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_HMTE_9psY
- Whitmore, Catherine. Practicing Peace: A Devotional Walk through the Quaker Tradition.