There’s Something About Mary

Mother of God. Revolutionary Prophet. Nurturer of the Divine.

There’s Something About Mary
Faith Stock. Licensed from Adobe Stock.

A Sermon for Advent 3B, December 17, 2023

The Magnificat: Luke 1:46–55

12 years ago, I wrote a song. I like to think of it as a love song.

Spoiler alert, you are going to sing this song with me in a few minutes.

It was 2011. My not-quite-yet-husband, Jason, and I were attending Rosedale United Church. Earlier in the year, me and a friend of mine were asked to write a song for each Sunday in Advent — Chris took two Sundays and I took the other two. Since Jason and I had just announced to everybody that we were expecting a baby, Chris turned to me and said, “You’re going to take the Mary Sunday, right?”

Yes, I suppose I was.

Now, I had a lot of time to write this song. But I was blocked. Like, completely creatively blocked. It felt like a lot of pressure. I mean, how do we do Mary justice? Even the idea that Mary is relegated to a single Sunday is kind of absurd…as if it’s possible to move through the entire impact this woman had on Jesus’ ministry — on the very nurturing of God — in a one hour service.

I finished the words to my new song, May it Be, 20 minutes before singing it. I stood before the congregation seven months pregnant and channeling my own anxieties about becoming a new mother into the music. I was nervous. I was afraid.

Next Advent, Rosedale asked if I would sing the song again. I had a 10-month-old baby. This time, as I sang the song with the congregation, I was reflecting on what an intensely wild ride the first year of motherhood had been. I sang the song with joy.

However, sorrow filled my heart as I sang May it Be for a third time. I had suffered a miscarriage two days earlier. I only just made it through the final chord when I left the sanctuary and collapsed, sobbing into Jason’s arms. That day, I sang the song through a grief I didn’t know I was capable of feeling.

The week before year four’s performance, a very tiny Simon made his acting debut as Baby Jesus in the church Christmas pageant. He was comfortable in the spotlight from the very beginning. Our family was now complete.

Of course, my experience with writing and singing this song, and I suspect the experience of most of us gathered here this morning, is not analogous to being visited by an angel with news of a holy pregnancy. Not in stakes, and not in consequence. But it does remind me that this story holds a lot of weight for a lot of different reasons.

I grew up with the image of Mary as a very passive girl accepting the news of her pregnancy with a complacent joy. What hundreds of generations of patriarchy have done to Mary is absolutely heartbreaking. Infuriating. As a child I was presented with a Mary who was gentle. Placid. She didn’t rock the boat and she always wore blue. Mary didn’t have any agency. She (that is, her body) was simply a vessel. A vessel to deliver God, but not to be a part of God’s light herself.

And despite being cast as Mary in our Sunday School Christmas pageant every single year, I wasn’t very good at being passive. Or placid. I certainly wasn’t gentle. And so, quite frankly, I didn’t really have much use for Mary. She seemed like she was going to be one of those Moms that you see on television commercials for Bounty. You know, those moms who always have white kitchens and statistically impossibly accident prone children who let muddy dogs in the house, or spill their tomato juice on the expensive cream carpet…only to have Mom sigh meaningfully, shake her head knowingly, and fix everything in seconds with a high absorbency paper towel. I don’t know a single mom who would respond in such a way. I know exactly what would have happened to me and my brothers if we ever dared to release a bullfrog onto a fully set dining room table. And so, much like these gentle, placid, fictional mothers, Mary seemed simply…too passive to be real.

But there is a whole other piece to this story. Full transparency now — this next section doesn’t come immediately after Mary’s encounter with Gabriel. We’ve left out the part about Mary going to spend some time visiting her cousin Elizabeth, who is experiencing her own miraculous, pregnancy. But this passage, often know as the magnificat—I don’t remember ever hearing it spoken in church until I was well into my high school years:

Mary Sings:

My soul magnifies God,
My spirit rejoices with God, my saviour.
Scatter the proud in their deepest thoughts
Strike down the powerful from their thrones
Lift the lowly, feed the hungry, send the rich away.

This was a game changer for me. All of a sudden, I liked this Mary. She was the feistiness I’d been looking for my whole life. I was able to see Mary in a whole new way.

Because what generations of patriarchy have done to Mary is that they’ve left out the part where she says, “yes.”

Mary said yes, with the full knowledge of what she was saying “yes” to.

Sure, she said yes to carrying Jesus. But, she also said “yes” to the possibility of being socially ostracized, perhaps even killed. This kid ain’t Joseph’s, everybody is going to know it, and there are consequences for that.

I also think Mary would have had a pretty good idea of what happens to those who threaten Imperial power. She had to know, at least on some level, what was in store for this holy child.

And still, she said yes.

So, done with Mary meek and mild, I finally got to meet Mary, brave and bold.

But how we treat Mary has a lot to do with how we treat women. Or perhaps, it’s the other way around. I mean, the way Luke tells it, the story of Jesus’ birth goes like this:

He (Joseph) went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

That’s it. That’s all we get about the actual birthing part. The time came to give birth…and then she gave birth. Just like that. Like it’s nothing. Like the baby just somehow…popped out.

Now, I usually try not to make universal statements, but if this story had been written by any person I’d ever known who had given birth, or who had the biological possibility of giving birth, I think we would have had some more details. In fact, I suspect Mary’s labour and the actual birth of Jesus would have been the bulk of the narrative.

We would have known how many hours Mary was in labour. How long did it take to push? Did she experience back labour? Was Jesus breached? How much blood did Mary lose? What did she eat? Did Jesus cry right away, or was there a tense minute or two of anxious waiting before he made his first sounds.

Birthing is messy business. It’s risky business. What we lose in our Renaissance depictions of a serene looking, fully grown Mary, gazing serenely over an equally docile Jesus, is that by current standards Mary was a child, and by historical standards she would have been quite young. This was a high risk pregnancy. When Mary said “yes”, she said also said yes to something that was very dangerous—for her.

I wonder if, when we skip the messiness of childbirth, there’s another piece that we skip over too. A piece that allows for a sigh of relief that Mary made it. That Jesus made it. God was both with and within Mary, sharing in the vulnerable sway of birthing and being born.

The next year, I sang May it Be with Rosedale, we found ourselves in the midst of a refugee crisis. Rosedale was leading 20 community groups in their goal of sponsoring Syrian families attempting to make a better life for their children in Canada. I sang May it Be while thinking of all the frightened mothers only wanting for their children to be well, safe and happy. Parents who are brave, bold, and making hard choices in unsafe spaces.

And as East End United, our ecumenical and Interfaith partners, and so many of our Danforth neighbours, have been working tirelessly to support 30 souls seeking asylum — many of whom had to leave their own children behind — as well as other African families who have arrived and are in specialized shelters, having fled war and violence so horrific it makes my heart break over and over…I am aware of this continued reality as we hear the song again today.

Mary’s words are powerful. They are, all at once, a profound profession of faith, a scandalous hope for liberation and the courage to say it all out loud.

But there are some for whom Mary’s words are threatening. In fact, the Magnificat is so threatening, that some governments have even outright banned it from liturgy and public spaces. During British rule in India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church.

In the 1980s, as liberationist understandings of theology and God gained in popularity among the masses, Guatemala’s government found Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor to be too dangerous. Mary’s words were inspiring the Guatemalan poor to believe that change was actually possible. Because of this, the government banned any public recitation of the Mary’s song.

Similarly, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo — whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War of the 70s and 80s — printed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the Argentina’s military outlawed any public display of the magnificat.

And so, it may not feel like you are part of something scandalous and revolutionary, but by singing along with the refrain in just a few minutes, you are actually participating in an act of solidarity with all generations who live now and who have come before — who are daring to hope that the world will, indeed, change in favour of those who need relief and liberation the most. Who are bold, brave, and making hard choices in unsafe spaces…for all generations to come.

I also believe we are honouring the courage of the one who said, “Yes” to being the first to welcome the incarnate God into the world, knowing fully what the cost of that “yes” might be. To caring for them. Nurturing them.

Mary was a revolutionary, and she was also a mom. It was Mary who taught Jesus what it is to live a fully human life; a life with joy, with grief, and love.

Because long before Jesus sat with his friends, sharing that famous passover meal, Mary leaned close to Jesus, offered him her breast and said “Take, eat, this is my body…”

We will sing a song now. I like to think of it as a love song.

A love song for all those who are brave, bold, and willing to invest in a scandalous hope. A revolutionary joy.

For every soul who magnifies God with a courageous “yes.”

Even—perhaps, especially—knowing there is going to be a cost.


This article was originally shared with East End United Regional Ministry as part of Sunday worship on Sunday, December 17th, 2023. You can find the full service here:

Rev. Bri-anne Swan is lead minister to East End United Regional Ministry in Toronto, Canada.