A Holy ‘No’

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

I’ll share if you will:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
December 16, 2012
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,
where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

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 descendants forever.”

Some years ago I taught a class during Advent on the mother of Jesus, called “There’s Something about Mary.” (I may need to reprise that sometime here at IPC!) During the class we looked at how Mary has been portrayed in art and in music:

“Gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,” according to one hymn.
“Gentle Mary” laid her child in a manger, says another.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” speaks of the “maiden’s bliss.”
“Mary was that mother mild,” we sing in “Once in Royal David’s City.”

Ah, gentle Mary—mild, meek, the handmaiden of the Lord, head bowed in reverence. Can’t you see her there on so many paintings, stained glass windows, icons and Christmas cards?

There’s certainly scriptural support for this view of a demure mother of Jesus. When Mary asks, “How will it be that this child will come to me?” the angel answers, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” It’s that word, overshadow. Gentle Mary, meek and mild, will be diminished even further by God’s power, who will overshadow her.

But then… there’s this song.

It’s an improvisation of the song Hannah sings in the Old Testament after the birth of her son Samuel. But it is not a sweet lullaby. It is a battle cry, bold and defiant.

God 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.

Does that sound meek and mild to you?

*          *          *

My friend and colleague Michael Kirby tells me that several years ago, someone began stealing the baby Jesuses from outdoor manger scenes in his Chicago neighborhood. It turned out to be a prank, and the figurines were later found in a woman’s yard, 32 of them, sorted by size and type. Unfortunately, many people coming to claim their figures tried to walk away with a “nicer” Jesus than the one they’d had. “They were trading up,” he said. “Everybody wanted the freshly painted, unfaded baby.”

Mary would not approve of such cheap attempts at an upgrade.

“[God] has lifted up the lowly,” she sings. God has looked with favor upon the dingy, the faded, the forlorn and discarded figures of this world.

…Because Mary’s song, at the heart of it, is a song of defiance, in the tradition of the old African-American spirituals and of protest songs. It is “We Shall Overcome”; it is “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” It is a dissent against the way things are. It is a counter-testimony to the dysfunction that passes for normal in our world.

Mary sings this song, because her pregnancy itself is God’s act of dissent against worldly power. God did not choose a queen, a wealthy noblewoman to bear the Messiah. God chose an unmarried peasant girl. God assessed the demands of the world and expectations of a king that would come in strength and might and prestige and said, “No, I’d just as soon not.” And in her song Mary echoes this divine No:

No to the proud and their haughty ways.

No to hunger that goes unfed.

No to suffering unrelieved.

No, no, no.

We’ve had a lot of occasions to say no this past week. I shared last Sunday about a friend whose son took his life at the age of 14. The moderator of our denomination, Cindy Bolbach, died on Wednesday after a cruel and relentless cancer. And of course, there is Sandy Hook Elementary School. To each of these, especially the last, and to countless other injustices, atrocities and heartbreaks we say No. No. No. And we do not say it meek and mild. We say it with clenched fist. We say it in protest. We say it loud and with a catch in our voice.

No, by the way, to the idea that God let this madness happen because we no longer pray in school. Like clockwork, the political and religious pundits have suggested exactly that. Imagine what kind of a God that is. A narcissistic thug who would allow such carnage because we don’t pray in the time and place and manner that God specifies. No.

And if I were ever to find out that that’s the kind of being God is, I think I’d have to renounce my ordination and go sell insurance, because that God and I would be finished.

*          *          *

So say No we must. But it’s not enough to say No. Lament is not enough. Heartbreak is not enough. Mary didn’t stop with a song. She embodied her song in her devotion to God; she lived that song as a witness to the God who is surprising and surpassingly good. And so must we. Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” and it did. And so our lives must magnify, enlarge, make clear, the goodness of our God.

Right now, it’s hard to see anything but the horror of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut. But slowly, slowly, the stories are coming out of ordinary heroism and great sacrifice. Stories of average people whose lives were magnifiers of love and peace. The teacher who lost her life shielding her students from harm. Or the teacher who piled her class into a restroom and told them to be very quiet… but who also took the time to say how much she loved each of them—so that if this was the end, at least they would hear words of love. Thankfully, they all survived.

There will be more stories like this, coming out of Newtown.

And there must be more stories like this, from Newtown and from Falls Church and from everywhere that good people curse the darkness and long for the light. Our laments are insufficient without action, what my friend Roy this week called “embodied prayer.” There is too much violence, too many guns making their way into the wrong hands. There are too many disturbed people slipping through the cracks rather than receiving the mental health care they need. Time and perspective will guide us into a faithful response. But respond we must.

*          *          *

If my Facebook feed is any indication, there were a lot of preachers who burned the midnight oil last night. What does one say? What can one say? The difficulty is compounded by the fact that this is “Joy” Sunday, a word that seems to taunt us, especially if we let ourselves imagine 26 families, and many more, who will never be the same again. And yet, as a friend reminded me last night, joy is not the same as happiness. There is always a touch of heartbreak in joy, because joy is hard-earned.  C.S. Lewis, who “Joy is distinct… from pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”

It’s that longing in the midst of joy that we hear from Mary’s lips. Mary sings for the weak and the lowly, the poor and the hungry. And there is a stubbornness to Mary. She’s no fool, after all. She must look around and see rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. Surely she must see the powerful comfortably on their thrones and the lowly begging for food. She is singing of a world that does not yet exist, but still could.

And Mary invites that same holy stubbornness to erupt from our own hearts and lives.

We must refuse to be defeated.

We must refuse to let the darkness win.

We must refuse to let Friday’s atrocities be the lasting legacy of our age.

Yesterday at Cindy Bolbach’s memorial service, we closed with a hymn. Not the Magnificat, but a similar protest song, a song of Martin Luther. We sang it defiantly, we sang it stubbornly, we sang it vigorously, we sang it in honor of our friend who loved it so, and we sang it for the children of Newtown, Connecticut.

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.

Image: Tanner’s Annunciation

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15 thoughts on “A Holy ‘No’

  1. let go
    kindred
    and goods

    get along home
    Cindy Cindy
    get along home

  2. susan says:

    that will preach. well done

  3. Mary Caroline Mitchell says:

    From both of us, thank you for your message to us and for so many at this very difficult time.

  4. jillsusan says:

    You found words as you always do. Amen.

  5. Alleluia. Amen.Thanks for sharing.

  6. Sarah says:

    Thank you, MaryAnn, for your faithful way with words and for your stubbornness. Keep on preaching on.

  7. anne says:

    glad to have had the chance to read this. it spoke to a deeper place than the sermon at my own church did today. (though the anthem was an absolutely perfect sermon for the day!)
    you are a blessing!

  8. What a wonderful sermon–thank you!

  9. MaryAnn says:

    Thank you everyone for reading and commenting. Your time and attention are a gift of grace.

  10. […] It is good and right to shout No to the Dobsons and their distorted god. As I said on Sunday morning: […]

  11. Grace says:

    Bookmarking this as I prepare to preach on the Visitation/Magnificat this Sunday …

  12. Oh, Amen and Amen. The usual (tired) exaltation of Mary’s “yes” just does not ring right on my ears this year, and you nailed why. This is a time to remember how Mary said, “No” too – how she put down her feet against what was wrong even as she opened her arms to receive what was right. Thank you for this.

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