by Ellen Sims
Luke 1: 26-56
In the 1997 sci-fi film The Fifth Element, an alien power threatens to destroy earth. Runes in an ancient temple reveal that, thousands of years before, an advanced civilization left behind a defensive weapon to protect humanity. It can be activated by assembling the Five Elements. Four elements — the classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water — are easy to gather. But the elusive Fifth Element is sought by some good guys—and a very bad guy named, ironically, Jean-Baptist Emmanuel Zorg. We soon learn the Fifth Element appears in female form. Named Leeloo, she must somehow be mixed into this holy alchemy of elements. Just as all seems lost, her love for a flawed but daring human, played by Bruce Willis, elicits a clichéd kiss, which activates a blast of light, which saves the planet in the nick of time. Love, it turns out, is the Fifth Element.
Or, using Advent mathematics, it’s the Fourth Element. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we affirm the biblical story that says Love is the ultimate element for our salvation.
We’ve been collecting the four elements of Christ’s Advent: hope, peace, and joy. All necessary for earth’s salvation. Today Advent culminates in a celebration of love. But finding Advent’s Fourth Element within today’s Gospel reading may be challenging.
You see, we can’t point to any explicit expression or evidence of love within the 30 verses of today’s Gospel reading. Mary evinces a range of emotions: first, perplexity and fear upon learning she’ll mother the heir to David’s throne, then acceptance and courageous resolve when the angel counsels her not to fear and directs her to visit Elizabeth, and finally joy is named as the emotion of the baby in Elizabeth’s womb and of Mary herself as she sings. But the greatest of all gifts is not explicitly named. If you go with me on this hunt for Love in today’s story, let me give you a hint: it won’t look like romance or sentimentality or affection.
Before I name where Love IS found in our test, let me suggest where you won’t find it. Don’t expect Luke’s testament of Love to be represented in the relationship between Mary and Joseph. Joseph is barely mentioned in Luke. While Matthew’s nativity story prominently features Joseph as a good man, even in Matthew there’s never a declaration of love or any hint that the betrothed couple had fallen “in love.” Marriages, usually arranged in that culture, weren’t about romantic love. There’s no sign of romance here.
Instead, Luke’s Gospel magnifies the character of Mary and especially her relationship with her older relative Elizabeth. Of all the Gospels, Luke develops female characters most often and most fully. Luke’s is the feminist’s Gospel.
Comic strip writer Allison Bechdel said that for a movie to pass the feminist test, it must have
1) Two women—who have names
2) who talk to each other
3) about something other than a man.
Well, Hollywood has a fairly low bar for what might pass as a feminist film. But the Bible, a strongly patriarchal book, has an even lower feminist standard. Nevertheless, you might think the plot from today’s gospel lection doesn’t pass even such an easy feminist test. We do see
1) 2 women who are named, and
2) who do talk to each other, but
3) they may seem to be talking about the male children both are carrying when in fact the real topic of their conversation is NOT their boy babies but their miraculous pregnancies and their experience of the divine.
They’re NOT talking about a man. And their actions demonstrate a commitment to nurture one another: Elizabeth blesses the younger kinswoman in a priestly manner. And Mary presumably remains three months with Elizabeth to give care and comfort to an older woman facing a risky pregnancy and delivery.
Here is support, empathy, and solidarity. Here is love. I say this story passes both the feminist test and our love test. There’s sisterly supportive love between these two women.
Love is also located in Mary’s song—not explicitly, but Mary’s love of God is implicit as she extols the goodness of God and lavishes praise. But her praise isn’t a response to a personal benefactor. Mary is recalling the salvation history of her people. Her song is about God’s enduring and consistent love and HER love for her people.
Elizabeth’s and Mary’s love for their sons is connected to their love for the people whom their sons will lead. This bigger love is not found in personal terms only. She praises “the Mighty One’s” goodness to her (vs. 48-49) and then transitions to naming God’s goodness to her people “from generation to generation” (v. 50), starting with Abraham and extending into an infinite future (v. 55). Love itself has been magnified and multiplied. God’s way of loving the people—caring especially for the poor and downtrodden—teaches God’s people how they should love and care for one another.
Notice also the tone of Mary’s song. Can you hear its strength and courage and even defiance? No gentle lullaby is this. God has toppled thrones and lifted up the lowly, she sings boldly. God has scattered the proud, she insists then and perhaps later to her son who’ll live out her influence. This is a subversive song. But it’s a love song. Inspired by God’s love for her people and fueled by her love for her child, young Mary imagines and perhaps eventually imparts to her son an expectation that their world can change, their people’s oppression can end, and a new way can be born. Mary’s love for her child includes her love for the people he will lead and a future he will birth.
If we lift Mary out of the first century and drop her into the mid-20th century, her song might be an example of what feminists in the 1960s meant when they said “the personal is the political.” Second-wave feminism called women from their domestic lives to political activism and helped them see that personal issues—like reproductive rights and safety from violence in their own homes—were reflections of patriarchal oppression. If we took Mary’s song lyrics backward to 800 years before she lived, her words might easily fit into the mouths of the Hebrew prophets whose poetry imagined a God who loved the poor and the outcast.
Mary’s love is both personal and political. Love always starts in the human heart on a small, human scale—person to person, mother to child, if you will. But God’s love incubates in a womb-like heart until the compassion for the child grows to compassion for the world in which the child will enter. A mother birthing a child today surely must love the water that child will drink and the air that child will breathe, and she will care for the water and air in order to care for her child. To do so requires a recognition of the earth as the larger womb and a mother’s love as the pursuit of justice for all God’s creatures.
The song Mary sings in response to Gabriel’s good news has been traditionally called “The Magnificat”—which is the first word in the Latin version of this text. And “Magnificat” is Mary’s declaration that she “magnifies” the Lord God, that she is proclaiming God’s greatness and, in a sense, putting God’s goodness up on the big screen for the world to see. But Mary’s world is also getting larger and being magnified. Her compassion is growing.
Mary began her song by singing to one person, Elizabeth, her dear kinswoman. But 2000 years later Mary’s audience has grown to the millions. Mary’s song starts as an expression of her love for her unseen child and her unseen God. But soon her improvised love song starts including other people in the lyrics: the hungry, the lowly, the poor. Her compassion extends beyond her family to all the Jews then under the oppressive Roman Empire—and retrospectively to generations of her people who’d been oppressed by other regimes. The salvation story is not about individual salvation—or not that only. The salvation story Mary enters and announces—is individual and communal, immediate and generational, particular and comprehensive.
The late cartoonist Charles Schultz once joked, “I love humanity; it’s people I don’t like.
Some people read the Bible and vote as if they are saying, “I love certain people; its humanity I can’t stand.”
A challenge in our culture is the ever widening gulf between liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to overgeneralize the conservative approach to bettering society as solely an individual battle for personal moral improvement. Conservatives tend to overgeneralize liberals as working to improve our world solely by correcting systemic social problems–to the neglect of their own moral and spiritual selves. I suggest the biblical approach combines a concern for individual as well as systemic transformation. I think that combo is found in Open Table’s mission statement.
You’ll find it on the front of your bulletin every Sunday. We say we are trying to follow Jesus in Christian love through spiritual as well as social transformation. This progressive congregation sees both individual and societal change as essential, and as mutually supportive—and as an outgrowth of Christian love.
We began by searching for love in today’s Gospel lection. If it were a word search, we’d have failed to find love. But we examined today’s story and came away, I think, with evidence of love—in the women’s supportive relationship, in Mary’s love for her child and her God—all examples of love at work on the individual and personal level. But Mary’s song also builds up to a love for her people and a vision that love could be channeled to end a systemic injustice.
The real question today, of course, is what evidence is there of love at work in our lives—our personal relationships and our social commitments? Some of us may put tremendous energy into community work and social and political activism—sometimes at the expense of family relationships and inner spiritual growth for ourselves. Others of us may focus almost exclusively on love for those close at hand, forgetting Jesus’s consistent ministry to those left out and the Bible’s prophetic tradition of critiquing the powers that be. It’s not an either-or matter. Spiritual maturation and social transformation are recursive aims. We can’t really do one well without the other.
We might say that we love.
But where is the evidence that we love in a way that magnifies the God of love and that cares for those Jesus was partial toward?
What are we magnifying?
PRAYER: Holy Jesus, let us sing about you through words and ways of love. May we continue to birth you anew in our lives and in our world. Amen