“Stir Up” Sunday
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
December 14, 2014
St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
4th Sunday of Advent
Some things you just remember.
In elementary school I had a lot of classmates who were Roman Catholic. A big point of contention on the playground was the Virgin Mary. We Lutherans kind of ignored her except at Christmas. I always liked the part about Mary pondering things in her heart.
I asked my Catholic friends, “Why do you pray to Mary? She’s not God!” They would tell me about intercessors and saints and rosaries and my eyes glazed over as I tightly clutched my white, zippered, King James Lutheran Bible with all the words of Jesus printed in red. “Mary is not in red,” I pointed out, resting my case. They responded that the Pope says stuff that is just as important as the Bible. My Lutheran face reddened: I don’t think so!
While my Roman Catholic friends had their take on Mary, our guy Martin Luther dismissed her. I later learned that he wrote this in one of his Christmas sermons: “The text does not proclaim the honor of the mother… I am to accept the child and his birth and forget the mother as far as that is possible, although her part cannot be forgotten for where there is a birth there must be a mother.”
Even when I learned more about Mary, she kind of put me off, the blue and white purity, the pious hands, the tilted head, the meek and mild aura. Even later, I realized that the description of Mary in Scripture was probably written by someone who was reflecting the prevailing cultural norm for women of the time (this norm still being present in many countries today): pious, submissive, soft-spoken, deferential. There’s a lot none of us know about Mary.
Traditionally, the 4th Sunday of Advent is Mary Sunday. It is also called Rose Sunday, not only because Mary is associated with roses, but also because the color of the Advent candle lightens from purple to rose. Today we sing Mary’s song, the Magnificat, perhaps the earliest Advent hymn, in which Mary “magnifies” what God has done and will do. Like an aria in an opera, like a soliloque in a play, the action almost stops and her message alone is center stage.
Today is also called “stir-up Sunday”, the day when Anglicans gathered to stir up the Christmas pudding, which had to sit for several weeks. It also reflects the first two words of the collect: “STIR UP, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…” The “stir up” theme appeals to me because it is so easy to resort to predictable pattern of behavior and thinking this Advent season that keep us in a comfortable but stunted state of spiritual growth.
Mary stirs things up.
The first part of the Magnificat is Mary’s joy and praise of God and God’s action in her life:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord: my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
But it’s not the first part of the Magnificat that has caused it to be banned in several modern countries. It’s the second part:
“He has scattered the proud in their conceit
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent away empty.
During the British rule of India, the government prohibited the Magnificat from being publicly recited in churches. In the 1980’s, Guatemala’s government decided that Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor were dangerous and revolutionary, in fact were stirring up the country’s impoverished masses, inspiring them to believe that change was possible. In 1983, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any pubic display of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the city – the same mothers whose children all had disappeared during the blood-soaked days of the Dirty War. In the 1930’s, Mary’s song was banned in Mexico and in Franco’s Spain.
Before being executed by the Nazis in 1933, the German Lutheran Dietrich Bonheoffer said this: “The song of Mary is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
Once stirred up, the picture of Mary is far different than it seems first.
Let’s stir things up some more by adding a piece of information for your consideration.
It is not jumping the gun (liturgically speaking) to talk about the Advent journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem from Nazareth, probably part of a caravan for safety, walking 70 miles through rough and dangerous terrain, Mary with a full-term pregnancy, (the Bible says nothing about a donkey – but maybe the Pope does, I don’t know).
We know the story so well that when something breaks into the tale with a new piece of information to consider, it’s surprising, maybe disturbing. The question is if we welcome it or if we insist it corrupts the original version. You can decide.
When researching for the sermon, I came across some information on the Smithsonian website: Some 20 years before the birth of Jesus, King Herod, the Roman-appointed governor of Judea, built a huge palace for himself near Bethlehem. The ruins still exist. It sits atop a slave-made mountain some 2500 feet or seven stories, high. It became known as the Herodium and was the largest palatial complex in the Roman world. It is still accessible from any point in Bethlehem and was about three miles across the flat desert from the supposed site of the birthplace of Jesus.
Mary and Joseph certainly were aware of this imposing structure as they entered Bethehem. On a clear night, perhaps they could look up and see the light from the torches atop the hill.
This addition to the story is very much in line with the prophecies of John the Baptist and Mary who speaks of the perils of power and might and they were there, looming over Bethlehem as they loom over our own world.. Did Mary hum to herself the words she had sung earlier as she looked up at the Herodium, the ones about casting down the mighty from their thrones, scattering the proud in their conceit, and sending the rich away empty?
Ore broadly speaking, can archaeological and historical sources such as the historian Josephus and Luther and the Pope supplement Scripture and if so, how much? Does Mary’s clearly political statements in the second part of the Magnificat make her less pious and godly or more?
Questions keep faith nimble.
The present-day scenario needs no stirring up. It has been a bloody Advent so far this year, an Advent of injustice and pain across the world and our country. The waiting for relief from bad news seems endless; the solutions to complicated problems evasive and elusive or ignored. The gap between powerless and powerful, between rich and poor continues to grow. You have to wonder how many pathways are being made straighter.
Yet there are voices in our wilderness, such as those of another young woman, the youngest ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance speech, a sixteen-year-old Muslim schoolgirl named Malawa, targeted for violence by extremists of her own faith for daring to speak out, said this:
“Dear brothers and sisters, the so-called world of adults may understand it, but we children don’t. Why is it that countries which we call strong are so powerful in creating wars but so weak in bringing peace? Why is it that giving guns is so easy, but giving books is so hard? Why is it that making tanks is so easy but building schools is so difficult?”
Another time, another Magnificat. The same cries, the same questions.
In our own lives, too, we can be challenged by questions this season, especially about the cultural demands placed upon us, the shopping and mandatory gaiety, whether to go simple or traditional, turkey or ham. At the same time, so much of the season is beautiful, even magical.
Yet nostalgia for days past and people lost to us can seep in. There can be more busyness than joy. More obligations than contemplation. It’s complicated, like the extremes in Mary’s Magnificat.
Let’s stir one more time.
I wonder if we have “tamed” Advent and Christmas, the same way the church has tried to tame Mary. I love the clear-eyed writings of the Benedictine Sister Joan Chititser. She talks about the way we have domesticated Christmas with merry Santa’s, sweet-faced farm animals, the scent of evergreen and of home-baked cookies baking in the oven, the gleaming gifts under the tree. The excitement in little voices.
I admit I was puzzled if not shocked when I read this statement by Sister Joan: “We begin now in Advent, whether we realize it or not, to prepare for Easter – because Easter is the reason Christmas is important.”
She says that without Easter, we would not know that the powers of injustice and oppression Mary speaks of will be overcome and the forces of death defeated. And as the year goes on, the brightness of the Star’s light gets stronger and stronger until its culmination the morning of the Resurrection.
In these bright/dark days of Advent, when we can be overwhelmed with tasks or with nostalgia, like Mary we can still sing. We sing because we truly know in our deepest hearts more than we can ever say out loud, and we can do more than we ever dreamed. Today with Mary, we proclaim the greatness of God who has looked with favor on us, each and every one. New life is stirring in more ways than we can imagine.
So now we pause our questions, quiet our frantic hearts, and bow before the mystery.
Joan Chititser, The Liturgical Year, 1009
John D Witvlier, Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel, 2005.
Internet sources on The Herodium
Lectionary Homiletics, Dec. 14, 2014