Text: Luke 1:46-55
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” has to be one of the favorite Christmas carols, ranking somewhere close behind Silent Night in popularity. Like last week’s carol, “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” it was written by Charles Wesley. Wesley published the carol in 5 verses in 1739, and three of them are in our hymnal.
The words have changed a bit over the years. It originally started out as “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings.” I would have had no idea what he was talking about. “Welkin,” it turns out, it is a now little-used word for the skies or the heavens. In the 1750’s, the Methodist evangelist George Whitfield changed that line to what we are familiar with today. I guess by the 1750s it was already a less familiar word.
And then in 1782, a hymnal was published with the repeat of “Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king” added at the end of each verse.
The carol was originally sung to a different tune but in the 1850s, Wesley’s verses were set to music that came from a cantata by Felix Mendelssohn that celebrated the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Like many of our hymns – well, like many of us, for that matter - it has evolved a bit over the years.
None of that history is what makes this a great carol, though – it is the joy and excitement and wonder of the angels celebrating ‘ birth along with the wonderful music that elicits our praise. Glory to the newborn king!
There is a phrase in this carol, original to Wesley, that we typically glide right by – but for me, in this season that we think about Christ’s coming and on this Sunday that we think about peace, these words are packed with meaning. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. Peace on earth and mercy mild.
To help us think about this, we turn to our scripture for this morning. Our scripture is a song – Mary’s song. It begins with “my soul magnifies the Lord.” This song is called the Magnificat – from the Latin for “magnify.”
We like to romanticize Jesus‘ birth and make it a sweet story of a young mother and her child, but that is not exactly the way we read about it in the Bible. There is a definite edge to it. Mary is engaged but not yet married when she has this very strange encounter with a messenger from God – an angel – who tells her that she has found favor with God. She will bear a child, who will be God’s Son, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Amazingly, Mary says to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be with me, according to your word.” Mary believes, and she says Yes to God. And right away, this causes her trouble.
She is pregnant and not yet married, which in that culture is an especially bad combination. She is worried, frightened, and no doubt overwhelmed. The angel had told her that her relative Elizabeth, well up in years, was also with child and so Mary leaves home, leaves town, to go stay with this older and wiser relative. She finds that Elizabeth is indeed pregnant in her old age. Elizabeth is the only one who could understand, maybe the only one who could believe Mary. Elizabeth’s words to her are pure grace. “Blessed are you among women.”
It is there, while with Elizabeth, that Mary sings her song. It feels like the support and love of Elizabeth helped Mary to burst forth with this song.
Mary’s song is filled with gratitude and great hope. Mary is confident and she is prophetic. She speaks boldly as to how things are and how things should be in God’s world. She speaks both of what God has done for her, and what God is doing in the world.
To be honest, the word that comes to mind when reading Mary’s song is revolution. God means to turn this world upside down. And it all begins with Mary. To accomplish God’s work, God chooses a poor, unmarried peasant girl in an occupied backwater country. From the very start, God is doing the unexpected.
Mary looks ahead to the implications of the birth of this child. “The proud will be scattered. The powerful will be pulled from their thrones. The weak and poor will be lifted up. The hungry will be filled. The rich oppressors will be sent away empty.” We tend to overlook this side of Mary.
There were places in Latin America where just a few years ago, the public reading of the Magnificat was forbidden as subversive activity, what with all that business about the mighty being pulled from their thrones and replaced by the weak and poor.
When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he left the Magnificat in Latin. The German princes who supported and protected Luther in his struggles with Rome took a dim view of the social and political implications of the Magnificat, what with its reversal of social structures. Luther’s friends and supporters were in high places, so he decided it was best to just leave Mary's song in the Latin.
If we are honest, these words make us a bit uncomfortable too. On a global scale, in the big picture, we are all wealthy. We read Mary’s words, about the poor being lifted up and the rich being brought low, and we have to ask -- how exactly is this Good News for us?
Sometimes, before the gospel can be good news, it has to be heard as bad news. What this may be saying to us is, we have to know how poor we are before we can receive God’s gift of redemption. We can be too full of ourselves and all of our things to have room for God.
The Bible does not glamorize poverty, and Jesus did not condemn the people of means who gathered around him, people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There were a group of women who supported Jesus’ ministry out of their resources – some were apparently well-to-do. But it’s instructive that God seems again and again to work through the poor and lowly and unlikely – fishermen and tax collectors and shepherds and a poor peasant girl like Mary.
Maybe what this is about is that poor people know their need. Those with wealth and power can sometimes feel like they’ve got it all together, that they don’t need anything or anybody. Poor people know better.
Mary, the young, poor, unlearned, not-yet-married girl, is open to God. She is willing to say yes.
Now on this Sunday of Advent that we especially think about peace, this might seem like a strange scripture to look at. Mary is bold, she is courageous, she speaks a prophetic word, she says that through her child God means to turn the world upside down. Which is all nice, but does that really sound like peace?
Well, here’s the thing: peace is a lot more than just the absence of physical fighting. It is the presence of good will. Mary’s people—the Jewish people—lived under Roman occupation, and Roman soldiers “kept the peace” by keeping everyone else under the constant threat of violence. The Pax Romana wasn’t really peace at all. And this was an arrangement that harmed all who lived under it. The injustice in Mary’s community meant that a deep peace wasn’t possible - for any of them.
‘Peace on earth and mercy mild” is perhaps more than just an innocuous phrase in a beloved carol. Because the kind of peace that Christ came to bring is peace that is filled with mercy. Not the enforced peace of Rome. Not the peace found in some places today where there is no public dissent because those who challenge the status quo and those who speak up about injustice will be silenced harshly. That is not true peace. That is certainly not the peace that Jesus came to bring.
Jesus came to bring peace with mercy – with understanding and compassion and the desire for goodness and justice for everyone.
Mary’s song, with its soaring gratitude to God and recognition of God’s grace and favor, speaks of God’s work in turning the world upside down. What we need to understand is that systems of injustice affect everyone. And everyone benefits from the kind of world Mary sings about. The proud and powerful who will be relieved of their swelled heads and the constant struggle to keep those they deem unworthy in their place. The hungry will be filled with good things. The rich will know what it is like to be in need so that they will have room in their hearts for others and for God.
Because her song is dangerous, we may not think of it in terms of peace. But this is exactly what she is singing about.
Peace does not mean being quiet in the face of oppression. Peace does not mean accepting things as they are. Peace is not ignoring the world around us while we live blissfully in a bubble. Peace comes in the midst of the storms of life. We can know peace in times of trouble as a gift from God, a confidence in God’s care and provision. And God’s peace is something we join with God in working toward.
Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. He offers the peace of God, and this means justice and equity and welcome and goodness and grace for everyone. It means bringing reconciliation to those who have been estranged from one another, and from God. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” We cannot be reconciled with God unless we know our need. We come to know God’s mercy and we seek peace with mercy for everyone.
There is so much that Mary does not have. She is engaged but does not yet have a husband. She does not have wealth or power or privilege. She does not have confidence in how her community will receive the news of her pregnancy. All she has, really, is the belief that the God who chose her will be a part of whatever comes next. And that, apparently, is enough. Even amidst the challenges she faced, God gives her peace. Peace enough to sing. Amen.