Madonna of the Magnificat, Botticelli
A sermon for August 15, 2013, preached at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, New York City. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 61:10-11, Galatians 4:4-7, Psalm 34 or 34:1-9, and Luke 1:46-55.
In Washington, I live and work within a mile of the National Cathedral. And so, whenever the carillon is played (one of the largest in the world), depending on the wind and the neighborhood noise, I can hear music. At first I might just hear a faint sound, but if the wind shifts just right, I can make out a tune. As I move through the neighborhood, up the hill toward the cathedral, I can begin to hum along. I can sing with, and I can claim the cathedral’s song as my own, even though the music is much bigger and much older than I am.
I think of my experience with the cathedral carillon as I try to think about the Blessed Virgin Mary’s experience with the song we know as Magnificat, The Song of Mary, which we just heard proclaimed from Luke’s Gospel. As I’m able to hear in the cathedral bells a faint tune at first, and then begin to listen and follow; in a similar way, Mary’s song originates elsewhere but she listens, she sings along, and she follows.
Listening, of course, involves first being able to pick out the tune. For me to follow the cathedral carillon and sing along, I need some knowledge base of tunes or hymns in order to recognize the song being played. I need to know what I’m hearing. For Mary to sing along with God’s work of liberation and justice, she needed, first, to be able to recognize the tune. Through prayer, through talk around the temple, through holy conversation with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary came to know the music. And she could pick out the tune. She must have recognized God’s other, older songs, like those of Miriam with her hand-drum, Deborah, Hannah, Judith, and so many more who sang songs that were risky in their hope, and dangerous in what they proclaimed.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was put to death by the Nazis, preached an Advent sermon in 1933 in which he said,
“[Mary’s Song] is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung.… a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” (The Mystery of Holy Night, ed. Manfred Weber, NY: Crossroad: 1996)
Mary listened, but she also sang along. And notice how she sang along—loud enough to be heard, but not so loud as to overpower God’s song. Back to my neighborhood example, if I hear the cathedral bells and begin to sing too loudly, I’ll end up singing something else entirely. Like someone singing in the shower, oblivious to the world, if I get carried away, I stop listening, and I miss the tune I’m meant to follow. It’s tempting to think of life as one long American Idol contest in which I need to stand out, to shine, and “make every song my own.” Mary never insists on her own way. She sings, but never so loudly as to overpower others. She blends in with what could be understood as her “holy backup,” that is, the communion of saints living and dead, who surround her with faithfulness, with accountability, and with enough honesty to tell her when she’s gone a little flat. (With apologies to Our Lady if she has perfect pitch.)
The Blessed Virgin Mary, in her Magnificat, listens, she sings, but she also becomes the song as she follows her son, Jesus the Christ. Mary and Joseph both learn very quickly that with God’s music, there’s often a key change. In my own example, if I hear cathedral bells or any song that I believe to be from God, I can join in and try to follow, but I need to follow in such a way as to be ready for a shift. Sometimes God improvises the melody, modulates to a minor third, or decides to take things totally into a fugue. And then, sometimes, it seems like the world interrupts and the music just stops. Sickness or disease strikes. Break-up, divorce, unemployment. A spouse or loved one dies. A crisis overtakes us, and we feel like the music fades away.
Just recently, you may have read or heard about the way music stopped in Algeria, for a time. A story in the New York Times last year, and last week on public radio told how in the 1940s and 50s, the music of the Old Casbah in Algiers brought together a mixture of sounds and people. Like Harlem in the 1920s, like Sofiatown before Apartheid, the Casbah was a place where people felt free. Jews and Muslims lived, worked, and made music together. But with Algeria’s war for independence in 1962, the Casbah was scattered. Jews moved to France. Muslims were relocated to the suburbs. And then, in the 1990s, the Armed Islamic Group banned popular music altogether.
And yet, amazingly, through the efforts of one young woman over a ten year period, the musicians who are now in their 80s and 90s, have came together to make music again. In fact, just a few weeks ago, the group performed at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. “I have a new life, a rebirth!” said Mohamed Ferkioui, the group’s 86-year-old accordionist. “We eat together, we sleep together. We’re a family, really a family. Ha! This is what paradise is.” (Elaine Sciolino, “Algerian Songs and Friendships, Reborn,” The New York Times, October 12, 2012.) Another man, a singer who plays the mandolin, lost two sons during the Algerian rebellion in the 1990s. He stopped playing music. “I was angry against the whole world,” he said. “The sadness never leaves my eyes, of course. But my face — now it is smiling!” This story from Algeria suggests the enduring power of a song to survive, to rebuild, to renew, and even to resurrect.
Mary’s Song expresses a faith that extends into her future and into ours. She learned a new harmony from Gabriel and shared it with Elizabeth. She hummed it like a lullaby to the Baby Jesus and she sang it with him as he grew. Mary sang as warning, as prophecy, and as comfort. She sang in mourning on Mt. Calvary. But she kept on. She kept on singing until Magnificat would become Resurrexit!
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not about one person, holy though she may be. It’s about all of us. It’s about God’s intention to draw us up and into the very heart of God, as God the Master Musician refuses to rest until each of us catches the tune, sings what we can, and joins the unending chorus.
Thanks be to God for the glorious and ever-blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, who helps us find our voice and sing the love of Christ to the world. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.