Magnified with Mary

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Most of you know the big Christmas Tree in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tree itself is not that remarkable, but it’s decorated with Baroque creche figures made in Naples, Italy.  Last year, because of the pandemic and logistical challenges, they had the tree in another section of the building and it just wasn’t the same. Early in December, this year, I went over to check out the tree, and was happy to see it back in its old space– right in the middle of the Medieval Sculpture Court, in front of the Spanish altar screen, just where I’m used to seeing it as a part of Christmas in New York.

While the figures of the creche are in different positions every year, and there are other small differences, I realized this year, that I hadn’t really noticed the other sculptures around in the medieval court. On one side of the tree, quietly against a column is a 15th century German “Mary and Child” that originally was on the facade of a home in Nuremberg. It was saved and relocated during WWII.

Not far from the Christmas tree on the other side is a beautiful, mysterious Virgin Mary, with almost a shawl or veil almost covering her face.  It’s called the Mourning Virgin, and Mary appears to be grieving.

It occurred to me, how appropriate those depictions of Mary are, so close to the Christmas Tree. That’s so often the way of Mary– appearing a little off-center, still a part of the action, but quiet, directing attention to Jesus. That’s what Mary does at the Wedding of Cana, Jesus’s first miracle. And it’s what she does at the Cross, as Jesus gives her to John, and John to her, thereby creating a blueprint of the Church– those who come together in the presence of Christ for support, for strength, for hope in life after death.

The famous experiences of Mary in the lives of ordinary people (Guadalupe, Fatima, Medjugorje) as well as the quiet, personal experiences—happen whenever we are vulnerable, when we are humble, when we most need God.

Mary sings from this place of humility and neediness in her song, Magnificat, the Latin shorthand for the beginning of, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” She begins by singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” but really, the Lord has magnified Mary. This is a theme that runs through today’s scripture lessons—this idea that God takes what’s small, insignificant, or weak, and God magnifies it—enlarging and creating more than was ever imagined.

In the first reading the Prophet Micah singles out Bethlehem, tiny Bethlehem. “From you shall come forth the ruler in Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.”

The second reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews, a kind of poetic argument about the ways in which Jesus is both high priest and perfect sacrifice, who accomplishes salvation for us in a way that nothing else can. Hebrews argues that no amount of offering from us, no amount of sacrifice or work or good deeds or perfect living will ever accomplish what was accomplished by the simplicity and purity of Christ’s faithfulness to God. God is more pleased by the simple act of faithfulness than the complicated scheme of temple sacrifices and offerings.

Far beyond the scriptures we read today, the Bible recounts over and over again how God favors the small and insignificant. Israel was not the mightiest of the nations. Moses was not the most likely to lead the people of Israel out of bondage. David was not the most likely to be king. Sarah was not the most likely to be the matriarch of an entire people. Great things were not expected from Jonah the prophet, Ruth the Moabite, Ezekiel or Esther, and many others.

Mary’s song in today’s Gospel sings with eloquence the song of God’s reversals, of God’s ability to turn everything upside-down and inside-out. The lowly and ignored are seen and appreciated. The mighty are put down and the left out are lifted up. The hungry are fed and those who are full are sent away. God remembers. God shows mercy. God magnifies.

I wonder in what ways we are being called to be like Mary and to magnify the Lord even as we are aware of the way that God magnifies our efforts and prayers? What can we do to lift up the lowly, to help feed the hungry, to offer healing to those who hurt? The scriptures today invite us to do at least two things: First, we can extend the love of God to those who might feel small or insignificant.   And second, we can remind ourselves of God’s ongoing work of lifting up, no matter how far down we might feel sometimes.

Shannon Kubiak is a youth leader and writer who wrote a great little book a few years ago called “God Called a Girl.”  She writes

Mary was a nobody, yet she found favor and blessing with God.  How many times do we look in the mirror and find a nobody staring back at us?  We often limit what God can do with our lives because we think our upbringing, our appearance, or our life is not a sufficient tool for the hands of God to use….[But] if Mary really was a nobody, all  it took for God to make her “somebody” was one miracle on a lonely day when she was just going about her daily business… God called a girl. And that girl changed the world.  The same God is calling again, and this time He’s calling you.” (God Called a Girl, p. 14-19, passim)

God calls us—to be more like Mary who says her version of YES and shows the way ahead.

As we try to discern and pray our way through another spike in COVID-19le infections and uncertainty all around, perhaps those images of Mary in the Metropolitan Museum are especially relevant. On one hand, she mourns and grieves—for the lives that are lost, for the sick and suffering, for those who bear the economic brunt of the pandemic, for those who live where violence and other social problems are inflamed.  But also, that image of a joyful, optimistic, strong mother, who looks ahead—knowing that pain will come, but knowing just as much that we are in God’s care and love, no matter what. And so, like she drew people to her son on Christmas, like she pointed people to him at Cana, like she witnessed to his love and sacrifice, and like she lived into the reality of his resurrection. 

This Christmas, may we notice a little more the Virgin Mary’s role in the story of our faith, and through her, may we be reminded of God’s reversals, of God’s surprises, and of God’s magnifying love, that we may do our part to magnify the Lord.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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