More than Just a Pretty Christmas Song (Edie Wakevainen)

More than Just a Pretty Christmas Song
Advent 4C, December 23, 2018
Edie Wakevainen

Call and response. The lead musician or preacher calls something out, and the gathered community responds. “God be with you” is the call. The response is? “And also with you.” Call and response is also a metaphor for the spiritual journey. God calls and we respond.

Luke’s gospel begins with a series of calls and responses.

First, the angel Gabriel visited the elderly priest Zechariah to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear him a son, to be named John. This John—the one we call “the Baptist”—would prepare the hearts of the people for the Lord. God called Elizabeth to bear a child in her old age and Elizabeth responded in faith. Zechariah, however, was skeptical—and he lost his ability to speak until after John’s birth.

Next, the angel Gabriel visited Mary. He told her that she would conceive and bear a son, to be named Jesus. This child would be the holy Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit. He would reign over the house of Jacob and his kingdom would never end. Gabriel went on to tell Mary about her relative Elizabeth’s son, stating that nothing is impossible with God. God called Mary to be the God-bearer and Mary responded in faith.

In today’s gospel, we find that Mary has traveled to Zechariah’s home. When Mary called out to her relative Elizabeth, there were two responses. The child John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied. Even though she had not been told of Mary’s pregnancy, she declared the child in Mary’s womb to be blessed and referred to Mary as “the mother of my Lord.” And then she declared Mary blessed for her faith.

Finally, it is Mary’s turn to respond with the song of praise that we call “The Magnificat.” This is one of my favorite scripture passages in part because of its interesting backstory. Did you know that the Magnificat is not just for Christmas? Even though we associate it with the season, the Magnificat has been part of Evensong or Evening Prayer for centuries. It is found as far back as the first Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549. Those who pray the office on a daily basis say these words of Mary every single day.

And second, the Magnificat is not just a pretty song. The second half is a reversal of the order of things: the proud shall be scattered, the powerful brought down and the lowly uplifted, the rich sent away empty and the hungry filled. In other words, those who are last in the world’s eyes shall be first. The Catholic theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson said this: “The Magnificat is a revolutionary song of salvation whose political, economic, and social dimensions cannot be blunted. People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded: all are encompassed in the hope Mary proclaims.”

I believe that a call for each of us lies in the Magnificat. I believe that God calls each of us to help  people in need—the poor, the hungry, the addicted, the socially isolated—move out of the margins and into the center of things. There’s a precedent in a modern Episcopal saint who did just that.

In 1965, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminary student in Cambridge, MA, heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for volunteers to come to Selma, AL to support the civil rights program. Here are Daniels’ words: “I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert…Then it came. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things…’ I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.”  

On August 20, 1965, Daniels tried to enter a local store with some friends to buy something to drink. A man with a gun ordered them to leave or be shot. When the man aimed his gun at Ruby Sales, a young African American girl in the group, Daniels pushed her out of the way, took the shot, and was killed instantly. Dr. King called Daniels’ action “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.” Jonathan Daniels was 26 years old when he responded to the call in the Magnificat in a most extraordinary way. The Episcopal Church made him a saint.

To what is the Magnificat calling us in this season? I see our call in the lyrics of a song called “Room at the Table” by Carrie Newcomer. Let me read them to you:

Let our hearts not be hardened to those living on the margins,
There is room at the table for everyone.
This is where it all begins, this is how we gather in,
There is room at the table for everyone.

Too long we have wandered, burdened and undone,
But, there is room at the table for everyone.
Let us sing the new world in, this is how it all begins,
There is room at the table for everyone.

There is room for us all, and no gift is too small.
There is room at the table for everyone.
There's enough if we share, come on pull up a chair.
There room at the table for everyone.

No matter who you are, no matter where you're from,
There is room at the table for everyone.
Here and now we can be, the beloved community,
There is room at the table for everyone.

Here’s what one reviewer said this about the song: “Can we hear her invitation to bring in the burdened and undone? Can we welcome all gifts, all travelers, all seekers? If we are truly going to be the beloved community, we need to remember that the Grace of God makes ‘Room at the Table.’”

The St. Luke’s community is the most welcoming and inclusive one I have ever experienced. We can respond to God’s call by extending the welcome even more broadly and drawing in even more of God’s children. If we need to, we’ll build a bigger table. May it be so.  

Clare Hickman