Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
A Christmas sermon: Magnificat
Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, New York City
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge The Third Sunday of Advent 2010
Raymond E. Brown, S.S.
Texts: I Samuel 2:1-10; Luke 2:28-32
On Friday, WNYC featured the battle of the billboards. Many of you probably heard about this. When you wait in line to get into the Lincoln Tunnel you stare at a billboard showing a Nativity scene and the words “You know it’s a myth.” When you come out of the tunnel you see a billboard with a Nativity scene and the words “You know it’s real.” One was put up by the atheists, the other by the ever-vigilant Catholic League. The most interesting part of the broadcast was an interview with an agnostic who’s written a new book called Spiritual Envy. The author wishes he could believe in Christmas and all the rest of it. Even more, he said, he wishes that those who do believe in Christmas would act like it, instead of running around in the commercial rat race like everybody else.
I don’t have any way of knowing how many of you are in the atheist camp or the believers’ camp or somewhere in between. I know one thing for sure. No matter what your faith or your doubts, just by stepping in out of the rat race tonight and taking your seat in this church, you are planting a flag for the deep, indeed the “real” meaning of the Christmas story. Bach has communicated the essence of the Christian gospel with such genius that he’s often called the Fifth Evangelist.
Christmas is surely meant to be a joyful season, and no composer who ever lived has communicated JOY better than Bach. In a few minutes, with the very first notes of tonight’s great work, you will be captured by joy. But the message of this evening is not just joy in the generic sense. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
The text of the Magnificat comes from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, and it’s referred to in the church as “the song of Mary.” It’s patterned closely on the song of Hannah in the Old Testament. Hannah was a woman who could not bear children until she was visited by the Lord. The barrenness of Hannah is like that of Abraham’s wife Sarah, and that of Elizabeth who in her old age was to become the mother of John the Baptist. A barren womb in the Old Testament points to something much worse than inability to have children. It represents the end of human potential. It symbolizes the impotence of the human race in the face of sin, death, and dissolution. Into such a situation the Word of the Lord comes with startling immediacy, announcing that the divine reversal is about to take place.
Here’s Luke’s account of what the church calls The Visitation:
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country and greeted [her cousin] Elizabeth…and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb….For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy.”…And Mary said,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden…. (Luke 1:39-48)
The one Latin word Magnificat means so many things in English—“my soul magnifies the Lord”—it can mean to praise, glorify, celebrate, adore, enlarge, exalt, extol. The words convey an experience of being enlarged, lifted up and out of one’s self by the inbreaking of a power from another realm. This is the meaning of the joy that is beyond mere human joy, the hope that is beyond human hope (Romans 4:18)
The yet unborn John the Baptist, his mother says, leapt in her womb “for joy.” This is not ordinary joy. It’s an ecstasy that accompanies the promise of God concerning the future. In the Old Testament, which both these women knew intimately, the promise of God arrives along with the power of its fulfilment, as though the thing promised has already happened. That’s why the Magnificat celebrates the divine events as though they are already accomplished:
· God has put down the mighty from their seats
· he has exalted those of low degree
· he has filled the hungry with good things
· he has sent the rich away empty
Mary and Elizabeth represent the poor and oppressed, those of “low estate” who can hope for nothing from their investment bankers. Their only hope is in God. God’s arrival, as these faithful women know, means that future events are brought into the present.. The two miraculous pregnancies manifest the words of the adult Jesus of Nazareth, “With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). This is what Luke is telling us in his “mythical” stories.
What really happened? We don’t precisely know. Raymond Brown, who taught New Testament up at Union Theological Seminary, wrote a definitive volume called The Birth of the Messiah. In one of his footnotes he gives an amusing illustration of the people who say “You know it’s a myth!”
Every year before Christmas I am contacted by newspaper reporters who have hit on the bright idea of writing a Christmas column on the stories of Jesus’ birth and have learned that I wrote a long commentary on them. Almost unfailingly they [state] that the only focus of the article will be ‘What actually happened?’…With little success I try to convince them that they could promote understanding of the birth stories by concentrating on the message of those stories instead of an issue that was very far from primary [for] the evangelists. [My] effort usually leaves the reporters convinced that they have been misdirected to a pious preacher who knows nothing about the important issues.
So what was it that the Evangelists—including our Fifth one—cared about, if it wasn’t “what actually happened?” It all depends on what you mean by “actually.” If the Lord God Almighty has actually, really entered this world in human flesh, then a story that has brought awe and wonder into the barren lives of the meek and lowly of heart for thousands of years is worth infinitely more than the dry speculations and abstractions of human naysayers.
The atheist billboard says, “This season, celebrate reason.” I revere reason as much as the atheists do—up to a point. But what faith knows is that although reason is a gift, it is not a god. Reason cannot explain everything. Certainly it cannot explain the purposes and promises of God. Certainly it cannot explain the music of Bach.
The exuberant dance forms that Bach frequently used evoke both individual and communal joy in the message that has come from God. In the Bible the canticle is identified as Mary’s own, and you’ll have no difficulty identifying Mary herself in the first quiet soprano solos. For the most part, however, the canticle is not Mary’s alone. It belongs to the entire worshipping community. Immediately following the soprano arias, the full chorus bursts forth with the words omnes generationes—“all generations,” meaning you and me. The different soloists represent individual members of the congregation who rise in the assembly to praise God. Listen for the words potens and potentia (power), sanctum (holy), and misericordia (mercy), for it is this combination of holiness, power, and mercy together that most closely identifies the God of biblical faith.
The power of the God of Israel, and of Mary and Elizabeth, is exercised in God’s care for the lowly. You’ll hear the rising figure when the tenor sings exaltavit––God has exalted those who are of low degree. You’ll hear more joy in the flutes when the alto sings that God has filled the hungry with good things. The solo voices express individually what the chorus ratifies communally; the combined voices praise God who “has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” The exquisite trio then sings of God “remembering his mercy” (recordatus misericordia suam). When you hear that recordatus, understand that God’s “remembering” does not mean “calling to mind.” It means “to take action on someone’s behalf.” God’s mercy is not something static. It goes forth from God as a promise already becoming reality. This is affirmed immediately after the trio, when all the voices re-enter with a sturdy chorus affirming the promise that God made to Abraham, now being fulfilled in the announcement of the Messiah’s birth—the promise that is now extended to the Gentiles, meaning the whole world. The note of intense conviction is heightened when the chorus sings Abraham et semini eius in secula—Abraham and his seed forever, embracing all of us here tonight with its beneficence.
The final chorus is an outburst of pure joy as we hear final affirmation of the promise that this will be true for ever. The only problem is that the chorus is too short. We want more of those trumpets! But this lack reminds us of the Advent message that we still live in the time between promise and fulfilment, the time of not-yet. In this meanwhile, it is our calling to offer hope to those with spiritual envy by getting out of the commercial rat race. This means even more than worshipping with Bach. It means remembering—taking action on behalf of—those who are of low estate this Christmas.
I don’t have any way of knowing what your personal balance of reason and faith might be. What we know for sure is that works of mercy and generosity in this holy season are signs planted in this world of the glorious promise of the world to come when those who mourn now will rejoice for ever in the presence of our victorious God.