The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
Jan. 4, 2019
In the Andes there were two warring tribes. One was a lowland tribe that lived in the foothills. The other was a highland tribe that lived in the upper reaches of the mountain.
The highland tribe undertook a daring raid on the lowland camp one night. They destroyed much of the tribe’s property and, in the heat of the battle, they kidnapped a baby, taking it back up the mountain. The lowlanders were distraught about the baby and organized a party of their bravest warriors to rescue the baby. There was a serious problem, though. The lowlanders could not climb mountains. They had absolutely no skills in traversing the rugged and challenging passages to make it to the highlander’s camp.
But the warriors could not say no to their mission. They set out and after several days of travel they were at a dead stop. They had reached the limit of their abilities. They could go no further. They tried several passages and each one proved unpassable.
One morning, after admitting their defeat, the warriors were nursing their wounded egos around a morning fire when they noticed a woman from their tribe walking down the mountain. It was the mother of the kidnapped child and she had the child in her arms. The warriors were astonished as she approached them. “How could you have made it up the mountain?” they asked. “We are the strongest and bravest men of the tribe and the mountain defeated us, yet you made it up the mountain to rescue the infant. How were you able to do this and we were not?”
The woman simply replied, “It wasn’t your baby.”
Confidence and trust are funny things. Sometimes they are fostered in quiet moments of contemplation. Sometimes they are hardened in moments of intense resolve. I am not sure which of these were experienced by the Virgin Mary but she was a very confident and trusting young woman.
Upon hearing the word from the angel Gabriel that she, a virgin, would conceive a holy child of God Almighty and bear the long-awaited Messiah, she jumped up in joy and ran to her kinswoman Elizabeth. Likely overwhelmed by the emotions and the momentousness of the events, she sang for us her hymn of praise, the Magnificat. We have heard it read twice this morning. But we may have not noticed its peculiar grammar.
There is a distinct change in Mary’s song just about in the middle. She begins singing of her soul’s praise in the present tense, “My soul magnifies the Lord…” but she changes in the last part of the hymn. Her praises are changed to past tense.
Over and over again Mary’s words speak of God’s actions as if they had been accomplished: he has shown the strength of his arm he has scattered the proud he has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly he has filled the hungry and sent the rich away he has helped his servant Israel. But none of those things had been accomplished.
None of those things would be accomplished within the lifetime of her son. In fact, it would be the proud, the powerful and the rich who would put her son, the promised Messiah, to death.
But these words are given to us as the prophetic praises of a holy woman, one whose confidence and trust in God’s promises and power could not be thwarted by tragedies and the perverse twists and turns of life in a broken and wounded world. What was it that gave this woman such confidence? To put it in the vernacular of the story of the warring Andes tribes: What was it that allowed her to carry this hope up and down the mountains of challenges and disappointment? It was not just her baby that she carried. It was her faith, her hope in God that she carried. It was God’s word given to her that she carried and nurtured and strengthened until her confidence and trust could not be assailed.
Mary’s witness gives us hope. It teaches us that God is on the move. It teaches us that God is active and that God’s will, though temporarily defeated, will not be vanquished. But there is a challenge in the witness of Mary as well. Can we stand with her in such stalwart confidence and trust?
Mary was given the gift of bearing God’s own son into a broken and wounded world. But so have we. Each of us bears the incarnation of Christ in our own way, into our own worlds, into our families and workplaces and into every area of our lives. Can we go forth proclaiming that God has been faithful even in the face of tragedy and turmoil?
In the Orthodox faith there is a way of framing Mary’s experiences through her life, the soaring moments of joy and the debilitating moments of sorrow. It is a way of explaining how a woman could live within such polar opposites and still carry her faith so confidently and in such trust.
The Orthodox speak of Mary as experiencing the joy of all that sorrow.
Joy, as I often say, is not the same as happiness. Joy transcends happiness. Joy is the spiritual gift of knowing God’s faithfulness. In the same respect, sorrow is not the same as sadness. Sorrow is the mourning of the tragedies of life, it is the broad space where our spirits grieve that all is not right with the world. But it is the place where we can also paradoxically say, “All is not well, but all will be well.”
The joy of all that sorrow, I believe, can also be understood as the sorrow of all that joy. In the midst of Mary’s song, behind the soaring praises of a soul that captured a glimpse of God’s full and completed creation at last, is the echo of a child born to die. But beyond that echo rings the promise of a man who was raised from the dead that we all may know life and know it abundantly.
The joy of all that sorrow and the sorrow of all that joy.
Peculiar words, I suppose, for a season in which the world is pursuing happiness at break neck speeds. Yet happiness will pass, but joy abides. Joy abides after happiness fades and it abides even in the midst of sorrow. I imagine Mary had a bit of a let down when she realized that God, indeed, had not fully accomplished his restoration of creation. But I also believe that Mary came to understand that God’s will is hard to capture and place on a map or a calendar. I am sure many of us have had these same revelations.
It is in those moments when we discover joy beyond happiness and sorrow beyond sadness. It is in those moments when confidence and trust are born and when we pick up our own part of the incarnation of God’s word and carry it proudly through mountains that seem unpassable because Jesus is our baby, just as he was Mary’s.