Sermon: Mary’s Song, Mary’s Prayer (Advent 4, Year C)
4th Sunday of Advent, Year C
St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Lodi, CA
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
or Psalm 80:1-7
Collect: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God.
I begin each of my sermons with these words. There are lots of these kinds of opening prayers for sermons. It’s interesting that we begin sermons with prayers, right? Because it seems like sermons do other things: teaching, exhorting, explaining. But really this entire sunday service is an offering of praise and thanksgiving, a prayer, to God. Prayer is at the center of our sundays, and prayer is at the center of our church lives. I mean, those BCPs you have in front of you are books of prayers we hold in common. Prayer is also all over our lessons and propers this week. But really, what does prayer even do?
I mean, this is actually a serious question. Whenever a tragedy happens, people immediately send their “thoughts and prayers”. How much good have those thoughts and prayers done for all the children and teachers who are victims of gun violence? Our thoughts and prayers do not seem to be helping. Our thoughts and prayers seem to be an excuse not to do anything to change the material conditions that lead to such violence. And the same can be said for any number of tragedies. Tornados. Floods. Cancer. Covid. What do our prayers even do?
Prayers aren’t voicemails where God might get around to calling us back at some point. Prayers aren’t text messages into a void. Prayers are actually doing the thing we are asking. Has anyone ever heard that joking church advice that you’re never supposed to pray for patience or else God is gonna give you something to be patient about? But what actually is happening when we pray for patience? Usually that doesn’t come up when everything is marching along just fine. Usually we pray for patience because there’s a yelling child in front of us, or coworkers have dropped the ball yet again. “Lord, give me the patience to handle this with grace” And what happens in that moment is that patience is suddenly there. It happened in the very moment that I took the time to pray. In the very moment that I took the time to notice that I was heading towards a non-graceful response, and asked God for patience instead. The prayer itself created that moment of intention, that moment of patient recalibration. Yeah, it’s still hard not to get angry when things are out of control, it’s hard to have patience. But praying for patience means that at least in that moment of prayer, you are practicing patience. What do our prayers even do? Prayer shapes our minds and intentions by the very act of praying.
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation. That was the first line of the collect of the day. It’s one of those dense prayers where each word is carrying a lot of meaning. Purify our conscience. Not just my conscience, but our. This is a community prayer. How does God purify our conscience? By daily visitation. This isn’t something that happens once for forever, it is something that continually happens. Something that happens daily. Like our prayers. When we pray, we are inviting God to make that daily visitation. We are inviting God to purify our conscience in our daily prayers. Maybe you don’t have the time for full-on prayer book Morning and Evening Prayer each day. But you probably do have time to pray this collect in the shower at least. It is the 2nd shortest in the entire collects section of the prayer book. What do our prayers even do? Well, this one collect invites God to visit us daily, to purify us. And by praying this prayer (or any prayer, really) each day, we are making that visitation happen.
Why do we want a pure conscience? So that Jesus can find a mansion prepared for him in us when he comes. This is as adventy a thought as we get. One of my favorite things to talk about in Advent is how it’s not only about the baby Jesus being born in Bethlehem, but also looking towards when Jesus Christ comes again. This is a season of remembering and celebrating the incarnation of God that has already happened, and also a season of anticipating the coming Kingdom of God. God has been made flesh, Jesus has been born as an infant. And Christ will come again, expecting to find a mansion prepared for him in us. That is why we want a pure conscience. Advent is often described as a season of preparation. We are preparing for Christmas, and we are also preparing for the second coming of Christ. As John the Baptist said a couple weeks ago, we are to prepare the way of the Lord. That means, in part, preparing that mansion for Jesus, in us. What do our prayers even do? They prepare that mansion, through the daily visitation of God.
Prayer is not just in the realm of intentions and thoughts. Take Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was the very first person to prepare a mansion, a home, for Jesus, literally, physically, inside her womb. God is not expecting just our “thoughts and prayers”, God is expecting our lives to be preparing for the arrival of Jesus. The reading from the letter to the Hebrews explains this as rote sacrifices versus actually doing the will of God. This new testament passage is quoting from the much older psalm 40: God does not want the expected and required sacrifices if our lives are not actually dedicated to doing God’s will. In our day, sacrifices no longer mean burnt offerings on an altar. But the meaning of the passage is clear. It’s actually doing the will of God that counts. What are our prayers even doing? Are they just done by rote, meaning nothing in our lives? Are they the undesired sacrifice done out of obligation? Are our prayers doing the will of God?
What if our prayers could do the will of God? What might that look like?
“My soul magnifies the Lord.” This prayer of Mary’s. The Magnificat, as it it known by the first word of the Latin text. It has been prayed and sung at evening prayer for centuries. There’s also Elizabeth’s prayer of blessing: “blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” It is now a part of the Hail Mary prayer. These words have been a part of our prayers and meditations for as long as Christians have prayed and meditated. In fact, these two women, this one conversation in Luke, might be the very first time Christians came together in prayer. Mary is just barely pregnant. Jesus has yet to perform any miracles, has yet to preach a sermon, or gather his fishermen disciples. And yet, Elizabeth recognizes the holiness of the child within Mary. Elizabeth blesses Mary and the Christ child. In that moment, the very first people who even know about Jesus, the very first people who know that Jesus Christ, God made flesh, is about to be born, pray blessings and thanksgivings with each other. What do our prayers even do? Our prayers recognize and bless the holiness we encounter.
Mary’s prayer is a prayer of praise, of thanksgiving, and it’s also a powerful prophecy. In the long tradition of Biblical prophets, Mary names and rebukes the oppressions of the world, and calls for God’s justice. This is the will of God: cast down the mighty and lift up the lowly. Fill the hungry and send the rich away. Have mercy on those who fear God, and scatter the proud. Mary’s words are frightening to those in power, because they speak of the overthrow of earthly power in the face of God’s coming reign. Mary’s prayer has power in this world to accomplish God’s will. Maybe this sounds too much like the secular “manifesting” trend going around. Can just speaking the words “cast down the mighty” actually change the place of the powerful in the world? Yes.
The Magnificat was banned from public worship at various times in Christian history because those in power feared that it would lead to their overthrow. The British Anglicans in India prohibited it from being sung during colonial rule. The governments of Guatemala and Argentina also banned public recitation of the prayer after it galvanized protesters against poverty and government oppression. Mary’s prayer was bringing about God’s will. Just reminding people that God’s justice exists, just reminding people that God will keep the promises made to Abraham, was enough that the spirits of the lowly were lifted up. The words themselves cast down the mighty from their thrones as people were determined to create a more just world. People made the world more like the coming kingdom of God. What can our prayers even do? They can materially and in reality bring about a more just world. Our prayers can prepare the world for the coming kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God described in Mary’s prayer does not yet exist here. There are still lowly and hungry people. By praying this prayer, we are proclaiming that this is the will of the Lord. By praying this prayer, we are determining to do the will of the Lord. God does not accept our sacrifices done out of obligation alone. Praying is not merely saying the words. Praying is actually doing the will of God.
Fr. Peter is going to say the words of the eucharistic prayer in a minute. We are all praying that eucharistic prayer together. We are praying each week for God’s presence to be known to us in the breaking of the bread. We are praying for God’s spirit to sanctify us. We are praying to be united with each other into the one body of Christ. And you know what? That actually does happen because of our prayers. It is uniting in our prayers that unites us into the body of Christ. It is in our joining in of that final “Amen” at the end of the eucharistic prayer that the prayer is actually answered. What do our prayers even do? Our prayers invite God’s daily visitation. Our prayers prepare a mansion for Jesus when he comes. Our prayers bless the holiness we see. Our prayers prepare the world for the coming kingdom of God. Our prayers unite us into the Body of Christ. Our prayers bring God’s Real Presence into the world. That God made flesh who’s about to be born. My soul indeed magnifies the Lord.