We have noted the characteristic marks of Luke’s Gospel: justice and compassion; joy and prayer; healing and forgiveness; inclusion and reconciliation; God’s concern for the poor; and the role of women. They are all here again in Mary’s story and Mary’s song.
And another one: Luke’s love of contrasts. Chapter one begins with Herod the Great, and chapter two with Caesar Augustus. But the most significant player, the indispensable figure, in the story, the greatest story ever told, is a young peasant girl who nearly becomes a single mother. “He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden, and henceforth all generations will call me blessed”.
Throughout this Gospel, God makes his way known through ordinary people, people who believe, and people who want to believe. Often quite unexpected people, and therefore surprised people like Mary herself… the woman with the flask of ointment, the man with demons exiled to live amongst the tombs, the woman who just needed to touch the hem of his cloak, and the dodgy tax collector Zachaeus. While the respectable, religious people tut-tut away, and finally reject Jesus altogether, the saving activity of God goes on.
And what Mary celebrates in her song is that this is what the coming of Jesus is all about, for her, yes, but for also the whole world. Salvation is always deeply personal, and frighteningly political. At a personal level it’s about you and me as we actually are: God comes and strangely does not ask “have you been good?”, doesn’t check out whether we are holy enough, doesn’t demand to know if we have done what the Law requires. God comes, as he did to Mary, and says “I want you”, even “I need you, I can’t manage without you”.
I love that phrase in the Confirmation service, to each candidate before the laying on of hands: “The Lord has called you by name, and has made you his own”. And those of us who preach, those of us who minister, need to continually go back to that starting point: you are here, and you are rightly here, because God has called you.
But it cannot end there. Mary knew that. This wasn’t only about her, it was about a whole new world. Look again at the contrasts: The proud and the powerful toppled – the poor (like her) given pride of place. The hungry fed – and the rich sent empty away.
It’s said that when the (British) East India Company finally allowed missionaries into the country, the officials in Madras asked SPG if the Magnificat could be omitted from Evensong, lest it give the native bad ideas! Much of our imperial history, and some of our missionary history as well, exported and reinforced such inequality.
And such injustice continues. The good news from Zimbabwe last week was that our persecuted sisters and brothers can return to their churches. Last time I was there I had to celebrate the Eucharist outside, in a ditch. Things are still not back to normal, but here is one picture of the powerful being uprooted. Here is one picture of this Advent of light shining through what has been great darkness.
At Confirmations I often tell the story (so forgive me if you’ve heard it before) of a woman I met in Harare who said to me “Going to church used to be a bit of a chore. I hoped he wouldn’t preach too long so that I could get back home and get on with my life. But since we’ve been locked out of our churches, now on Sunday mornings I get up early, I say my prayers, I put on my hat, and I march out because whatever the police or the army try to do I’m going to witness to Jesus”. He has exalted those of low degree, he has scattered the proud, and put down the mighty from their thrones. This is a Gospel of contrasts and turning things upside down.
Perhaps the greatest example of the contrasts which Luke draws is in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and of course it is only Luke who tells it. The younger son demands his portion of what’s in his father’s will. He wants it now – he says, in effect, “I wish you were dead”. And off he goes to live it up in a country far away. But it all goes wrong and his life falls apart. It’s only then that he comes to himself, to realise who he is, to accept what he has done. He turns round and heads back home, to the only hope that remains open to him, but with the clear understanding that he can only return not as a son but as a slave.
And as he turns the corner and comes in sight of his home, his father sees him and rushes out to meet him. It’s as if he’s been standing on the rooftop all that time, waiting, and waiting not to condemn, not to gloat and say “I told you so”, but to embrace his son and bring him back inside. When some of us liberals are criticised for being “universalists”, for refusing to believe in hell and eternal damnation, I point to that picture of the Father, waiting, longing, never giving up.
In one of his last works Rembrandt painted this “Return of the Prodigal Son”. It hangs now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The father is shown receiving his son with great tenderness. Perhaps the most striking part of the picture are the father’s hands. One is larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the other is softer and more receptive in gesture. Some say that they suggest fathering and mothering at the same time.
But of course, sadly, that’s not the end of the parable. For there is also the older brother, the good son, the one who stayed home and did what was right. In Rembrandt’s painting his hands are crossed, as if in judgement. He cannot share the joy for the one who had been dead and is now alive, who was lost and now is found. There’s a lot of religion like that: religion which has turned inwards, which congratulates itself on its own rightness and goodness, which has lost the bigger picture and the deeper reality both of who we are and our need for God’s embrace.
Neither right believing nor doing good will be enough to save us. That comes from facing up, like the younger son, to who we are and coming to know that God loves us just like that. That’s who we see in Mary, celebrating what God has done for her, celebrating what God will do in the world through her son.
“Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord.”