Because of the people I follow on Twitter, I came across this tweet about the same time I began scrolling through this morning’s lections:
For Advent, I wish people don’t use the Visitation Story to justify anti-choice rhetoric and theology. Mary and Elizabeth’s joy at their chosen pregnancies is not a hammer to oppress people who do not choose pregnancy.
It seemed, from the various responses, that the tweet was not particularly well-received, and I suppose the tweeter went to bed with that sense of doom we all suffer when we discover that everyone on Twitter is wrong and disagrees with us. We think we’re going there to “build community” and “share the news” or something like that, and then what happens is a huge, annoying argument with no possible resolution. I think, though, that the best response to this sort of foolish, petulant tweeting is the song of Mary herself, who, fortunately, in the heap of all her earthly sufferings, did not have to defend herself on Twitter. God is a merciful God, so let’s look at what she has to say this morning.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Every year I am overawed by this song. If you have ever labored through a chronological reading of the Old Testament, by the time you come to the New you might feel beleaguered, discouraged, exhausted. The weight of God’s person, stretching out his hands towards Israel and being always rejected, is hard to grapple with. On the one hand, one is likely to think, “what is their problem? Why couldn’t they just love and obey God?” But then a person stumbles around through her own ordinary life and can’t get it together. Stubbornness creeps in alongside exhaustion—and fear. There’s so much to be afraid of. And honestly, by the time a person closes the last page on Malachi, God just seems so emotional. De trop, as it were. Maybe they weren’t crazy, one comes to think. Maybe he could have just let them be.
So it is relief to come to the New Testament. The mood shifts. It seems like there’s hope after all. The heavy weight of that searching lofty and holy yet emotionally personal God seems to lift and go away. At least initially. But right away there is a problem. For the song that Mary sings is as Old Testament as any set of verses in the whole Bible. Indeed, it is the summation of the whole Psalter, I think, brought together in a bright cataclysm of praise. And, if anything, the God extolled in this song is worse, because the weighty emotion of his desire for Israel breaks through the ennui and finds a home, here, in Mary. Finally, there is someone who willingly extols him, who recognizes the greatness of his person and aligns her whole being with his.
And the four divine attributes she extols, which are not that interesting to modern people, are his strength, his holiness, his mercy, and his provident help. Whereas, I think today most people would prefer Mary to rejoice in…well, maybe I shouldn’t speculate. But I feel like the word “choice” would have to make its way in there somewhere. But mercy? That is so demode. And holiness?
Holiness, more and more, is not something a lot of people can possibly understand. It refers to the strange, distant perfection of God. He is good—so completely good that no false, corrupt, sinful, or wrong thing can come near to him. The only way to survive in the presence of God is to be holy, and no one is holy. Which forces us, when we really consider that God is holy, to admit that we have an epic and disappointing problem. We can’t be with him. Even if we wanted to, which we mostly don’t, we can’t.
That is why, I think, there is the often-rehearsed effort to make holiness into all the common things of life. Everything is holy—baking a cake with your kids, buying yourself a vegan latte, battling it out on Twitter, ordering stuff on Amazon, cutting yourself a break (these are all the new kinds of holiness I have come across by reading books published in the last three years). Or, in the Barbara Brown Taylor way, staring at the moon or something. The problem is, when everything is holy, especially all the corruption of the earth, then nothing is holy.
But Mary is thrilled about God’s true holiness. In himself, he is holy. But somehow, the mystery of the incarnation means that God’s holiness will come to dwell, to abide, to be with the corruption of the earth. It will begin with her and spread out to encompass the whole world. There will be a tenuous peace, at first. But that is because, a mere thirty years after this moment, God will fully and completely atone for the sins of the world. In his perfect holiness, he will take onto himself the sins that we commit, and die under their weight, giving himself up as the perfect sacrifice that is required by his own holiness. That is where the mercy comes in. He has “mercy on those who fear him in every generation.” That is, he goes across the chasm of sin and death and makes it possible for the unholy to be in his presence. Now, not everything and everyone is holy, but God begins to make the people he chooses and loves holy for his own sake.
And this is by “the strength of his arm,” meaning, he does it himself without any help from anyone. To make the point plain, he chooses two people, initially, who could not possibly bring about their own salvation. He chooses Mary, who is a young girl who lacks both the physical strength and the moral perfection to save the world. And he picks Elizabeth to bear the testimony of his work—John—who is very old and derided by all her neighbors. These two women are not chosen by God because they are awesome and strong, but because they are not. As such, they most perfectly display God’s own strength. It’s the contrast that one is expected, by God, to notice.
Moreover, to show the depth of his mercy and the astonishing implications of his holiness, he himself comes as an infant, a baby. He comes in the very kind of foolish weakness that we so despise and he chooses Mary who could not possibly have chosen him.
And why does he do it? Because he loves us. He wants to be with us. Though we constantly and persistently reject him, he wants to help us out of that state of ruin and live with us as he always intended. If you are hungry, he wants to fill you with good things. If you are rich, he wants to empty you out so that he can fill you up. If you are proud, he wants to humble you so that you can be saved. If you are blind, he wants to give you sight. If you are wrong about everything, he wants to correct you so that you won’t destroy everything. Most of all, he wants to dwell in you by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the face of all this searching desire on the part of God, you can keep backing up, like Israel always did, hoping he will get bored and hassle someone else. Or you can be like Mary. You can magnify him—that is, praise his holy Name. You can let your soul rejoice in him. You can revel in the contrast between his great mercy and strength, and your own foolish weakness.
And then, for the love of what really is holy, you can not tweet garbage like that. See you in church!