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The Stories of Old

Julie Kovacs

Sunday, December 20, 2015
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Luke 1:39-55

    When you gather with family and friends what is the story that is shared and subsequently passed on from generation to generation? And what is the setting that prompts the story-telling. When my mother was living, between her facial expressions and her quick wit, would prompt Dad and then all of us and we would exasperate whatever story was being shared – often inappropriate and filled with poor humor and 95% of the time done at the dining room table over one of the big meals – Thanksgiving and/or Christmas. They usually had something to do with growing up on the farm and do you remember snow banks as high as the powerlines and walking to and from the barn in 30 below temperatures not just wind chills, and walking to school uphill both ways? 
    Our family stories are familiar, funny, sad, weird, and simply put they are what make us who we are. Sometimes we wish some of these stories would just – die. And yet, we hear them told and retold and our response may be the same or in an unexpected moment it may cause us to pause and find a meaning that had not presented itself before. 
    Mary’s song – Mary’s story is her story for sure, and yet, it echoes the stories of women from past generations – the Older Testament foremothers – whose story was repeated and passed on from generation to generation and making Mary who she is in the biblical story of faith. 
    Laura Winner wrote an online commentary in The Christian Century this week and as well as in the December 8th publication and she talked about these foremothers in faith and the impact they made on the unknowing Mary at the time. Let’s face it, Mary wasn’t worried about her foremothers, she was probably starting to experience lower back pain, maybe some swelling and some cravings – what would Mary crave? And perhaps, the baby was beginning to move and making it difficult to sleep at night. Because the stories of old were repeated over and over and over again, Mary who surely did not foresee being pregnant before her wedding night, calls upon the familiar, she calls upon the story of Hannah who gives birth to the prophet Samuel. 
    Laura Winner writes, “Like Mary, Hannah responds to the gift-pregnancy God gives by singing, “My heart exults in the Lord,” she sings. “My strength is exalted in my God.” Hannah praises God: “There is no Holy One like the Lord.” And then she sings about the God of Israel taking pleasure in capsizing the social order. The Lord “raises up the poor from the dust,” Hannah sings, “[God] lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes.”  
    Winner continues, “Perhaps a song about ash heaps is not the obvious thing to sing when you learn that you’re pregnant. But Hannah isn’t making up her song on the spot, either. She is drawing on a yet older song, the song Miriam sings after the Israelites cross the Red Sea and the powerful Egyptians drown behind them. Miriam’s song gives Hannah’s song its basic pattern: declare God’s triumph and taking care to note God’s penchant for defying the hierarchies of the world. Hannah sings a variation of Miriam’s song – and years later, when Mary needs to say something about a strange action of God that will change her life and the life of the world, she takes the motifs of Miriam’s song and Hannah’s song and she puts them together.” 
    We would be remiss if we did not mention, Elizabeth. She was a part of Mary’s story as well. Elizabeth’s praise of Mary, “God has blessed you upon women,” this portion of it is said – every day by millions of Catholics around the world when they speak the words of the Hail Mary, is an echo of another Older Testament foremother – it echoes Deborah’s song from the book of Judges chapter 5. 
    Deborah is recalling the heroic acts of Yael. Yael is approached by Sisera. Sisera is a general who is determined (and that is an understatement) on destroying Israel. In their encounter, Yael receives him with warm hospitality “he asked for water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.” And then she kills him. “He sank, he fell,” says Deborah, “he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.” And for this, Yael is proclaimed “most blessed of women.” 
    Laura Winner in online commentary that was written this week from The Christian Century writes, “By echoing Deborah’s song, Elizabeth in a sense invites Yael into the room with her and Mary. And Yael is not the only women thus invited. In [the book of Judith, chapter 13], Judith is praised in a similar language for killing Holofernes: “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth; and blessed by the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader or our enemies.”  
    In a story that is 16 verses long, we have encountered Mary and Elizabeth and the echoes of Hannah, Miriam, Deborah, Yael, and Judith. Mary and Elizabeth’s foremother’s protected Israel through killing. New Testament scholar Brittany Wilson in her essay, “Pugnacious Precursors and the Bearer of Peace,” suggests that “instead of being portrayed as a woman warrior, Mary is presented as a woman disciple, a peaceful hearer and doer of God’s word.”  
    The Magnificat that we heard just moments ago is beautiful, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” These beautiful words come from a teenaged woman who sought comfort in a cousin and called upon the familiar words of her history – the stories passed down from generation to generation – to give her strength and to help her make sense of what was about to happen. Mary was not just meek and mild. The day Mary met up with Joseph and God was the day that Mary unknowingly became a disciple, perhaps Jesus’ first disciple and she just so happened to be his mom. Mary’s story is far more complex than giving birth in a manger, in a stable long ago. Mary’s song – Mary’s story – continues to be passed down from generation to generation – in every Advent and Christmas season to give hope, peace, joy and love to people and nations who forget that our foremothers in faith faced a great deal, faced death and famine, faced war and brutality, faced destruction and refugee status, and faced a God that shows mercy to everyone from one generation to the next. This is a story that is worth telling year after year. Amen.