Every Christmas eve we sing “O little town of Bethlehem” and hear the story of how Jesus was born there. It gives us a false sense of its importance in its own context, I think. Bethlehem was a backwater, nothing town. Yes, King David was from there, but that was where he started—not where he ended up. People didn’t stay in Bethlehem if they wanted to be somebody.
As I was reflecting on this through the week, I remembered something funny that happened to me ten or twelve years ago. I was at a conference in Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada, one of just two people from Maine. To give all the participants a sense of where we all came from, someone had procured maps of all the states and provinces represented. I was asked to point out where I was from and I walked to the map prepared to explain that Milo was a tiny little town in the middle of the state, how the nearest city was Bangor…and discovered that the map in front of me had Milo clearly printed on it. I ran my finger over it to see if it was taped on, but no, it had been printed that way. I asked, “How long did it take you to find a map that showed Milo, Maine on it?!” and the person coordinating the whole event gave me a blank look. It was just coincidence that this map showed my tiny little hometown, population of less than 2000. I was tickled by it of course, but I continue to be astonished every time I think about it. Milo is not an “on the map” sort of place.
And in the days of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, neither was Bethlehem. If we were to transport someone from that time into the room today, they would be puzzled by our familiarity with it, and would probably be amused to hear it described in song so lovingly and tenderly.
Bethlehem was a nowhere place to be from, and not even the claim of being the great King David’s birthplace was enough to put it on the map. Sure, it was mentioned in the passage from Micah which we heard today, but more as a symbol, reminding the people of Israel at that time that God likes to do the unexpected. It’s only important to Christians because of what happened later. Because of who came from there later.
This is the lectionary year when we don’t hear the story of the Annunciation, that moment when Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her she’s pregnant and that the child she bears will be very, very special. Instead we go through two Sundays featuring a very adult John the Baptist and then take a huge leap backward in the narrative, to a time when he still in his mother’s womb.
There is a legend that the reason Elizabeth is so elated that the child in her womb “leaps” is because it was the first time she felt him move, something called the “quickening.” Six months into the pregnancy was a long time to wait, and she might have begun to feel discouraged. Might have begun to believe it was all some cruel joke rather than an angel-announced miracle.
We don’t really know why Mary goes to Elizabeth, but there is something beautiful in it. Two women, at opposite ends of the age spectrum, both miraculously pregnant, both undoubtedly confused and scared. Pregnant women often look to one another for companionship, and these two women are further isolated by their condition and by the absurdity of their stories of how they got that way. I wonder sometimes if Mary goes there thinking that the only person who could possibly believe her story is someone who is just as unexpectedly and inexplicably pregnant as herself. Imagine how she must feel, to be greeted not with tsk-tsking or eye rolling, but a declaration of blessedness. Mary doesn’t have explain anything, or make excuses. She is welcomed with love and respect, and even honor.
It’s no wonder she breaks out into song.
I will confess that I almost always think the song Mary sings, the Magnificat, was in response to the angel’s message to her. But no—it’s not until she is with Elizabeth that she sings this amazing song of the world being turned upside down.
The Magnificat is beautiful and inspiring–but it is also a protest song. Mary is declaring that things as they are, with Rome in power and the small and insignificant oppressed—those things have an expiration date. God is coming to do amazing things, to turn the world on its head, to “upset the applecart” as a priest I once knew used to say.
This little nobody from a nowhere town is singing about the overthrow of the greatest power they knew. And she means every word of it. God works through the small, the insignificant, the powerless, the nobodies.
I like the more traditional wording that we heard in the gospel: “My soul MAGNIFIES the Lord.” Like a piece of glass that has been curved and polished so that the small suddenly looks so much bigger. A piece of glass which when held just the right way can start a fire. God uses US to make the Lord more visible in this world. The Holy Spirit uses us to set the world on fire. Little old us, here in Oxford County. God is being magnified through US.
I leave you with a few questions to ponder as we move from the season of Advent into the church’s observation of Christmas.
What makes your hearts leap with joy? How is God present in those moments?
What song will YOU sing as you realize that God is at work in this world, overturning injustice, seeking to set us all in right relationship with God and each other?
And as you consider the consequences of this truth that no one is too insignificant to be part of God’s work in this world, are you prepared to step up when God calls on YOU to make a difference?
Are you willing to sing an exultant protest song of your own? Amen.