Dock Hollingsworth: "Low Estate" Is Not a Charleston Plantation

Mary was a peasant girl. She was somewhere between 12 and 16 years old - let’s split the difference and call it 14. She had friends and favorite foods and boy crushes and games she liked to play. One of the things that she and her friends would giggle about is who they would marry one day. In a culture of arranged marriages, she had been betrothed to the carpenter, Joseph. The other girls wondered who their parents would strike a deal with. At least Mary was engaged to a Galilean boy, and she won’t be moving away. She was about 14 - chores and meals and some free time to play. Daydreams, pimples, and the awkwardness of living with a body that has changed from her childhood self. She was about 14 and no different from any other barefoot, peasant girl in her region - except that everything is about to change.

Now, she finds herself at the center of what is sure to be the region’s biggest scandal. She is engaged to Joseph, he’s got a stable job making furniture, seems nice enough. But they are not yet married, and she is carrying a child. Horrifying - except that she knows the truth. The child within her is of holy origin, not the bad decision of a reckless teenager. She knows the truth. God has chosen her to carry and give birth to Israel’s Messiah. This truth is so overpowering, so beautiful that she breaks into song. She sings her joy. Magnificat is how her song begins in Latin, “magnifies” - My soul magnifies the Lord. Today’s reading is Mary’s song.

My own mother was a fan of musicals. She loved the feel-good escape of what folks like Rogers and Hammerstein offered up. She wanted me to love musicals too, so she took me when I was about 13 to see Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. She loved it! Since I was a young teenaged boy, I was far too cool to love it. (Okay, maybe I did but I wasn’t telling anybody on my baseball team.) Gene Kelly is on stage bursting with love for Debbie Reynolds and he jumps up on trashcans and splashes in puddles and sings, “What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again!”

There are just some experiences in life that are so grand that song and dance are just the right response. I do think that’s why we associate Christmas with music. The birth of the Christ child is so beautiful, so meaningful, so life-changing that it soars past what our prose can reach, and we must break into song, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Newborn King.”

But my mother loved musicals because they were a form of escape. She could set aside the demands and worries of her week and escape into a world of song and romance, happy endings, bows and ovations. Mary’s song is not escape; it is part memoir, part courageous preaching. The song has grit and danger, realism, and threat. There are some hard verses to Mary’s song.

Mary sings of the great things done by the Mighty One and they include: scattering the proud; bringing down the powerful; sending the rich away empty. Those are not Rogers and Hammerstein themes.

Let’s not move past this part too quickly. We can’t speed by and look out the other window and pretend we did not hear this part of today’s reading. Most who hear this sermon are the proud, the powerful, and the rich. If you make more than 33 grand a year, you are in the top 1% of the world’s income. [Investopedia, December 14, 2017, online article] This song is not good news for everybody. What is the Christmas message of hope for those who are the proud, the powerful, and the well-to-do?

If we operate in pride and power and affluence, then this is not a hopeful story at all. But income is not the issue, the question is posture. Do we operate before God, out of our power or out of our vulnerability? To be fair, it is easier for a peasant girl to get in touch with her vulnerability, her fragile dependence on God. But we can all experience this Christmas grace if we are able to set aside our self-sufficiency. God still whispers into the private chambers of those who are humble enough to hear.

In the familiar King James Version, Mary’s song begins: My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden…

God has regarded her low estate. God comes for the weak and the vulnerable. It is a theme throughout Holy Scripture.

The self-sufficient part of us that preens and swaggers is not the door where God enters. It is our lowliness, our brokenness - God enters our lives by descending the steps that lead to our basement.

Mary is carrying the child who is coming on Christmas Day to disrupt our self-reliance because pride doesn’t allow much room for God to enter and do the work on our inner mess. God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, and sends the rich away empty. But Mary gives us a model for how something new can be born that leads to singing. As she sits and ponders this miracle alive within her, the virgin Mary says, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his servant.” It is in this vulnerable place where God whispers.

It was true for Gertrude Behanna. In 1971, a book was published by author Elizabeth Burns entitled The Late Liz. Only Elizabeth was not really the author’s name - she wrote under a pseudonym - the woman’s real name was Gert Behanna.

Gert was the only daughter of a wealthy tycoon. Her dad was hostile to all religion, but he provided well. Financially, Gert had everything she could want. She married her college sweetheart, divorced. She married two more times, divorced. She had no moral grounding, no North Star, no church tradition to lean into. She had two sons but had no clue about how to raise them and they ended up causing her all kinds of trouble. She started drinking to deal with her stress and it led to more stress and more drinking. Finally, life became completely unmanageable, and she took an overdose of sleeping pills to end her terrible agony.

Eight hours after her overdose, Gert woke up in the ICU and had to face the fact that she was such a complete failure she couldn’t even succeed in ending her own life. A day earlier she was depressed enough to overdose and now she was in even deeper despair. Friends came to check on her - what to say? One of the friends finally said, in the simplest way, “Gert, have you ever considered asking God into your life to help you with all you are up against?” She got angry and shouted out, “I don’t even believe that there is a God! I am sick to death of all this religious talk. It is all just a crutch. You make God sound like some kind of bellhop who will come and carry your bags for you.” Her friend replied without getting defensive, “You know, a crutch is a wonderful help when you are crippled, and so is a bellhop when you have more baggage than you can carry.”

Well, the conversation ended there, the friend visited a while longer and headed home, but night fell and Gert was left there in hospital, alone in the darkness. She said out loud, “God, I don’t even know whether you exist. I have never had anything to do with you, but if you do exist and if you can help me, please, please come. I am absolutely at the end of my rope.”

In the book, she reported that at that moment, a warm light started moving toward her and it enveloped her in a sense of love she had never experienced before. She had an overwhelming sense that her life now mattered and that there was some meaningful future for her despite her past. This sense of embrace lasted several minutes and when it started to pass - even though it was the middle of the night, she picked up the phone and called her business manager and said, “Bring me a copy of the Holy Bible as quickly as you can!” He blurted out, “My God, Gert, what has happened to you?” She said, “My God has happened to me.” [John Claypool, God the Ingenious Alchemist, pp.16-17 (Supplemented with internet search on Gert Behanna).]

Even though Mary’s song is not good news for the proud, the powerful and the rich - it is a matter of vulnerability. Gert was plenty rich and powerful, but she was also broken enough to let God find a toe hold. God still whispers into the private chambers of those who are humble enough to hear.

Like Mary, those who hear and respond to God’s grace all end up singing. There are just some experiences in life that are so grand that song and dance are the only right response.