46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
One day, Jesus was standing in the midst of an angry crowd of people, several of whom were preparing to throw rocks at a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. With great compassion, Jesus looked to the woman, and then to the crowd, and said, “whichever one of you is without sin, cast the first stone.” There was silence. And then from somewhere out in the crowd, one lone rock came whistling right past Jesus’ ear. With an annoyed look on his face, Jesus looked into the crowd and said, “Mother, I wasn’t talking to you!”
That’s an old joke that works on several levels. If you grew up, like me, in a Protestant church, and you laughed at that joke, it’s probably because you’ve known a few mothers like that (or maybe even had one). Strong, opinionated, always right, and not afraid to remind her children of this fact in public.
If, however, you grew up Catholic, you might have laughed at this joke for an entirely different reason: The Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary, at her own conception and birth was made immaculate by God, free from the stain of original sin, and that she went on to lead a completely sinless life.
The joke, then, pokes at the idea that when Jesus said those words “whoever is without sin, cast the first stone,” his mother (according to the doctrine of the immaculate conception) actually could have done just that, therefore defeating the point her son was trying to make. Of course, if she had thrown the stone, and killed the woman caught in adultery, would *that* have been a sin? Or… since Jesus *commanded* whomever was without sin to cast the stone, and Mary was without sin, would not throwing the stone count as disobedience to God, and therefore also a sin?
Obviously, it’s complicated. And by now, I’ve probably completely ruined the joke.
But sometimes, because we’re Presbyterians and this is just what we do, we go deep, we go intellectual, we go nerdy. We’re still talking about Mary and her song of praise, but today I also want to talk about some of these classic doctrines of the church surrounding Mary–original sin, immaculate conception, and another one called federal headship.
Yes, today we’re going nerdy. But I promise it’s all for a purpose, and in the end we’ll come back to today’s scripture passage and the conclusion to Mary’s prayer. You remember the three parts to Mary’s model prayer, right? First, Mary prays for herself and her situation, then she pauses to remember and center herself on God, and God’s nature, then finally she turns her thoughts and prayers to others in the world, their situation, and their needs.
We’ll come back to that. But first, let’s talk about original sin. And no, that does not mean sinning in new and creative ways. Original sin is an ancient doctrine of the church that attempts to answer the question, “Where did sin come from?” If God created the world and said that everything in it was good, then why do so many bad things happen?
Original sin goes back to the very first “bad thing” that happens in the creation story: Adam and Eve disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. That was the “original” sin. But how does that explain all of the other ones that came later? Well, that’s where it gets tricky.
Some early Christian theologians, like St. Augustine, believed that when Adam and Eve sinned, something changed inside them, their souls became somehow “stained” with sin, and then through the act of procreation they passed that trait on to their children, who passed it on to their children and so on.
This explains everything just fine…until you come to Jesus. Throughout the New Testament, we are told that Jesus alone among all humanity “knew no sin.” In order for that to work, he can’t inherit if from his parents. Since his father is God, no problem there. But his mother is human, and therefore Jesus should have inhereited one half of a sinful nature, right?
To correct this problem, ancient theologians came up with the idea that when Mary’s parents conceived her, God must have acted somehow either to block that original sin from being passed on, or else erased it somehow, so that years later when Mary conceived and became pregnant, neither she nor God were passing any sin to Jesus.
This is the doctrine of immaculate conception. The problem is that unlike the sinless nature of Jesus, it’s not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. It’s just a theory. And it all rests on the idea that original sin is passed down through the physical act of reproduction. But there are other ways to answer the question of how is original sin transmitted?
The 16th century reformer John Calvin, who was trained as a lawyer, noticed that sometimes an individual can represent an entire nation (for example a king, a president, or an ambassador) and can enter into a binding agreement on behalf of a larger group. Sounds just like a lawyer, right? Calvin viewed Adam and Eve as representatives of all humanity, so that when they sin in the garden, and when God passes judgment on them, it has the effect of condemning all their descendants to the same fate. That’s a doctrine known as “federal headship.”
It may sound harsh, but it’s not unusual: My great ancestor, William Ruthven, was the Earl of Gowrie in Scotland. But when he was convicted of kidnapping the young King James (of King James Bible fame) all of his lands and titles were stripped from him and his decendants. That’s why today, even though I personally have never kidnapped anyone, I am decidedly not the Earl of Gowrie, and neither I nor anyone in my family live in the old family castle in Scotland.
But I digress. According to Calvin’s line of reasoning, Mary would have been under the same sentence of “original sin” as everyone else, but since it was not something transmitted by the act of procreation, there would have been no danger of passing that on to her son, and therefore no need for a doctrine of “immaculate conception.”
So. Original Sin. Immaculate Conception. Federal Headship. Who says you don’t learn anything useful when you come to church? But that’s probably enough nerdiness for today. Byu now I hope you’re asking what does any of this have to do with Mary’s song of praise, and with today’s scripture passage?
I said last week that Mary’s song is a model prayer that moves from the concerns of the individual, to the consideration of God, and finally to the concerns of others. We’re really good at that first part, the part about ourselves. We know all about our own situation, our own joys and concerns. We can bring those to God all day long, and for some of us, that’s where our prayers begin and end.
The second part is a little harder–shifting our focus to God, and contemplating who God is, in the heavens and in the world. Not only is this part harder, but we tend to get stuck there. Theologians and entire churches get stuck there. In fact, all of those doctrines we just talked about–original sin, immaculate conception, federal headship–are all elaborate attempts to understand and reconcile how a perfect God could come into an imperfect, sinful world. The immaculate conception focuses on what was holy about Mary, what was divine and Godlike in her nature.
We tend to do the same with her son, Jesus. We focus on his divine, holy qualities, his God-nature, and we get stuck there. We get stuck on the God part. Our favorite title for Jesus is “Son of God,” but his favorite title for himself was “Son of Man” or “Son of Humanity.” While Pharisees, Roman officials, and disciples alike were all locked in a struggle to understand how this man could possibly be the son of God, the messiah…Jesus himself was focused on healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and giving hope to the brokenhearted.
We get stuck on his divinity, but he never loses sight of our humanity.
And that’s where Mary’s song leads the way for us. Mary devotes three and a half verses to her own situation, her own joy, and her own humility. And then two and a half verses for God, contemplating God’s name, God’s mercy, God’s strength, without ever really delving too deep into any of those mysteries, or trying to explain them rationally.
But the biggest portion of Mary’s prayer, the greatest number of verses (five), are dedicated to looking outward, to the situation and needs of others in the world around her. She lifts up the lowly; she lifts up the hungry; she lifts up her people, the people of Israel, who are under the opression of the Roman occupation.
In English, all these things are usually translated as past tense, already accomplished: He has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things. But in the Greek language of the text, all the verbs are in the Aorist tense, which can indicate past tense, but also present, or even future. God has lifted up the lowly; he is lifting up the lowly, and he will lift up the lowly.
For every positive, there is a negative: In Mary’s song, while the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled, and Israel is helped, the proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the rich are sent away empty. This is a difficult verse for us. As Americans, even the lowliest among us are by global standards, rich, powerul, and proud.
But I don’t see this as an attack on the rich and powerful. I see this as Mary’s powerful desire (and God’s powerful intention) to balance the scales, to continually bring about justice and equality where it is most needed. How does God do that? Among other things, it happens when we, the rich, the powerful, the proud, allow ourselves to be humbled, to see the poor and the hungry in our midst, and then let our prayers turn into actions, and our words turn into service.
In the closing lines of Mary’s song, she mentions the promise God made to Abraham. That promise is worth hearing again. It is found in Genesis chapter 12. God says to Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
To put it more concisely, God blessed Abraham in order that Abraham might be a blessing to others. The same holds true for us today: If God has given you a good name and a good reputation; if God has provided a good land for you to live in and be prosperous; if God has blessed you with good friends and family and health; then God did all those things for one reason: God has blessed you so that you might be a blessing to others.
You are the answer to Mary’s prayer.
You are the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.
You are the continuation of the work begun by Mary’s son, Jesus.
This Christmas season, let the words of Mary’s song become your personal prayer:
May you bring all your joys and anxieties to God, and place them in his hands.
May your hearts and your minds be lifted up to God, without getting stuck in heavenly mysteries.
May your eyes and ears be opened to the hunger and need of your neighbor.
And when the last “Amen” escapes from your lips,
As you rise from your knees to stand,
May your feet be his feet to walk in this world;
May your hands serve as his hands.
May your love for all people reflect the great love
Of Jesus, Mary’s son.
And may all of your blessings bless those around you
So that heaven and earth become one.