Canticle 15 (The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55)
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While I was in seminary, some of my friends and I went down to what is called the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama. It was a massive structure out in the rural farmlands of the South. St. James’ church could easily fit inside its courtyard, and it seemed like a giant could fit inside its doors. The inside of the shrine was majestic, with pillars of marble and an altar all colored gold. And above the altar was what’s called a monstrance: a kind of sunbeam to hold the consecrated Eucharist for adoration.
It was a pretty amazing church, and praying there was a deeply beautiful experience. But the church building itself wasn’t what struck my heart most deeply. Downstairs of the nave, tucked away in a sort of corner off away from everything, was an alcove. And in this alcove there were two pictures and a bench between them. On one side was an image of Mary holding a child Jesus. Jesus was about six or seven, and his hair was full and gold and curly. Behind Mary was, if I remember correctly, a scene of Heaven, with golden clouds and angels attending the two. And the look on her face: was joy. Deep, calm, powerful joy down to the bones. Untroubled joy, pure and kind.
And on the other wall, opposite it, was a painting of Mary holding Jesus, dead, at the bottom of the cross. Everything was grey: Jesus’ body, the muddy ground around the cross, and Mary’s face, which was no longer filled with joy, but sorrow and despair. In both pictures, Mary was the same size and at the same height, so that when you turned your head from one to the other, the images of this woman blurred together. It was a haunting image, and one that, for me, struck me deeper than any collection of gold or marble. For it was an image of a person – a woman – not an figure or personality, but a human being. It brought the story of Mary home to me like nothing ever really had.
And one thing that these two images do, and one thing that Mary does for us, is challenge our understanding of what it means to be blessed. For Mary’s song is one of the most beautiful in the whole of the Bible, and it’s beautiful because it knows that greatness, that being blessed and favored, doesn’t mean just being lucky. But we use the word this way sometimes, don’t we? I once heard a friend, talking about a mutual friend who seemed, somehow, to avoid mishap and failure that, “Well, Frank just lives a blessed life.” Or, I once saw a post online where someone, who was a student, celebrated that he had done well in a class by posting “#blessed.” And while I don’t like to criticize other Christians from the pulpit, there are some Christians out there who believe that the more stuff you have – the more successful you are – the more blessed you are. If God loves you, they think, God will show it in the form of money, stability, and joy.
But I don’t think that’s the way God works. I don’t think that’s what “blessed” means. And it’s certainly not what “blessed” means in the Magnificat, in Mary’s Song. For here, being blessed doesn’t mean being favored over others, or having a lot of stuff, or being lucky. Being blessed means being loved. It means being lifted up when we’re low; it means being given food when we’re hungry – and not just any food, but good food. It means being granted mercy, and mercy often when we don’t even deserve it. Being blessed means having love as our foundation.
But it also means more. Being blessed doesn’t just mean being loved. God loves us all, and that’s why he sent Jesus Christ, to be with us and walk with us, to teach us and to heal us. But being blessed also means being given life, and the responsibility of life.
Back when I was first getting into the study of theology, a friend of mine gave me a book by John Paul II called Love and Responsibility. Now, as a young man, I was taken aback: “love and responsibility”? I thought love was about freedom, about joy, about the fullness of life (you can probably guess how old I was when I got this book). I balked at the idea of a “responsibility” in love. But then I got married, and then I had a daughter, and then two. Last week I spoke about the joy of holding my daughters, and that is a deep joy, but there’s also a weight, a weight of love that ties me to these children, to a future, to laughter and to tears, and to life. It is a weight of life that I now carry with me.
And all this is to say that being blessed didn’t keep Mary from grief. Being blessed didn’t mean that Mary was allowed to live a life free from care, where all her needs were met, and sorrow and grief were unknown things that other people deal with. Being blessed didn’t keep her from joy, either, of course, but it didn’t keep her from grief, either, because being blessed did not keep her from life. Mary was entrusted with life, as we all are, and that weight of life brought her to the golden heavens of one picture and the grey despair of the other. And the Christian life is sitting on that bench between the two.
Think, for a moment, of your own lives as Christians. Think of the lives that you have touched. Think of the good that God has done in this world through you. Think of the people you’ve lived with: those who’ve been sick, or heartbroken, or lonely; or the children you’ve taught and guided, that you’ve spent a few extra hours or even just minutes with so that they know someone’s cared. Think of the people you’ve prayed for, those who have lost their homes in the fires in California, or Father Yohana’s Little Scholar’s School, who ask for things as simple as clean water. Think of the people who come to the food pantry who you give bags of food to without any question. Think of all the lives you’ve touched, even the ones when, if someone compliments you, you say, “Nah, that wasn’t all that big.” Think of all those lives for whom you have been a blessing, because you have been, for them, life. And think, too, of those who have been life for you, and in all these things you will see an image of the Church, which is Christ’s body in this world for the salvation and redemption of us lost and broken people.
And this life, this little life which is the infant Christ, and this life that will then die on the cross, and this life that will then rise from the dead. This life that is God, the one who is and was and forever shall be, world without end, this life is the life that we are given. We are given Heaven in Jesus Christ. And this is a life that will heal the world.