Advent 4, Year C
Luke 1:39-45 and the Magnificat
Back in 2007, the Museum of Art and Design staged a wonderful exhibit called Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting. The exhibit title might surprise you. It certainly did me. I know that many of you are craftspeople like me, but I think it is fair to say that very few people, even among us craftspeople, think of knitting as a subversive activity.
So my curiosity got the best of me. As you all know, I’m a fiber artist – my main medium is quilts. But I also knit. And I wanted to learn what was so subversive about knitting. This exhibit happened around nine months before I started seminary, and I realized later, as I was writing my Mdiv thesis, that seeing this show was my earliest awakening to the theological significance of my own work as an artist. I also realized, that, like many other people, I rarely knit for myself. In 2006, I had started a needlework ministry at my sponsoring parish, Christ Church Riverdale. That group is still going strong 12 years later, long after I had to leave it. In a similar way, Joan Castagnone has recently started one here at Ascension. These Needlework Groups crochet and knit shawls for people in end of life hospice, as well as hats for premie babies and chemotherapy patients, and lastly, hats and scarves the Seamen’s Church Institute program for mariners at sea. Today, during the service, we will be blessing the first batch of handmade items Joan’s new group has produced. It is a joy for me to be part of an active group again!
Shawls, scarves, and hats: none of these sound particularly subversive, do they? But I think they actually are. This kind of handwork is subversive because it goes against the prevailing worldview of “every person for themselves.” In a culture where we are all too often told we are each only responsible for ourselves (and maybe our families) and that we have to protect what we have at all costs against “the other” — needlework goes against the grain by forging connections.
For example: needlework forges connections literally by linking stitch to stitch, creating a slowly growing chain that results in an article of clothing or a blanket or shawl. Second, stitching forges connections between our hands, hearts, and minds. Crafters use their hands to pray, and in the Christian tradition of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, how we pray shapes how we believe. Our stitches are formed with love, and the work of our fingers informs our hearts and minds. Third, stitching also forges connections between the craftsperson and the recipient of that handwork. Even if they never meet in person, the creator wraps another human being in love. And finally, needlework forges connections between crafters — they meet to share ideas and techniques and yarn and stories. Stories of our common humanity and tribulations. Stories that create ties that bind. Stories that help us see each other as human beings.
So here’s one remarkable story from that 2007 exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design It’s about one pair of women who became friends through knitting. These two women were family members of people involved in the opposite sides of a very public trial. They spent day after day in the courtroom listening to testimony – each of them knitting. Eventually, they began to talk — their mutual love of knitting broke the ice. Because of knitting, they were able to share. That sharing turned into a genuine friendship. Because of knitting, they were able to see each other as people.
Are you ready for the kicker of that story? It’s one that makes the story particularly relevant to us New Yorkers: one of the women, Phyllis Rodriguez, was the mother of son who died in the north tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. The other woman was Aicha el-Wafi, the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the conspirators convicted of planning the 9/11 attacks. Who would ever have imagined that these two women could be civil to each other, much less become friends?
I learned an enormous theological lesson at the exhibit that day, a lesson it would take me years of seminary to articulate. The lesson itself is quite simple – when you hear it, you will wonder why it took me so long to get there. This is what it is:
We are each made in God’s image, and we are called into being to co-create with God.
When we make the choice to co-create with God, it is an act of radical, subversive love.
The stories of Mary and Elizabeth that are found only in Luke’s gospel speak the message of radical and subversive love eloquently and clearly. This morning we heard the Visitation — the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. At the Offertory, we will also hear the Magnificat sung, Mary’s great hymn of praise to God. For those who pray the Daily Office, we most often hear the first sentence of the Magnificat in Rite II Evening Prayer as “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” But the translation in Rite I captures the full meaning more faithfully: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Listen to that thought – my own soul makes God’s own self greater. Or as yet another translation has it: My soul enlarges God. We are co-creators with God. God desires our participation in creation. It is a joint endeavor. Each of our souls enlarges God.
In popular culture and holiday songs, Mary is often depicted as a woman who was obedient and submissive. “Round you virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild.” Did you notice how our minds automatically conflate the two people? When we hear this, we automatically think both mother and infant are “tender and mild.” But listening to the Magnificat, we realize that is a serious misreading of Mary’s character. Describing her as tender and mild not only does a huge disservice to the message in Luke’s gospel but also to Mary’s actions themselves. Mary was not a passive person. Mary did not choose a safe life. Mary had agency, and she had a choice. The reason we so often see the angel kneeling before her in paintings of the Annunciation, (just look at our window here) is that God was asking her consent to be the mother of the Savior. God does not decide for her. God does not force her. God asks, “Do you wish to be a powerful and active agent in the world?” God asks the same question of each of us.
Elizabeth was not passive and mild either. Elizabeth is the first person to recognize and acknowledge Mary’s pregnancy. And when Mary visits Elizabeth, did you notice that the women greet each other first? Their story is an echo of another story of the ancestors of Jesus — Ruth and Naomi — a story of the cooperation among women — of women accompanying each other in their journeys of life and of faith. They are not competing with each other like Hannah and Penninah, Rachel and Leah, or Sarah and Hagar. Instead, they are lifting each other up. Elizabeth blesses Mary first, NOT the child in Mary’s womb. She recognizes and acknowledges the agency of Mary — the rebelliousness of Mary’s choice to go against expectations. Elizabeth recognizes that through Mary, God is making something new. They neither of them, I suspect, were tender and mild, these two women who actively co-created with God.
The first two chapters of Luke are extraordinary because they are replete with women’s stories: stories in which women’s agency and rights to their own bodies are front and center: stories about wombs, pregnancies, quickening, birthing, ritual purification in the temple after childbirth, widowhood, and the lifelong worries mother’s have for their children. There is even a story of a mother getting appropriately angry at a somewhat clueless 12 year old son who wanders off during a family trip. Teenagers! Seriously!
These are stories of finding the miraculous present within the quotidian, stories of the holiness of everyday life. In contrast, and contrary to most Biblical literature, the men in these chapters are either literally mute (like Zechariah) or somewhat in the background, like Joseph. Here are two remarkable women who bring two remarkable children into the world. So pervasive is Luke’s emphasis on women in these chapters that in verse 36, he even measures time using a woman’s body: listen: “In the 6th month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth…” The 6th month of what? The year? No! The sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy: how unusual is it to hear that?
These two women choose to allow God to work through them and in them and with them. They say yes to all of the joy and the pain of being parents. They say yes to allowing God to accompany them and to accompanying God in return. Their hearts enlarge God. Each of these women makes the choice to bring LOVE Into the world because they both know that Love is stronger than any form of dominance, coercion, and oppression. Their two stories, intertwined with each other, are stories of accompaniment with God and with each other — of lifting each other up to make a way out of no way. These two women are not mere vessels. They are women who purposely decide to partner with God and allow God to work with and through them. They choose to partner with God to become their most authentic selves. They choose to partner with God because they know that what they do glorifies and enlarges God in return.
We too, every one of us, are made in God’s image, and we too are called to co-create with God. And we too have choices about how we live into that reality. Elizabeth and Mary’s choice was to bring love into the world by giving birth to and raising John and Jesus. But there are many, many more ways to choose to accompany the divine in this life.
God reaches out to us, desiring connection with us, and asking us to love one another as God loves us. This Advent season, in the final few days before Christmas, I invite you to consider — how do you make choices to bring love into the world? How do you choose to magnify God? How does your heart enlarge the Lord?