Transcribed from the sermon preached December 17, 2017
Pastor Lacey Hunter
Scripture Readings: Luke 1:46-55
Who here has heard of the “Bechdel Test?” The Bechdel Test is a tool used to track the active presence of women in works of fiction including books, films and TV shows. The rules now known as “The Bechdel Test” were first coined in 1985 based on the work of cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In Bechdel’s cartoon strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” Bechdel depicts two women looking for a film to watch. One of the women, her name is Ginger, explains that she will only go see a movie if it meets the following criteria:
-The movie has to have at least two women in it,
-who talk to each other,
-about something besides a man.
Another rule has been added—the women have to be named.
The Bechdel Test comes from a long quest for gender equality displayed in works of fiction. More than that it comes from a deep longing of women to see ourselves represented, to hear our names said, the complexity of our stories told, our humanity acknowledged, respected and lifted up in the public sphere.
This test is as basic as it gets, a small entry point into the depth of a woman’s story and life. Two women, with names, talking, about something other than a man is not too much to ask for. As a 30 year old woman I can safely say that most of my life passes the Bechdel Test, yet I rarely get to see that represented in popular media. Less than half of popular fiction meets the requirements.
And what of the Church? Do our hymns, scriptures and teachings pass the Bechdel Test?
I begin to run through a list of biblical women, hoping for inspiration from our scriptures. Sarah and Hagar, but their conversations revolve around Abraham and their sons. Other named women, Esther, Jehosheba, Rahab, Deborah, Miriam, and Mary Magdalene—all powerful, faithful women who we never witness having a conversation with another woman, whose lives are understood by the men they relate to. Even Mary and Martha never exchange words, nor do we experience the story from their perspective. Then there is the “woman at the well” who spreads the Good News but who never gets a name.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the scripture passage on which we base our service for today is that it does pass. In the whole New Testament, the only story that passes is today’s scripture passage, Mary’s Magnificat, the song of praise that she sings to and with Elizabeth. This is a powerful biblical moment. A revolutionary turn of events where the active presence of women is lifted up. Here we witness Elizabeth and Mary take delight in one another. Here they acknowledge the magic and the power of the other. In this passage Mary’s hopes and visions of the future are voiced and the witness of women for each other’s role in changing the world is named.
In today’s culture, I need this text. I need Mary’s Magnificat to face the lived reality of #MeToo. Of blatant misogyny and hatred for women and girls that dominates the political spheres, the daily micro and macro aggressions of being a female-bodied person walking down the street, into a bathroom, getting a drink, dancing, working, protesting, preaching, loving and living. I need Mary’s Magnificat to remind me what power feels like, what truth-telling sounds like, what future is possible. We need Mary’s Magnificat now.
Yet, the tradition associated with Mary, the tradition that we so often lift up and refer to during this week in the liturgical year and as Christmas approaches, does not allow us to hear Mary’s powerful and revolutionary voice. Because, rather than focusing on the world-changing words that Mary exchanges with Elizabeth in this scripture passage, too often we focus exclusively on Mary in relationship to men, most specifically, her son Jesus. This tradition reinforces so many damaging visions of who women are and are supposed to be. Think about some of the names and adjectives most often used in hymns and scholarship about Mary, names often substituted for Mary entirely, names and ideas that shape our imagination of who Mary is.
Highly Favoured Lady
Pure, Sweet, Mild
Some Fair Lily
Gentle and Bowed Head
Meek, Undefiled, Lowly Virgin
Queen of Virgins
A Maid Engaged to Joseph
These names for Mary tell a very particular story. A story of a woman with no name of her own, whose name is her husband’s name, whose name is an expectation of her body, whose name is her body detached from her life, whose name is passive, whose name is voiceless, whose name is permissible.
She is the Maid Engaged to Joseph.
The Lowly, Meek Virgin that Gabriel visits.
The Virgin Mother of the Son of God the Father.
It is important for us to remember that this is the story of Mary that Christians have been telling for centuries. In a world and country that has been shaped by a tradition where God is Father, where God is male and the only names and stories we have of women are told in relation to the Father God, the Son of God, the male angels, the kings, the male prophets, the sons they bare, and while they are baring sons these women are to be chaste, undefiled virgins if they are to be holy, then church, I ask you, are we really that surprised by the misogyny voted into office and the need for campaigns like #MeToo, #SayHerName and “My Name Isn’t__________.” When the reality of #MeToo reveals that for so many women being a “virgin” was not a choice and these names for Mary do not help us understand and come to voice around what has happened to our bodies and what we have survived.
Whatever our gender is, these names have shaped us. These names have been passed down from generation to generation and guide the ways we relate to one another. The Good News found in Luke’s Gospel today is that these names for Mary, for women, for any of us, are not the whole story, nor really the story at all.
The scripture we read from today is most often heard in Christian communities during the practice of evening prayer. At the monastery where I lived and prayed, we sang Mary’s Magnificat every night together. In the spirit of honesty I will tell you that up until then, I had spent little time thinking about Mary. I had heard the names we’ve discussed today attributed to her. I had heard men talk about her and her body. I knew she was a mother. That seemed to be where it began and ended with her. Growing up in the church, no one told me I could go deeper into her story.
But as I’ve said before, something happens when we spend time with a prayer, when we repeat the words, the movements, the melody. The prayer begins to sink into the body and once a prayer lives in your body, a new world opens up.
I remember one night, after months and months of repeating Mary’s song, when I finally heard them come alive. It was that night singing the Magnificat that I first met Mary, the Prophet, the Freedom Fighter. It was then that I realized why Jesus became a radical activist; how could he not have been when he was raised by a woman like Mary, a woman who sings this kind of freedom song.
Mary, who realizing she was pregnant, sought the company and the wisdom of other women.
Mary, who brought new life into the world by singing a song of revolution, a praise song that committed her entire life to co-creating the kin-dom of God on earth.
My partner Sharon imagines that the Magnificat was the lullaby that Mary sang to Jesus each night as he fell asleep. And what of this possibility! What if the prophetic vision that Mary held and committed her life to, this freedom song that Mary sang, that was passed down to her by her ancestor Hannah from a long line of prophetic witness, what if this vision became a part of Jesus’ body and is invited to now become a part of our body?
What if when we Christians talk of Mary, we talked about the freedom fighter and listened for the revolutionary Mary?
What if every time we prayed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for she has looked with favor on the lowliness of her servant,” we saw Mary’s creative acts of resistance, her daily rituals and practices of care, the struggles and violations she survived and the pleasures she delighted in? What if we heard here her chosen name?
What if every time we prayed, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is her name,” we heard the poet Aja Monet who wrote:
i never met a woman who wasn’t
fighting for freedom
an entire life
What if our prayers open us up to the truth that Mary reveals?
What if every time we prayed, “God’s mercy is for those who fear her from generation to generation,” we saw the ways Mary put her body on the line and showed up and kept showing up because she believed in liberation, because she believed in co-creating freedom with God? What if we believed Mary’s vulnerability was the source of her strength and the place of all divine power?
What if every time we prayed, “God has shown strength with her arm; she has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” we heard Mary calling out, “Justice!” Speaking truth to power. What if we saw her teaching nonviolence, resistance, resiliency and the ways her teachings shaped and are shaping movements?
What if every time we prayed, “She has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; she has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” we saw her visions for thriving communities, just economies and shared governance? What if it was these teachings and visions that Jesus recalled in his body when he turned over the tables in the temple and when he invited everyone to the meal?
What if every time we prayed, “she has helped her servant Israel, in remembrance of her mercy, according to the promise she made to our ancestors, to Sarah and to her descendants forever,” we saw the women who taught her and the women before them? What if we knew their names and how they fought for freedom? What if we saw Mary’s respect for the wisdom of her ancestors, her attention to the magic placed in her care, her persistence in making a way out of no way?
What if when we Christians talk of Mary, we listen for Mary, the freedom fighter?
When she is called “Gentle,” let us not make her something to be taken advantage of rather let us honor the steadfast love she greeted the world with even when it sought to destroy her. When she is called, “Meek” may we not disregard her but listen for the depth of silence, the ways her silence opens up a place for new voices and makes space at the table. “if i listen more than i speak / don’t mean i speak any less” writes poet Aja Monet.
May we know in the name, “Mary,” her anger that God could not look away from, her calm that overturned and transformed oppression, the voice of her listening, and the freedom of her song. Inspired by all that Mary taught, fought for, believed in, and created, may we today and everyday join her and the chorus of freedom fighters in praising God. Amen.