Psalm 126 and Luke 1:46-55
December 14, 2014
Catherine Thiel Lee
“It may be that no one on earth can tell the truth, except through flower and song.”
~ Nahuatl theologian, quoted by Virgilio Elizondo
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like [men and women] who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy” (Ps 126:1-3).
These are words from our Psalm tonight, a song of joy. It is one of the “Songs of Ascent,” a sub-group near the end of the book of Psalms, short songs probably recited liturgically, pilgrim songs offered as the people made their way in procession to the temple. Psalm 126 speaks of joy, the dreamy wonder of those who have experienced miraculous, unexpected, unanticipated provision from God, provision so mysterious they can hardly believe it is real. Their bellies well up with laughter, whole bodies given over to praise, and their mouths are filled with songs of joy.
The Psalm has two parts. The first part which I just read is a memory. It is a recounting, a naming of God’s action in the world, a celebration. It could refer to any rescue of Jerusalem, of the people of God in the face of danger and uncertainty and oppression. There were many to chose from, times when God did “great things” for God’s people.
And then there is the second part.
This is a funny song of joy. It is a song of joy that talks an awful lot about sorrow. It is a song that names “tears” and “weeping” and hard labor, “those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow” in sacks of grain, digging in the dirt (126:5). It is a song that names dryness. “Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the Negev” (126:4). That word, “streams,” is a little deceiving. We aren’t talking about gushing rivers. The psalm is probably talking about the deep gulleys in the desert region south of Judah that run dry except in the season of great rain. This song of joy is actually a lament, a cry from a community to God: “Restore our fortunes,” they plead.
Tonight we are also reading together another funny song of joy, Mary’s song, her Magnificat in Luke chapter 1. Mary is an unmarried teenager who has just received the news from an angel that she is going to have a baby, that the power of the Most High is going to overshadow her and impregnate her with the Son of God. I imagine she’s a little freaked. She tells the angel, “OK,” and “thy will be done,” but then she runs off immediately to find her cousin Elizabeth. I like to think it says a lot about Elizabeth that Mary runs straight to her house—Elizabeth must be one heck of woman to be trusted reflexively with news like this. Elizabeth greets her with the prophetic assurance that Mary is indeed the “blessed” “mother of my Lord,” and Mary busts out into her own joyful song.
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46) In the first part of her song Mary sings as she receives her blessedness. Mary revels in God’s mercies. Mary, like Psalm 126, names that God has done “great things” for God’s people. Mary celebrates, she sings with joy.
And then there is the second part.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, Mary’s lauded prayer is a prophetic remembering of great reversals God has done: the scattered proud, the toppled rulers, the emptied fat cats. Mary’s song of joy details some drastic devastation of ordered society. At various points in the twentieth century at least three different countries, including India, Guatemala, and Argentina, have banned the public recitation of Mary’s song for fear that it was just too subversive. “[God] has performed mighty deeds with his arm;” she cries, “he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. [God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). Mary’s song has been taken up by the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed all throughout Christianity’s history as a prayer for God’s merciful saving action in the world. “Restore our fortunes,” they plead.
This past Friday was the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, a painting of a miraculous appearance of Mary to a poor indigenous man, Juan Diego, on a hill outside Mexico City in 1531. The story goes that the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego and spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language, saying “I desire a church in this place where your people may experience my compassion. All those who sincerely ask my help in their sorrows will know my Mother’s Heart in this place. Here I will see their tears; I will console them and they will be at peace.” Following more miracles full of flowers and singing, and despite the objections of the ruling European clergy, a basilica was built in Mexico City to house this image of the Virgin. Today it is the most visited Catholic site in the world, the third-most visited scared site in the world. This is the story of a woman, Mary, visiting a poor Native man to call and convert the church from conquest and bloodshed and dominion, to call and convert the church to compassion and beauty and peace. It is hardly surprising that she has won the hearts of the Mexican people for centuries.
Whatever we as Protestants (as Mennonites!) think of Catholic stories about Mary, I believe there is something here for us in the image of Mary, the mother of God, the singer of radical songs of joy. Mary does not deny the reality of tears and tyranny in the world. Mary, that bewildered teenager singing in Luke chapter 1, would watch her son be tried, tortured, and killed. A sword would pierce her heart one day, and she would live to treasure up in her heart, and perhaps abhor, many things about her son’s life. I wonder how she thought back on that song she sang to Elizabeth as Jesus grew, after he died, after his resurrection. Mary must have known something of tears and weeping, and must have known something of joy.
I have been thinking about movement lately, about pilgrimage, about bodies wandering and circling over ground. Tonight I am thinking about lots of different pilgrimages, tracks beaten down by trodding feet. I am thinking about the Psalms, songs of ascent, ancient Israelites traveling toward their temple. I am thinking about women walking through the streets of Mexico City to ask for God’s mercy through their trusted Mary. I am thinking about the families I know who pace hospitals corridors all night long. I am thinking about Haley and Scott traveling to be with Tage before he died. I am thinking about protestors walking through city streets, blocking highways and byways, using their bodies, their feet, to stop traffic and say “no more” and “we demand the right to breathe” in the wake of police brutality against young black men, in the face of the violence of racist America.
And I wonder—I always thought the point of pilgrimage was to get to the place: the temple, the shrine, the healing, the new law, the established community. And even as these destinations are important (we seek and long for a peaceable kingdom)…our steps on the way are weighty with value, bodies pressed to earth.
Psalm 126 sings out invitation. There is invitation to God: “Restore our fortunes!” Fill our dry places, Lord, nurture our plantings, grant us harvest! But the statement of fact, the acknowledged description of God’s created world is this: “those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them” (126:5-6). That statement, that simple, unlikely, preposterous, sometimes insensitive statement is also our invitation: to sow our tears.
Sow. Sow our tears. Sow our pains and injustices and wounds, sow our weeping. Sow them. Do not deny them, or bury them, or lionize them. Do not ignore injustice or pain, do not dismiss anger or weeping. Do not cast aside those who are weak and in sorrow, even if it is ourselves. Sow.
Sow. Not as a martyr or a dismisser or a champion, but sow like a farmer, with dirty, broken fingernails and love for land. Sow the seeds tucked in the sack on your shoulder into the dust of the earth, press them back into the substrate which God formed and loved and called her own. That is our work, as we walk, as we move through the deep gulleys and dry furrows of our lives, as we water those seeds with tears and laughter and whatever we have to offer as shuffle along the row. Ours is the work to sow seeds of a place where we, and others, we all can experience God’s compassion, consolation, peace, and new life. For “those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow,” even in the most desert places, “will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them” (Psalm 126:6).
And now: an addendum, and confession. Lest this all come off as too pious or political or fraught, I must tell you that when I think of “songs of joy” I do not think automatically of Psalms. Or of Mary’s song. Or of a hymn. Or of anything related to church or the Bible or such.
I think of Beyoncé.
I know, I know, you’re going to say I’m stealing a page from Isaac here, but I’m going to own (1) that my story predates his first Brittany Spears sermon and that (2) there is hearty pastoral precedent at CHMF for the ministry of pop music.
Joe and Ian were little, maybe 1 1/2 and 4. It was not long after we moved here, because our dining room table was turned at an angle specific to an early iteration of our household arrangement. It was a chilly afternoon. Everyone was up from naps. I had made banana bread and the boys were settled in for a snack. They were sitting side by side, facing the kitchen, cramming warm bread into their mouths. There was chocolate involved, warm chips smeared onto faces and fingers. Beyoncé came on the radio. The song “Halo” has a pretty infectous hook, the kind that makes you bounce. None of us had heard the song before, we didn’t know the words or the beat. I was shuffling around the kitchen, probably muttering under my breath and tired and frustrated the way one is in the afternoon. I doubt I was joyful. Until I looked up.
There they were, two chocolate faced children staring back at me over the counter eating bread and swaying from side to side in unison. Beyoncé singing, heads bobbing, small bodies dancing. It was perfect. I may be the only person on the planet who tears up every time “Halo” comes on.
But we all have our songs of joy.
Psalm 126 ends with a line about carrying home the sheaves of the harvest reaping, abundance for a community to share. Without sounding too consquentialist, let me say that in the face of sorrow: I will sow grain with you, for its own sake. And because I want sheaves.
I want blessed grain ground and baked. I want the smell of bread in the house of God. I want chocolate smeared on your face and Beyoncé playing in the background while you unselfconsciously eat and dance. I want to sing songs of joy together. Again and again and again.
God, would you help us to sow with our tears. Grow in us and in the ground of our communities places were all of your people will experience your compassion, where the hungry are filled, where the humble are lifted up. Teach us to sing. Restore our fortunes, oh God, songs of joy in our mouths.