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The Magnificat

“Among those born of women,” Jesus says, as if that doesn’t include every single human person who has ever lived. “Among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the [reign] of heaven is greater than he.” So Jesus is regarding John the Baptist as very important, very much worth listening to, and John is also human and born of a woman.

Which seems a little weird to point out. Is this a reminder that John is indeed human, born the same way as everybody else? Is this a way to mention women and their role as mothers, having babies and raising kids, and some of those kids, I suppose, will become leaders or even prophets?

The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus himself ever mentioned anything about his own birth. Jesus never says, “Well we all know where I started: born in a stable, sleeping in a feed-box!” His birth story just isn’t the focus of his ministry on earth, so he doesn’t dwell there. But did he know his own story? And if he did, who would have told him? Probably his mother.

No one remembers their own birth, but this is why it’s so great to have people in your life who remember the time before you were born—whether your mother told you where she was when she started feeling labor pains, or your father remembered the weird things your mother ate while she was pregnant with you, or how happy your parents were on the day they first met you, or how an older sibling felt about a new baby coming home.

One way or another, we all got born somehow, and one way or another, whether we were adopted or conceived with the help of science or whoever raised us or cared for us along the way, here we are. There are so many ways that families can become families, and that is holy and sacred stuff. But humans are still pretty much born the same way as they ever have been, involving sex cells and a uterus and some number of weeks—there’s a lot of holiness and a lot of mystery there too.

Jesus gives at least some credit to women for giving birth, for people who have a uterus where a baby can begin to grow and take shape—what would it be like to listen to them? Women don’t always get a voice in Scripture, but we really love this Magnificat of Mary.

The story of the Magnificat comes from Luke’s Gospel, when Mary has been visited by an angel who tells her she will become pregnant because of a miracle from God, even though Mary has not physically done anything to get pregnant. Then within a couple of months, Mary is off to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who is also miraculously pregnant in her own old age.

The women are both so astounded they are pregnant in these miraculous situations, that Mary just bursts into song—“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!” She goes on to praise God, to give thanks for God’s mercy, to proclaim God’s strength for bringing down those who are powerful and lifting up those who are lowly and humble, for feeding the hungry and letting the rich go away unfed, for saving Israel and remembering the promise to her ancestors.

We call this song the Magnificat because of its Latin translation, and it is part of the liturgy of evening prayer which is sung by faithful Christians around the world all throughout the year. We especially like to highlight this song during Advent, recalling the miracle stories of Jesus’s birth and giving thanks for Mary’s obedience in doing God’s will, and her strength for carrying a pregnancy sure to bring her social difficulties, if not social rejection.

Mary can easily become a character to imprint our ideas about what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a good mother. And it’s easy for us, with a couple thousand years of hindsight, to just assume that Mary always expected everything in her pregnancy would go well, that it was simply a given that she would not experience a miscarriage or some complication would arise during labor and she might die before meeting the baby she carried.

For thousands of years of human history, it was not uncommon for women to die during or soon after childbirth. Medical advances only recently have made maternal mortality less common in our time, though maternal mortality is still stubbornly high in some places in the world, including in the United States and disproportionately affecting communities of color and lower socioeconomic power. How many of Mary’s friends died while trying to bring babies into the world? Was Mary ever afraid?

Pregnancy is not simple just as life is not simple. For a woman to share her body with a human growing inside them, this is a tremendous gift and sacrifice, and empowering and bewildering and magical and confounding and humbling and nerve-wracking—all the emotions. I wondered this week what it would be like to listen to women who are pregnant right now, right here in our community. Turns out, our congregation has more than one pregnant woman, and I spoke with two of them this week.

Both of them are glad to be pregnant, with supportive partners who are excited about having a baby. These families are in various stages of planning and preparing for what’s ahead, counting the weeks and looking at the calendar; one of these women is preparing her toddler for a little sibling to come along. They’re thinking about labor and recovery, as well as childcare expenses and all the changes to come in their household.

Both of these women are white, they’re educated, and they’re confident they can get the health care they need to carry these pregnancies, but they are also both very aware that they live in Missouri, where abortion laws limit women’s access to health care. One woman said she’s very aware now that if something goes wrong with the pregnancy, she and her partner would have to be their own medical advocates. Even though neither of these women nor their partners want an abortion to happen, they understand that complications can arise, affecting the life of the baby or the life of the mother herself, which could leave these women in life-threatening danger.

One of these women told me she’s already had trouble filling a prescription to ease her nausea—which is a common experience during pregnancy—but because a doctor was exceptionally cautious about possible complications for the baby, and possibly also nervous about appearing reckless in a state where the death of a fetus could result in…who knows? Criminal charges? It was difficult for this pregnant woman to get her nausea medication. The changes in laws regarding abortion have created such confusion for doctors trying to treat their patients, and pregnant women end up suffering for this. This is real life right now.

Also, both women, during their pregnancies, have experienced a powerful sense of closeness to God, in the sense of feeling incredibly loved and valued as a human being with her own autonomy, experiencing God as a safe space of comfort. They expressed amazement at the power of their bodies to create and to nurture life, to overcome discomfort, to continue exercising and also to feel incredibly fatigued.

Both women mentioned feeling closer to Mary, the mother of Jesus—one said, “Mary’s a person, too!” One said the experience of pregnancy and the difficulty of postpartum recovery made her appreciate that Mary feels the human pains and discomforts and still praises God, “in her pain, she is still worshipping.”

Mary points us to a God who is always present, making space for miracles and meeting us in our very human-ness. There must be something significant, maybe even sacred about our being born of women, that God is with us as God has been busy creating and God has been giving power to women for all these generations. Jesus stepped into human history not as a fully-formed adult man but as a toddling child, quite possibly holding onto the fingers of his mother.

And Jesus didn’t stop holding on—he laid hands on the sick, he healed people, he brought good news to the poor. Jesus continues to call us, too, into God’s presence, where we too can be healed and restored, where we can bear witness to miracles all around us.

I asked our pregnant women what they need from their community, so, Community, listen carefully: here are some things they said. I want to be able to make choices for my own body, and I want people to vote. I want help with childcare when our child gets sick or the daycare is closed but we don’t have any other family close by. I want people to give gifts that will enrich our child’s life, like money for college, instead of toys or stuff they won’t use.

These are mothers who long to nurture life, which sounds a lot like the same things God hopes for each of us. We are expecting miracles.


Pastor Cheryl


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