Bible Text: Luke 1:46-55 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
In the summer of 2002 I was completing my field placement in Prehistoric Archaeology at Discovery Harbour in Penetanguishene, a small community on the shores of Georgian Bay. Each day on our drive from our camp in Midland we would pass the Martyrs Shrine a huge cathedral in the middle of nowhere. Directly across the street was another archaeological site, St. Marie Among the Hurons. Throughout the summer we were able to stop in and visit both of these historical sites. St. Marie Among the Hurons was Ontario’s first European community. It was originally constructed in 1639 for the Huron or Wendat peoples and French settlers by Jesuit missionaries. At the Martyrs Shrine one can find the remains of these 8 Jesuits including St. Jean de Brebeuf, the author of the Huron Carol. He was the first Jesuit missionary to the region and he became a master of the Huron language.
The Huron carol is Canada’s first Christmas Carol and older than many well known carols such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Joy to the World and Silent Night. It is sung to the tune of a French folk song, Une Jeune Pucell. When Brebeuf wrote the carol he of course adapted the story of Jesus’ birth to fit his context. God’s name is Gitchi Manitou, the wise men are chiefs, shepherds are hunters, swaddling clothes are rabbit skin and the stable is a lodge. Many of us know parts of the story of the Huron Carol and it has been romanticized over the years. We all picture a Jesuit priest in his cassock robe, sitting by a desk at candle light jotting down his inspiring words for a people whose language and culture he was just learning.
However, the truth is that this hymn took over a decade to write, starting in 1626. Brebeuf and the other French settlers found those first winters very difficult. They found themselves without food come mid-winter. There was also concerns that since the Jesuit’s arrival the native population where experiencing the destructive and fatal introduction of new diseases. Finally in the winter of 1642, Brebeuf wrote in his journal that the Wendat were feeling a connection to Christmas. They were particularly captivated by the story of Jesus’ birth. A small chapel of cedar and fir branches was built and housed a small manger scene. In the middle of this harsh, hard experience Brebeuf was able to write a hymn that has lasted through the ages.
By the late 1640s tensions between the Wendat and Iroquois or Haudenosaunee grew. The Wendat were attacked in 1649 at St. Marie Among the Hurons and the Jesuit and French settlers were forced to abandon their community. Brebeuf, however, refused to leave the people to whom he had ministered for so many years. He was captured and martyred six miles from the settlement.
Although we have this peaceful image it is a startling end to the story. We often treat Jesus’ birth in the same way. Imagine being a teenaged, unwed, mother. Imagine being an apprentice carpenter with little money to spare. Imagine being forced to walk the 111 km journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem while pregnant. I imagine that the nativity story is not as romantic as we often make it out to be. But in the middle of this frightful, difficult, and tumultuous experience Mary finds joy and sings a song. It is a song that speaks to her people’s context, history, language and experience. It is also a demonstration of ultimate praise.
We know that Mary was extremely poor because in her song she calls herself lowly. The Greek term tapeinōsin actually means not only humble but absolute poverty. Mary is dirt poor, pregnant and unmarried. Under any other circumstance she would be in a real mess and likely convicted to death and yet Mary sings!
What makes this the ultimate example of praise is that her magnificat moves from the deeply personal to the explicitly political. It moves from an internal praise, that God has lifted up a lowly servant, to a hymn of thanksgiving for the redemption of all, God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. Mary not only sings a song about her own destiny but a freedom song on behalf of all the faithful in the land. She sings to God’s divine relationship for not only herself but for all. One commentator wrote, “Mary keeps singing, ranging high on her scales of praise, soaring in her expectant and revolutionary libretto, because God has reached so unexpectedly down to where the least and the lowly still struggle for life.”
Mary’s song is almost a complete reflection of Hannah’s song found in 1 Samuel 2. It is a song that the Hebrew people knew well and would have understood. This is an important connection because Luke has carefully included these words to link the trials of the Israelite people to the birth of Christ. It is a retelling of a familiar story of struggle to a people who otherwise would not understand. Mary or rather Luke, uses the language of the people to tell them exactly what God has in store for them.
We come to the table today knowing the story. However, I wonder what it looks like to the outsider. Firstly, instead of a sacred moment it looks more like a ritual. Secondly, instead of feast it looks like a measly piece of bread and tiny cup of juice. How would you tell or explain this story to a people who may not understand the liturgical language? What song would be on your heart? When we come to the table remember that God has the ability to place a song of praise, of joy, in our hearts even when things seem dire, even when struggles are expected, even when it appears that joy is no where to be found. Mary’s soul bursts with yearning for God, who has intimately chosen her but has also declared that her child will change the world. How will your soul burst with joy this season?
That is the ultimate praise we should be giving to God- not only do we give thanks for our individual relationship but thanks for the community of believers–not only do we lose control and sing our hearts out but we also have humble moments, like coming to Christ’s table, in which our hearts and souls are fed by God’s love. What a joy it is to be God’s people.