Homily for the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord
Not too long ago, I was discussing the importance of lullabies with a friend of mine. He said his mother sang him songs by the Beatles, and now those songs are deeply embedded in his DNA, they are part of his soul.
His comments touched off a cataract of memories for others who shared tender moments of the songs their mothers and fathers sang to them, and how those songs often still beat at the center of their souls and even bring warmth or tender tears at the memory.
The songs we sing matter in this world. Music has this uncanny way of joining people together, strangers and even foes. Songs shape the soul, and I think most of the theological work done in our worship is done not in the words we speak or the sermons we preach, but in the songs we sing.
Every nation has its songs. It’s national anthems, both official and unofficial. But there are other songs, deeper songs that speak to the soul of a country, songs that, like the lullabies of our infancies, are part of our national DNA. And those are the ones we ought to be paying close attention to in the wake of the white supremacist attack in Chartlottesville.
You see, because the songs of white supremacy have been sung in this country since its inception, while the United States was still being born. I think it’s time to be honest about that. Theses weren’t the only songs, of course, but for much of our history, they were sung, full-throated, in the three-fifths compromise, the institution of chattel slavery, in the very economy which enriched so many but was propped up and rested on the whip-scarred backs of slaves. They were sung in the transforming of slavery into a prison system which criminalized skin color, in disenfranchisement, in the sanctioned lynching of Black people. They were sung by presidents, governors, and congressmen, in laws of Jim Crow segregation, in Sundown Towns, in racist slurs treated as common speech, in experiments on black bodies. The tune was tapped out in the crackle of flames in burning crosses, from under white hoods, in the snarls of police dogs and water cannons. The songs of white supremacy were sung in bombs, planted in churches, in houses of worships set afire, to the melody of hatred.
After a time, these songs were sung more quietly, in whispers and code words. It was a tune we all knew but few dared to speak the words aloud. So they were whistled instead. The songs of white supremacy were whistled and hummed in white flight and in redlining real estate, in the incarceration of generations of black men for crimes they did not commit and punishing them for the ones they did with the greater severity. They were sung in knowing glances when a black family moved into a predominantly white neighborhood; they were hummed in the devastated wake of Hurricane Katrina where black people were abandoned in the midst of floodwaters tightening around the stranded like a noose.
But because it was a hum and not a chorus as before, it became easy for many to overlook the songs of white supremacy singing in the veins of a nation, to believe they had been silenced. But it has been the soundtrack of the nation. It’s why what happened Charlottesville can’t be dismissed as ‘un-American.’ It’s simply a different verse of the same old, terrible song.
As the Christian prophet Martin Luther King, Jr., has said, “For the good of America it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country even today is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.”
In the past several years, it cannot be denied that the songs of white supremacy have been building toward a terrible crescendo. The songs have grown louder, the melody more ominous, the force of the chords more deliberate and awful. They have been sung by assassins in churches in Charleston and in cars on the streets of Charlottesville. They have been sung by white people marching and without masks. They have been sung once again in the highest offices of our nation.The song of white supremacy, once a hum in the background, now a siren calling to the angry and hateful, are being sung again in our city streets.
But the songs of white supremacy were sung, perhaps most loudly, when whites, who would not sing the songs of white supremacy nevertheless refused to sing the songs of liberation.
Today we were called to sing again the ancient song of liberation, the Song of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is perhaps the most clear and piercing song of liberation ever penned, and, maybe even more than Jesus’ own words and teachings, outlines the vision for beloved community in Jesus, the kingdom of God.
It was the song Mary sang to Jesus, while he was still in the womb. It was the song she sang to Jesus when he was weeping, and hungry, and upset, as they stole across the desert to flee a despot. It was the song she soothed him with, a vision of humanity in which the poor are lifted up, the hungry fed, the wealthy and full sent away. It was the song she sang his whole life, with love and awe as he did amazing things, with tears and sorrow as he was crucified, with astounded relief when he was resurrected. It was the song at the heart of who she was, the melody of her soul, the lyrics of her life.
And it was the song Jesus sang, too. You can hear it reverberate throughout his life, her lullaby of the revolution of love and justice echoing in every teaching, every story, every miracle, every confrontation in a house of worship, and in every ragged breath on the cross.
You see, Mary didn’t sing her son in a time of peace, of calm, and of comfort. She sang it in the midst of oppression, pain, poverty, and uncertainty. In other words, she sang her song at a moment not unlike our own today
So as tempting to look at the events of the weekend with helplessness and despair, that is not a luxury we have at this moment or a luxury we have as Christians called to hope and action and song. Instead, today, I’d like us to remember that our faith, even while Jesus was still in the womb, has been singing a different song, a song of liberation and of good news.
It has been a chorus sung by throngs of Christians throughout history and it is the counter-song to the current white supremacy. When we sing that song, we join with a great cloud of witnesses: abolitionists and engineers of the Underground Railroad, Civil Rights heroes and advocates, the hundreds of counterprotestors in Charlottesville, many of them clergy in vestments, and the martyrs of liberation, like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, the Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist we remembered yesterday as a church killed in the 1960s by a white supremacist in Alabama, and Heather Heyer, the woman killed in 2017 by a white supremacist in Charlottesville.
Theirs is the song we are called to join with and to sing in the world — the song of the gospel, the kingdom of God. There’s a song in our hymnal, too, that I think represents this: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson. Sometimes referred to as the Black National Anthem, cherished as a part of the Civil Rights Movement, it too is part of the DNA of our country, too. Written by a black man, it tells the story of liberation from slavery and has been sung by African Americans for the better part of a century. It is as unflinching about the evils of the past as it is about the hope of the future, so long as we keep singing together.
It is a different verse, set in and for these times, of the same song Mary sang, the song of liberation.
Johnson writes, “Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies, let it resound as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us, facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till the victory is one.”
May it be for us a symbol of the song we will sing with our whole lives as we depart from here, to sing the holy and righteous songs of God’s kingdom to drown out and overwhelm the songs of evil and harm where they are in our world.
Sermon delivered at Eucharist, Aug. 15, 2017, Trinity Episcopal, Asheville, N.C.
Image Credit: Rodney Dunning/Used under C.C.