by Rev. Lori Patton
Twenty-four years ago, as a young pastor in Iowa, I came down with laryngitis for the last two weeks of Advent and most of the Christmas season. When I tried to sing Christmas carols, no sound came out. When I tried to talk on the phone, I could only whisper. When I tried to get someone’s attention, no one could hear me. I could only listen to the conversations around me, not take part. I was reduced to writing notes, clucking my tongue, and tapping people’s shoulders, in an effort to overcome my silence and attract people’s notice.
It was terrifying — what if my voice never came back? What if no one would ever be able to hear me again? I wanted to scream with frustration, but I couldn’t.
I bring this up, because ever since that ‘silent Christmas’ I’ve wondered how many other people feel that same way – terrified, frustrated, and yet forced to remain silent? Maybe the world is full of anxious, frustrated, lost people, whose whispers go unheard. People who feel as powerless as I did that December in 1991. People who want to scream to the world, “Hey, look at me! I’m a person like you! I’m hungry, or homeless, or I just lost my job. Or my marriage is in trouble, or I’m terribly, terribly lonely. I need help! I need someone to care! Can’t you hear me?” But the world just walks on by, not hearing their voices or seeing the pain on their faces.
Maybe . . . maybe some of us here feel that way, right now, as we sing the songs and say the prayers, and somehow still don’t get our message across.
Well, the Scriptures this morning speak to a world that is full of people who are unheard, unseen, uncounted.
Ralph Ellison, in his novel Invisible Man, famously said that being black in America is like being invisible — people look right at you, but they don’t see you; they can walk into you on the street, even, and still not see you, . . . not as a person.
People can learn to tune out anything or anyone that ‘disturbs’ them. We learn to tune out the sight of homeless people on the city streets, just as we learn to tune out the sounds of traffic, or the ever-present elevator music. We learn to tune out the whispers for help from our friends and neighbors, like we even begin to tune out the sight and sound of hungry Third World children on the television commercials.
We tune them out, because, finally, we can’t think of anything we can do about it. Or, we tune them out because they don’t seem like real people to us.
It’s a terrible, soul-destroying, infuriating, and paralyzing thing, to have someone look at you and not see you, to have them dismiss you out of their mind, because you’re “just a woman”, or “just a child”, or “just another senior citizen”, or “just another immigrant”, or “just another welfare mother”, or because your skin is another color, or you have an accent when you speak, or because they don’t think you’re attractive enough or dressed well enough, or whatever. And, yet, for most of us, these are only occasional hurts — can we even imagine what it must be like to have this happen every day of your life?
In the gospel lesson for today, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth didn’t need to imagine it; they LIVED it. They were among the perpetually unseen, unheard, uncounted persons. They were members of a poor, conquered race to begin with. And most people would’ve dismissed Elizabeth as of no importance, anyway, because she was an older woman and childless, and therefore worthless (they thought) — until God chose her to be the mother of John the Baptist. And Mary, being a girl and as yet unmarried, must’ve known for all of her young life what it was like to be of no account to anyone – a girl child, a liability, and therefore expected to be neither seen nor heard. Someone who could hope to take no active role in the practice of her religion, or in anything else outside the confines of her future husband’s home. She was a girl from a small, rural town, and betrothed to a man who, though he was of the house of David, was still from among the most insignificant of the rural clans of Judah — far away from the centers of power and influence.
So, when Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” she really meant that. An angel had come to her, and suddenly she knew that she did matter, she was not invisible and silent, after all. God had seen her, God had heard her, and — what’s more — she had found favor with God. God had chosen her to bring the savior into the world, to bring life into the world, to nurture God’s son and teach him and love him.
And she sang with joy because she believed that all this was not just good news for her, personally, that henceforth all generations would call her blessed, but it was also good news for all the unseen, unheard, unimportant people of the world. All the people from small towns, all the people whose yells only seem to come out as whispers. It was proof to Mary that God’s mercy is on those who fear him. That God has and will put down the proud and the mighty, and raise up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things.
We share in Mary’s song of joy this morning, for this blessing has also been granted to us.
Unto us, the sometimes unseen and silent, the sometimes blind and deaf — unto us a child is born! A Child who has died and risen again to be living proof that God does see and hear and care for each one of us. A Child who calls us to see and hear all the children of the world, young and old, telling us that we can make a difference. God could work through Elizabeth. God could work through Mary. And God’s power can work through us.
Our voices are no longer silent, because Christ has been born to us.