Maisha I. Handy, Guest Cultural Resource Commentator
Assistant Professor of Christian Education, Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, GA
Lection - Isaiah 11:1-5 & Luke 1:26-33 (New Revised Standard Version)
The fourth Sunday of advent, which has as its focus the principle of love, brings great hope at the coming of the messiah, or the “anointed one,” anticipated by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Some churches light the Advent candle representing love as a symbolic act recognizing God’s steadfast faithfulness to God’s people. The prophets of old claimed their voices and dared to speak of a child who would be the unexpected liberator of the people. They brought words of challenge and a message of hope and love. This messiah will be righteous and just, preaching a gospel of radical inclusion and a beloved community. How should we respond to the imminent birth of the Christ child? How should we prepare for the celebration of his coming?
First, we must begin with Mary’s story. As we remember the visitation of Mary, it is important to emphasize several aspects of her story. Mary is an unlikely choice. She is an impoverished woman from the small town of Nazareth located north of Galilee. The women of her culture are largely disempowered by both their own ethnic groups and by the dominant culture. As Michael J. Brown notes, “…we should not overlook those whose voices are not heard and who have no agency whatsoever, like Mary. Joseph is allowed to make his own decision. Mary, however, is at the mercy of others. We know nothing of her suffering, except through the eyes of Joseph.”1
Luke’s account in chapter one places Mary at the center of the narrative, declaring her to be the “Theotokos,” or “God-bearer.” In the midst of subjugation and marginalization, she is resilient. Though called “blessed,” she endures being a pregnant, unmarried teen, traveling while greatly with child. Mary represents the bearing of hope in the midst of hopelessness and the ability to dream big while all around you is an environment of subjugation.
Jesus was born into a family that was part of an oppressed group living under the rule of the Roman Empire. As Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder notes, African Americans connect with the themes in the Jesus story of oppression and suffering, understanding theology not simply as functioning for personal spiritual growth and development, but for collective socio-political and economic enrichment.2 Therefore, our preparations for Jesus’ coming must include our cultural traditions of protest, hope, and empowerment. As we take this journey with Mary and Joseph, we should remember to “lift every voice,” making every attempt to stay connected to the preparations of past generations and their various forms of protest and resilience. All things are still possible with God but we must do our part too.
Second, God does hear and respond to the prayers of God’s people. God is faithful to God’s promises! Jesus represents the answer to the prayers of a people suffering under an empire. When we are faithful to God and humanity, and as we lift our voices, we can expect God to provide vision and direction for a hopeful present and future.
Finally, what does Mary’s story compel us to do? How does it inform our sense of self and collective identity? The story of Mary should never be de-politicized or divorced from the ideologies that shaped her reality. The witness of the Civil Rights Movement is the relationship between the active resistance and the projected vision of a more just future. We must maintain the relationship between praise and protest, between waiting and watching, as part of our preparation and emphasis on love and hope.
II. Intergenerational Interactive Activities
Storytelling is a powerful oral tradition. In her book Soul Stories, Anne E.S. Wimberly notes the importance of what she calls “story-linking,” a four-step process of storytelling.3 Wimberly contends that if Christian education is to be deeply meaningful and lasting, Christians should link the Christian story, their own personal stories, and the stories of their heritage, in order to make ethical decisions based upon principles emerging from these linked stories. This story-linking process can be implemented in various ways. Below are suggestions for engaging culture through storytelling during the Advent season and beyond.
(A) “Son of Man,” the Movie
The film “Son of Man,”4 the first South African film to appear at the Sundance film festival, is a politicized retelling of the Jesus story cast in South Africa. The film opens with Mary seeking shelter in a schoolhouse during a bloody civil war. While in hiding, she is visited by the angel Gabriel, depicted as a child, who tells her that she will give birth to the son of God. This film goes on to depict Jesus born in a shanty town, growing up to be a radical leader.
Churches should offer a showing of the DVD and develop either a bible study series, or a discussion/forum on the film. For a one-day study/event in keeping with emphasis on the Fourth Sunday of advent, show clips from the film that focus on Mary’s experiences. If more time is afforded, show the entire film.
Sample questions for critical dialogue:
Examine the following characters: Mary, Jesus, Gabriel, and the Disciples. How are the characters in the film similar or different from your understanding of these biblical figures?
Provide responses to Mary’s annunciation.
How is the larger community in the film similar or different from the past and current African American community?
What in the “Son of Man” movie do we understand as similar to our own historical experiences? What is similar to our own personal experiences?
What does Mary’s experience teach us about how we should respond to the coming Christ child?
(B) A Forum on King’s Beloved Community
Expanding the Fourth Sunday of Advent focus on love, organize a church/community forum on Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.’s understanding of the Beloved Community. Draw parallels between King’s prophetic voice and vision of hope with the voices of the Hebrew Bible prophets who foretold of the Christ child. As an act of storytelling, listen to an excerpt from one of King’s speeches or have volunteers read it aloud. Be sure to include the voices and contributions of all age groups.
Sample questions for critical dialogue:
Given the current struggles in the African American community related to incarceration, HIV/AIDS, economics, racism, sexism, and violence, etc., what does King’s “beloved community” look like currently? How is it created? What radical changes are necessary?
While the African American community has made notable progress, we still have a long way to go. President Barack Obama noted in his acceptance speech that we all have critical roles to play in ameliorating the ills of our society. It is not the lone task of any one individual. What are some of the problems/issues that still need to be addressed? How can you help address them? How can your church help address them? How can other groups in your community help address them?
Based upon the size of the group, divide participants into smaller intergenerational groups. Ask the small groups to formulate specific, meaningful solutions (with time-lines and budgets) that address one of the societal ills named in response to the previous question. Each group should address a different issue. Then, have all groups reassemble and have the body select one issue upon which it would like to collectively focus for the next twelve months.
(C) Testimony Worship Service/Ring Shout
Testimony services have served a central role in the development and thriving of many African American churches. They have also served as a source of empowerment for women like Mary whose daily struggles were largely unknown. Elders and youth alike should share stories of challenge and triumph, encouraging other congregants present. Engage in a worship service that centers on testimony as an act of storytelling. Using the lectionary texts as the scripture readings, encourage participants to tell personal stories that resonate with the biblical narratives.
The testimony service can also take the shape of a ring shout. Participants stand in a circle with a liturgist or preacher in the center directing the flow of the testimonials. The ring shout should include congregational songs, hymns, chants, dance, and instrumentation as would a traditional church testimony service.
III. Musical Resources for the Moment
(A) “Four Women,” by Nina Simone, is a dynamic tune offering short but potent descriptions of four black women with various stories and circumstances. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, these women live through struggles due to internal and external oppressive realities.
My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
Inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAH
My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is SAFFRONIA
My skin is tan,
My hair is alright its fine
My hips invite you daddy
and my mouth is like wine
Whose little girl am I?
it is yours if you have some money to buy
What do they call me
My name is SWEET THING
they call me Sweet Thing
My skin is brown
and my manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see
'cause my life has to been too rough
I'm awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES!5
(B)Recommended Hymns and Congregational Songs
“Standing on the Promises.” Text by R. Kelso Carter
“Love Lifted Me.” Text by James Rowe
“Walk With Me Lord.” Version - South African
“Have Faith in God.” Traditional
(C) Suggested Sermonic Selections for Gospel Choirs and Ensembles
“I Am God.” By Donald Lawrence
“Freedom.” By Youthful Praise
“I Opened My Mouth.” By Tunesha Crispell
For additional songs and worship aids for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, please see the worship unit for the Fourth Sunday of Advent for Year One (go to the archive) and Year Two.
IV. Audio/Visual Aid
Use an Image of Mary as a pregnant woman or images of teenage girls who are pregnant
V. Book Resources
Blount, Brian K., Ed. True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.
Weems, Renita J. “Reading Her Way Through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible.” Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. Cain Hope Felder, Ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991.
Washington, James M., Ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1991.
Wimberly, Anne E.S. Soul Stories: African American Christian Education. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Publishers, 1994.
1. Brown, Michael Joseph. “The Gospel of Matthew.” True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Ed. Blount, Brian K., Cain Hope Felder, Clarice Jannette Martin, and Emerson B. Powery. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007. p. 88.
2. Crowder, Stephanie Buckhanon. “The Gospel of Luke.” True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. p. 158.
3. Wimberly, Anne E.S. Soul Stories: African American Christian Education. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Publishers, 1994. p. 39.
4. “Son of Man.” Dir. Mark Dornford-May. Spier Films. London, 2005.
5. Simone, Nina. “Four Women.”