Sing We Now of Christmas: Mary’s Song
Today our scripture brings us three vignettes, woven together. First, Mary is visited by God's messenger Gabriel, who tells her that she is favored, and that she will give birth to a son, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, who is the Son of the Most High. He tells her nothing is impossible with God. Mary has a couple of questions, naturally, but ends by saying, ʺI am God's servant – let it be with me as you have said.ʺ Next, we see Mary travel to visit her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman who is also pregnant. Elizabeth is pregnant with John, who we know as John the Baptist. Mary visits her, and when Elizabeth sees her, John in her womb seems to leap for joy, and Elizabeth calls Mary and the child she carries blessed. And, she concludes, blessed is she who believes that there will be a fulfillment of God's promises. Finally, we find Mary’s song, what we call the Magnificat, a joyful response at what God has chosen to do, through her, for all people.
You know, of course, that I love music, but I must admit that the books of the Bible that are considered song – like the Psalms – are really not my favorite. The poetry, Psalms and Proverbs and Song of Songs, and the poems and hymns sprinkled throughout the scriptures – most books of the Bible contain some hymns or poetry – Paul’s letters, the law, the prophets, the gospels. So I love music, and it’s not that I don’t like poetry. I do, I really like poetry. I even went through some angsty times in junior high where I tried to write poetry! Bad poetry, that you could probably use to blackmail me with rather than me let someone read it, but poetry nonetheless.
It’s just that, frankly, I don’t usually find the poetry of the scriptures particularly moving. I know that many people love the Psalms in particular, and I do have a couple of favorites, but if I were in charge, I might have cut the collection down to about 25 instead of a hefty 150 entries. My tendency when reading poetry in the Bible is to skim – quickly glance over the words. But I’m not sure poetry is meant to be read this way. Poetry is meant to be savored, word by carefully chosen word.
But one song in the Bible I love – Mary’s song – this Magnificat – the first song in the New Testament – the first justice song of the gospel. I love Mary’s song. Mary responds to her visit with Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s words about Mary being blessed among women with a song – a song that today we call “The Magnificat” because Mary begins by saying that her soul magnifies the Lord. She sings about rejoicing in God because God has chosen her, even though she is lowly. She believes she will be called blessed by all generations because of what God is doing for her. Mary goes on to describe God as merciful and strong. She talks about God scattering those who are proud and powerful and rich in earthly things, and instead favoring those who are without all these earthly things. And she finishes her song by saying that God is helping her because God remembers the promise made to her people, the promise that lasts forever.
“My soul magnifies the Lord.” That is how Mary begins her song. The word in this context means to make great, to exalt, but we most often use the word ‘magnify’ when we’re talking about making something bigger. We use a magnifying glass to help us better see something that’s otherwise too small. Something magnified is something that has been enlarged, made bigger, easier to see. In Mary’s case, she is saying that her soul magnifies God. In other words, Mary, her soul, her spirit, is making God larger, more visible. I think these are pretty daring things for Mary to sing about. She can clearly see herself, even though she is a woman in a male-centered society, even though she is very young, even though she is unwed, even though she is pregnant and in a risky situation, she can clearly see herself as a powerful person – made powerful by God’s action in her life and her willingness to respond – and a person who has the power then to magnify God for others, to make God more visible by serving as a vessel for God, a disciple for God.
Mary trusts that God would choose someone like her because she sees that God is always using unlikely people. Throughout Mary’s song, she makes reference to God being a God who cherishes the weak, the lowly, the hungry, the otherwise overlooked. In fact, her song is similar to another song in the scriptures: the song that Hannah sings to thank God after she finally gives birth to Samuel in the Old Testament. Hannah was barren, and prayed for a child. When she finally had Samuel, she delivered him to the temple to serve God, and she sang a song of thanks where she talked about God lifting up the lowly and overlooked. Mary, like Hannah, understands that God who is her Savior is a God who turns the tables, who looks out for the weak first, giving power to those who are powerless, and humbling those who would exalt themselves. Mary believes that God has looked at her and seen faithfulness, looked at her, and seen a servant, looked at her, and given favor and blessing. Mary believes, trusts, that in her, God is fulfilling a promise long-spoken, a promise that God would redeem God’s people. Because Mary believes this, she doesn’t shrink or cower from the great, mysterious, practically unbelievable news that Gabriel brings to her. Instead, she rejoices in the news. She lives the news – sings it. Mary’s soul will magnify God – her actions, her carrying of the Christ child will make it easier for the whole world to see God, because through Mary, the whole world will have access to a God who is this close to us, close enough to touch, close enough to carry in our hearts. Mary magnifies God for us, and so we can see this larger-than-life God, contained in a tiny baby.
We, too, are meant to magnify God with our souls. By our lives, by our witness, by our response to our experience of God, we are called to make God more visible to the world. That means that like Mary, we must understand the power that we have as human beings. A bit of prose from author Marianne Williamson: She writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” We’re created in God’s image, born to “make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”
That’s a powerful task we have in our hands. The question isn’t whether or not we have power, but what we’ll do with it. When God calls us, we should boldly respond, because God knows us, and knows how very much we are capable of, and we have responsibility and power given to us. Others, by our actions, can learn something about who God is, what kind of God we serve. What will people learn about God from you? You have the ability to magnify God – to make God larger for others, easier for others to know and see and draw near to. How big can you make God? How much can you let your life work to make God visible to others?
Finally, it means that we must learn something about what can happen to the world if we really take Mary’s song to heart. As I was reading about the Magnificat, I discovered that during the 1980s, the dictators of Guatemala actually outlawed the public reading of the Magnificat because of its “revolutionary tones” – indeed, Mary talks about a change in the world order that would certainly upset the way things work. The words of a pregnant young woman, spoken two-thousand years ago, banned, because of the power, revolutionary power in them. What might happen if we speak the truths that we know with boldness? When we work together with God, when we let God use us, and when we trust that in us, God can fulfill promises, even in us – when we let others see God more clearly because of us, we can actually change the world.
How big can we make God? My soul magnifies the Lord! Amen.