The Magnificat

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me — holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors. Luke 1:46-55

Luke 1:46-55 is Mary’s song, sometimes called “The Magnificat” in Christian liturgy. “Magnificat” is the first word in the Latin version. The text itself is a poetic speech that Mary made – or a song that she sang – when she went to visit Elizabeth, a member of her extended family. In her song (for we will call it that), Mary praised God for what he was doing in her life. She was miraculously pregnant, and she believed that the child she was carrying would one day deliver Israel and reign on David’s throne forever. She believed this because that’s what an angel told her.

“All generations will call me blessed,” Luke records Mary as saying. How the church should honor Mary is a matter of some dispute among Christians. We Protestants, however, are not paying attention to the scriptures if we ignore Mary and her place in the gospel story. Luke honors Mary, and seems to expect that Christians down through the ages will do the same. He portrays Mary as the model believer and ideal disciple. Her faithful obedience sets the example for all of us to follow.

Mary’s song reveals something that the words do not explicitly say. Mary went to church – well, she went to the assembly we call synagogue and to the temple – where she heard the Torah story of Abraham, and the words of the prophets and the rhythms of the Psalms, and she believed them. Her song reveals a familiarity with the scriptures of Israel that could only come through repeated hearing of the word.

This is an important point for two reasons.

First, as the word of God becomes more deeply ingrained in our lives, it shapes our responses to everything that happens around us and to us. In that sense, we need to be like Mary. We need the word of God to become an ingrained part of our way of thinking and living.

But second, where would we be If, two thousand years ago, a Galilean synagogue had not been a place that a poor teenage girl could sit and listen to the word of God? It was hearing the God’s word in the community of faith that prepared Mary for the work God was going to do in her. Our churches, too, need to be places where all of God’s people can come so that God might prepare them for the work he wants to do in them.

In her song, Mary praised God for what he did for her. “The mighty one has done great things for me,” she proclaimed. We may wonder about that. A young girl. Engaged. Pregnant. There is no hint anywhere in Luke that Mary questioned God’s intentions. God was doing something miraculous and wonderful in her for the good of all God’s people. Mary glorified the Lord and rejoiced. What else should one do in those circumstances?

“The mighty one has done great things for me.” Mary’s song begins where most sermons end. We all want to know what God is going to do for us! We want sermons that tell us the personal benefit of being good Christians. When we pray, we pray for ourselves. When we give thanks, we thank God for what he has done for us individually. We want to be able to say what Mary says. “The mighty one has done great things for me.”

Even Mary’s “personal” thanksgiving, however, was not purely individualistic. God recognized her “humiliation,” she said. Let me put it plainly. Mary was poor. It was a humiliation that she shared with other sons and daughters of Abraham. Israel, as an entity, was living in “humble estate,” an impoverished and oppressed state of existence. This was a situation that faithful Jews believed that God would someday remedy. In the second part of her song, Mary praised God for what he was also doing for the other sons and daughters of Abraham who shared her poverty and powerlessness.

The last part of Mary’s song looks both forward and backward, and connects what God was doing in and for Mary with what he was doing for the entire world. Mary’s song looks backward to God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. What God did for Mary is part of the one great covenant story of Israel. Mary was a part, and we are part, of something that God began long ago. Mary’s song also looks forward to the consummation of all things, when the godless kingdoms of this world will be overthrown and God’s faithful are freed to live as God intended. The downtrodden are lifted up. The hungry have plenty to eat. Mary believed that what God was doing in her and for her was part of the larger work of God. She believed the angel’s promise that “the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

My favorite hymns are like that. They lift up God’s great acts in history and among the faithful. They tell what God has done for the world, and what he is going to do. Praise that is truly Biblical never goes, “me, me, me and Jesus, that’s all that matters to me.” True praise looks outward at what God is doing in the world as much as it looks inward at what God is doing for me.

Luke frequently mentions the poor. For Luke, the social transformation that God will bring about when the kingdom comes is an important part of the story of Jesus. If we don’t understand that, we do not understand the gospel.

The world that Mary’s song envisions has not yet come into existence. The poor are still with us. Injustice is still with us. So what do we do? Do we not worry about it and figure God will put things right someday? Are poverty and injustice and all the other things wrong with this world God’s problem, not ours? Or, do we attack the problem head on? Fix Washington? Occupy Wall Street? In Jesus era, the options were:

  • the Zealots, who wanted to go to war with Rome and establish the kingdom by force.
  • the Sadducees who, were happy enough to enjoy the benefits of going along with Rome. Things are the way they are. Life’s tough for some folks.
  • the Pharisees, who said that God would put everything right after the resurrection of the dead, but let’s not make too many waves right now.

Fixing things here and now was not high on the priority lists of the last two groups. Jesus came along, though, and offered a fourth option. Jesus gathered a group of disciples whom he taught to live the kingdom life among themselves in anticipation of what God would do in the future. That’s what the church still does. Maybe not in exactly the same way as the first disciples experienced, but the church’s life is meant to be a foretaste of the age to come.

Did you notice that Mary talked about these future events as if they had already happened? That’s faith! That’s what the church believes! In Jesus, the future is already breaking into the present. The church that can see the world through Mary’s eyes sees the future kingdom when it gathers to break bread in Jesus’ name, when it listens to the word of God and puts it into practice, and when it cares for those broken and wounded by the world.

The question that Mary’s song poses for the church is quite simple. Is the church a place in which the poor and the lowly and the downtrodden will experience a taste of the coming kingdom? If not, we still have a ways to go. How is it possible that the church today, which bears the name of Jesus Christ, might have no use for someone like Mary, the poor but faithful servant of the Lord who believed the promise of God?

Let It Be
Joseph’s Family Honor