Mary’s Magnificat

09 Dec Mary’s Magnificat

December 8, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church

Lullabies are a time-honored tradition when it comes to soothing fussy babies.  There is something about a parent’s voice that can bring a sense of peace—or “lull,” as the word suggests—to help a little one drift into sleep.  It doesn’t work every time or with every baby, of course, but it turns out that there is real science behind the apparent influence of music and a mother’s voice on the development of a child, and that power extends to the womb before a child takes his or her first breath in the world.

Studies have shown, for example, that babies in utero can sense audio vibrations and rhythms early in pregnancy—so much so that the baby is able to recognize the parents’ voices right after birth.  When a mom sings to her unborn child, particularly when she sings the same song over and over, the maternal crooning can lower the fetal heart rate.  The data suggests that even reading a story many times to an unborn child can result in a newborn’s preference for that story throughout childhood.  Put another way, a song or story can imprint a child’s mind even before he or she is born.  A familiar song or story, sung and repeated over and over, can have a lasting influence.

Christmas carols are some of the most familiar songs we sing, and Luke tells us that before Jesus was born, while he was still in utero, his mother, Mary, sang one of the first Christmas carols ever composed.  It is a song of praise to the Lord which we now know as the Magnificat from the Latin of the first line in Luke 1:47: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  But have you ever considered how this song, sung by Mary while Jesus was in her womb, set the stage for the mission that Mary’s divine and human Son would undertake?  Could her singing have been the early imprint that reinforced all that he was about to do?  Could this first Christmas carol have been the song to which he returned when under stress or when he needed assurance that, despite the opposition, he was doing the work God had ordained for him from the beginning?

If you’re waiting for the arrival of a baby, you know it’s going to take nine months, give or take a bit.  That’s a lot of time for prenatal singing.  The song that Mary sings is a derivation of one that God’s people had been singing for a long time, hoping for the birth of a Savior who would come and set things right.  The announcement of the Savior’s coming went deep into Israel’s history—all the way back to Abraham.

So, Mary sings, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (1:54-55).  

God promised Abraham that from his family, all the families of the world would be blessed.  From his family came a nation called Israel, whom God rescued from slavery in Egypt and gave a promised land.  There, God established a king, David, and promised David that one of his descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever and establish God’s justice and mercy and peace—in other words, God’s kingdom—for the entire world.

But Abraham’s family and David’s kingdom both crumbled under the weight of sin.  What could have been beautiful became broken because of their disobedience and rejection of God.  The result was a people who were exiled, occupied, and enslaved not only by the foreign powers of Babylon and now Rome, but by the even more insidious powers of sin and death which enslaved the whole world.

The promise of the prophets, however, was that one day a new king would be born who would topple the powers of sin and death by taking them head on.  Isaiah had talked about him as the Suffering Servant, a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, the Everlasting One for whom all creation was waiting (Isaiah 9:2-7).  

Mary knew this story because it was the story of her people.  For her, as for all of God’s people, the story of the Hebrew scriptures was the story.  And now, somehow, impossibly, unbelievably, this young mother-to-be was going to play a supporting role.  The time of waiting was coming to an end, and all she could do was sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord and the spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Her song is designed to magnify, intensify, reflect and make brighter what God is doing through her son, God’s Son.

God announces the imminent arrival of the Promised One to the very people who need to hear it most:  the poor, the lowly, the broken and the marginalized—those who have no standing and no power.  Mary represents them as a young woman, barely perceived as a person in the patriarchal culture of her time.  She had no status and no prospects.  With a common name, she was living in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere.  And yet, she sings: “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (v. 48).

Remember that when the angel greeted Mary, he addressed her as “favored one.”  It was not because Mary was particularly righteous or worthy.  She was “favored” or blessed with the task of bearing the Messiah.  Like her ancestor Abraham, God “favored” Mary, an ordinary girl in an ordinary place, and blessed her so that she might be a blessing to the world, a vital link in the covenant chain that God had begun with Abraham centuries before.

We call her blessed because she blessed the world by saying “yes” to God: “Let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).

The blessing that God will work through her will come by way of the Son that she bears, who will come to save his people from sin, but also to overturn the power structures that had so longed held people in all forms of slavery.  Her song goes on, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty (vs. 50-53).  

What Mary sings about is the promise of what happens when God occupies the earth as its true king.  When God is king, all human power structures get turned upside down—the proud are replaced by the humble, the hungry are filled and the wealthy are empty.

If you pay attention to the verbs in Mary’s song, they are all in the past tense.  Mary sings as though these things have already happened.  That is the confidence of faith.  The child whom she carries is God’s own Messiah, and this Messiah is actually God coming in the flesh:  the king who comes and announces in his words and actions that God’s kingdom has arrived.

To put it another way, we might say that Mary’s song is the outline for everything God’s Son will do when he grows to adulthood:

  • He will scatter the proud and self-righteous by exposing their true selves
  • He will challenge powerful kings like Herod and Caesar by demonstrating the power of love
  • He will advocate for justice, mercy and peace
  • He will sit with the poor, hungry, sinners, and outcasts, filling them with hope
  • He will expect his followers to deny themselves, pick up a cross and follow him

The gospels tell us that the rich fools and rich young rulers walked away from Jesus empty, while the poor were fed with an abundance of bread on a hillside.  The child Mary carries will turn the world upside down, and this child hears the song of his mission even as he still enjoyed the warmth of his mother’s womb.

Mary sings, even though we know what all of this will cost her.

  • A sword will pierce her soul, as she is warned when Jesus is an infant
  • She will lose her son and frantically search for him for three days when he’s twelve years old, because he is going about his father’s work in the temple
  • She will think he has gone completely mad when he turns 30, leaves home, and starts preaching and challenging powerful people
  • She will suffer the agony of watching him die on a cross, nailed there by the powers that always do that to those who oppose them

Mary could not have had all this in mind when she first sang her carol, but it’s not hard to imagine that she sang this song again and again when it seemed like things were going horribly wrong for her son.  Then again, when she saw him alive three days after his death, imagine how much more her song would have meant then.

We sing familiar Christmas carols, too, and though we don’t usually think about it, we sing them knowing that Good Friday is not far away.  We sing them knowing where this child will go and what he will do.  We sing them knowing that there is a cross ahead, but there is also an empty tomb.

While Mary’s Magnificat might not get as much air-time on the radio this month as Jingle Bells, it is this song that reminds us who Jesus is and what he is about.  It can remind us, too, that we are called to follow him in lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, and saying our own “yes” to God every day, our own version of, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (v. 37).   Glory to God in the highest!  Amen.

No Comments

Post A Comment