The Magnificat, James Tissot
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And 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 mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
(Luke 1:46-55, English Standard Version: The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.)
My hunch is that among all the Christmas songs you listen to this season, you may not hear the words to this song sung, unless you listen to one of the classic works in Latin by people like Bach, or more contemporaneously, John Rutter. This version, in English, by John Michael Talbott captures beauty of this song, but doesn’t get much airplay.
I was reading these words this morning in the lectionary readings I follow. It is a song that helps “prepare the way” of our hearts for the one whose coming we celebrate on Christmas Day. I’m struck by the fact that what we hear is the overflow of a prepared heart filled first with the words of Gabriel at the Annunciation, and then cousin Elizabeth’s response,
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Mary was probably no more than a teenage woman. I’m staggered that as a betrothed but not married woman who finds herself pregnant that she can say such things. She sees beyond her “problem,” believing the words of both Gabriel and Elizabeth that this most unusual conception is because she, of all women in history, would bear God incarnate in her womb.
She is from a backwater village, if Nazareth was her home at the time these things occurred. She is far from the centers of power, whether Jewish power in Jerusalem, or the power of imperial Rome. Yet she sees in her story the beginnings of the “great reversal” where those of “humble estate” like her are exalted and blessed, and the proud, mighty, and rich brought down.
Promises to Abraham, long forgotten or despaired over, will find fulfillment in the baby growing within her. Promises to make of Israel a great nation, to give them a land of their own, to bless nations through them. At the time, there seemed little hope of this with the nation under the thumb of Rome. Yet the people of God, the new Israel that would be birthed out of the life and death and raising of this baby would spread to the nations, while Rome would collapse.
One of the more beautiful recent Christmas songs is “Mary Did You Know?” (performed beautifully by Pentatonix in this video). The song asks if Mary knows that the baby she will deliver will deliver her and her people, and later that the child she is holding is the great “I am.”
My sense is that in some way, perhaps still forming like the child inside her, Mary would say “yes.” She magnifies the Lord, which carries the idea of “extol, or glorify.” But she also makes God BIG, and the powers that be small.
As I reflect on Mary’s words I find great hope in a time when many of my friends are despairing as they see both events in the world, and events in our own country (the United States). I think many of us feel of “humble estate” and wondering what we can do among the powerful and the violent. If we would identify as followers of Christ, this also means in some way we also “carry” Christ, this one who rules, and over-rules the nations. Powers have indeed risen and fallen, the violent have attempted their worst–and ceased. And the rule of Christ, often carried by those of “humble estate” keeps spreading from nation to nation. The seemingly powerless, like a pregnant teenage girl from an insignificant place both carry the Lord of creation, and like Mary, are looked upon by him. And because she opened her heart and her whole body to this, we to this day call her “blessed.”