Read Luke 1:46b-55 here
Today is the third Sunday of Advent as I’m sure everyone is well aware. And Advent is that season preceding Christmas where we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ. In Advent, we remember Jesus’ first coming – His birth, which is what we normally associate Christmas with; and we also anticipate His second coming – when He will finally bring His salvation work to completion.
As is our usual practice, we have been following the (Revised Common) Lectionary in prescribing the scripture passages for each Sunday of Advent. Today’s passage includes Psalm 126 and Isaiah 61, both of which we read as part of our liturgy for today. The Lectionary also indicates 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and John 1:6-8 & 19-28 as the New Testament and Gospel readings respectively. Though we’re not going to include these in our discussion today, I’d still encourage you to read them. But the passage I want to reflect on today is actually the alternate Psalm, which is from Luke chapter 146b-55.
As you probably know, this is the song of Mary, typically referred to as the Magnificat, after Mary, pregnant with the baby Jesus, meets with her relative Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Elizabeth acknowledges that the child in Mary’s womb is special, blessing Mary as the child’s mother. And it’s at this that we get Mary’s song.
Now given the immediate context (i.e. Mary’s encounter with Elizabeth), we may be forgiven for assuming that Mary’s response is primarily precipitated by what is happening to her. And indeed, the first verses of this hymn are mostly focussed on Mary:
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the LordLuke 1: 46-49
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
And make no mistake, Mary’s experience is remarkable. The fact that Mary was chosen to bear the child Jesus, God very God who became a human being, is amazing – it is an event in history without comparison, marking Mary as truly unique. Indeed, earlier in Luke, these are the first words of the angel of God to Mary:
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”Luke 1:28 (emphasis added)
Even if we don’t in our tradition, there is a reason why some Christians revere Mary, the mother of God.
However, Mary’s song doesn’t end there. That is not the totality – or even the focus – of Mary’s praise to God. Mary continues:
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,Luke 1: 50-55
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, fairly obviously and for good reason, picks up on a number of themes that are going to resonate with the whole nation of Israel. Now to be clear, when we through read all of Luke chapter 1, it is very obvious that Mary’s child Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel. So it’s not as if it’s some sort of mystery or hidden secret. Nevertheless, I want to point out that this truth resonates in Mary’s song.
We see that Mary’s song highlights the faithfulness of God as she sings about God’s mercy from “generation to generation,” and about God remembering His promises to Abraham and his descendants.
Mary also proclaims God’s justice. The world is not as it is supposed to be, as Israel well knows. Cast into exile, removed from their promised land, Mary knows that God’s justice will be done as he brings down rulers from their thrones, filling the hungry, and sending away the rich.
And ultimately, all of this is a matter of redemption. All of this is a matter of the fulfilment of God’s covenant promises to bless the whole earth through Abraham and his descendants. It’s the fulfillment of God’s intention to restore creation from its fallen state to what it was supposed to be.
Now again, none of this is surprising; and none of this is obscure in the text.
But I want to point this out because Mary’s song, in the midst of praising God for His blessings to her personally, grounds that personal blessing in the story of Israel. Mary’s blessings aren’t hers alone, what’s happening to Mary isn’t a solitary event. Rather, Mary is part of something larger, something deeper than her own situation and her own concerns.
Now I’m sure that this is obvious to most of us. And we, 2000 years later, are probably more prone to think about this whole episode from the opposite perspective. That is, we lose sight of Mary the person in light of the cosmic significance of the birth of Christ. In the grand scope of celebrating Christmas, we forget about Mary (and Joseph) as individual, historical persons, who experienced something remarkable.
But what I’m trying to highlight, with respect to Mary’s song, is Mary’s own experience of this utterly inconceivable situation. How did Mary relate her own personal experience with what is communicated to her as an undeniably God-event?
Imagine Mary, a young woman, betrothed to be married, likely raised in a good Jewish home – we really don’t know that much about her – minding her own business. All of a sudden, an angel appears and drops this bombshell on her. She is going to be pregnant, not by any earthly means but by the Holy Spirit, and her child will be a king – in fact, her child will be The King.
Now as we’ve already explored (albeit briefly) this information is rife with cosmic significance. Does Mary know – how can she have any real understanding of – the depth and breadth of the significance of the angel’s proclamation? What does this mean? Now if Mary is anything like me, I would expect her reaction to begin with some version of, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
How many of us, when presented with some really big news, have as our first response, “what about me?” For how many of us is our first question, “how will this affect me?” Remember when news of Covid first broke? I don’t know about the rest of you, but my first reaction (or one of my first reactions) was to think, “oh no, I’m going to have to cancel my annual vacation.”
And I want to affirm that this is perfectly normal, understandable, and acceptable response. And in fact we see this in Mary’s response. Again, the first part of her hymn is focussed around, “Me” (Luke 1:46-48). But her song doesn’t stop there. Mary is able to see that in the midst of this event that will dramatically alter her own life (and legitimately so, not just in an ego-centric way), she is able to recognize the larger hand of God moving in human history. She is able to connect her own story to the story of Israel. And so her blessing is not hers alone. Like Israel itself, Mary is blessed in order to be a blessing. This entire experience is set in the scope of God’s work of redemption.
I guess what I’m thinking about is how my tendency is to judge God’s blessings, God’s faithfulness, by virtue of how my own life is going. This obviously makes a lot of sense (that we do this); naturally we see things from our own perspective; and it doesn’t make you a bad person if you do this. What I’m simply trying to say is that to truly understand the goodness of God, we need to enlarge our vision.
And as much as Christmas is the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind, perhaps we might be guilty of focussing too much on our own blessings (or lack thereof).
This Advent season, what I’m simply suggesting is that we take the opportunity to enlarge our vision. We are prone to think “God is good” if I am getting good things. And we are prone to wonder, “Does God care?” if my life isn’t going the way that I think it should. (And God does care about those things. God does care for each of us infinitely and is working for the good of each of us). But let us not determine God’s faithfulness according to my satisfaction.
Like Mary, we will seek to be attentive to what God is doing in our own lives. We will rejoice in God’s gifts and God’s blessings to each of us. However, let us not stop there. Each week, we spend time in prayer for the world, for those things going on beyond our immediate awareness. And we do so because we believe that it all matters, and it all matters to God. We continue to do so because we believe that all of it is part of the story of God’s redemption.
This Christmas season, we rejoice because of what God has done. And we look forward to what He is doing – to what He will complete when Jesus comes again. But in order to truly appreciate this, we need to be healed of our narcissism. We need to be healed of our myopia. We need to be open to the breadth and depth and wonder of what God is doing not only in our own lives, but for all of creation.