READ : Luke 1:46-55
Mary’s song, known as the “Magnificat,” reminds us that Christ’s coming doesn’t just mean salvation for individuals, but has profound social implications as well.
One of the favorite scenes of the Christmas story is the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel visited Mary with the news that she was to bear a most special child. But no sooner is the message delivered than Gabriel disappears, returning to heaven to stand before the presence of the Lord (cf. Luke 1:19) until his services are needed again.
“Blessed Are You”
Meanwhile, here’s Mary, left all alone, and what is she to do? When Joseph, her fiance, found out that Mary was expecting, he did what any man would do in his circumstances. Believing that Mary had been unfaithful to him, he resolved to quietly dissolve their betrothal and send her away. But where can Mary, a teenage girl in serious trouble, go? Mary turns to her older cousin Elizabeth, making her way from Galilee to the home of Elizabeth and her husband in Judea. It turned out to be a good decision. Though Mary may not have known it, Zachariah had also received a stunning visit from Gabriel, and Elizabeth was expecting a special child of her own.
As Mary greeted her cousin, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb – “that other miracle baby – “leaped for joy. John is a witness to Jesus, even prenatally. Then Elizabeth, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, confirms to Mary all that the angel had told her: “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?” (Luke 1:42-43). Mary is blessed indeed. All generations do rise up to call her blessed. For Mary is mother of the Lord; she is the God-Bearer.
God Sees, God Remembers
In response to Elizabeth’s exclamation, Mary begins to sing. We call her song the Magnificat, from its opening words in Latin. It’s a lot easier to leave Mary’s song in Latin; that way we don’t have to confront its painful truths. It’s much nicer to listen to a choir sing it in sacred-sounding but unintelligible syllables than to hear the pointed message Mary’s song conveys.
The Magnificat is all about thanksgiving; it’s an outburst of praise from beginning to end, in particular, praise for the mighty acts of God. Mary begins with the mighty act that God has done for her personally.
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.
Notice, it’s the personal note that Mary sounds at first. Do you know anything personally of God’s saving acts? Can you say as she did that he has done great things for you? Without this personal appropriation there is no gospel. “He has looked on the humble estate of his servant,” sings Mary. What she means is, “He noticed me!” That’s what fills Mary’s mouth with praise – “that the God of heaven and earth should have looked on and thought of her, and blessed her in such a way.
Have you ever noted how in the world the higher someone rises the more inaccessible they become. Big shots are people you simply can’t get a hold of. I was on the phone a while back, trying to reach a business executive. I called the number and asked to speak to the man and was told, “Please hold for his secretary.” Not for the man himself, but for his secretary! So I sat there for five minutes waiting to be told whether or not I was worthy to have my name passed on to The Great One. That’s how it is in the world; the higher you are the more layers of security between you and the little people. Just try to call the President some time and see if they put you straight through from the White House switchboard. But our God is not like that. He isn’t hard to reach. Far from it. He takes the initiative in reaching out to us. He sees us, he remembers us, he comes to save us.
The Revolutionary Gospel
But the gospel is bigger still than just Mary’s personal good news. She goes on to sing about the things God will do in the great, wide world. Through the Son Mary will bear all human society will undergo revolutionary change. Listen to her:
[God] 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 empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
The Magnificat proclaims the Good News of the upside-down Kingdom of God. God dismisses what the world values. God puts down the people whom the world lifts up, the powerful, the wealthy, the celebrities. It’s the great reversal. The rich will be brought low and the poor will be exalted. The last will be first and the first will be last. The gospel message is revolutionary, not just personally, but for all of human society. That’s why Jesus called it “good news for the poor” (see Luke 4:18).
Gospel is a word that sometimes is trivialized. What does “the Gospel” mean to you? To many people it doesn’t mean much more than a style of Christian music. Or maybe when we hear the word we think of the correct doctrine of the substitutionary atonement. Or perhaps we limit it to the invitation to accept Christ as our personal Savior. Now those things are important, don’t misunderstand. But that is not the whole gospel. The whole gospel has a public dimension; in fact, a cosmic dimension. The gospel isn’t just about me getting right with the Lord; it applies to society, to the world, to creation itself. The New Testament word for “gospel” (euangeleon) was used in secular Greek for public announcements that had a universal impact, not just a private or personal message. A euangeleon was the announcement of a great military victory, for example, or of the birth of a royal heir, news that affected the whole country.
And the New Testament gospel shares this public nature. What would a gospel message in that sense sound like in our world? Imagine seeing the announcement of a just end to the war in Iraq or the message that Israelis and Palestinians have found a way to live together in lasting peace. That would be a gospel. Think of hearing the news that we don’t have to build a new hospital because cancer has been eradicated. That would be a gospel. Or picture a message that all the world’s prisons and courts and police forces and armies have been disbanded because shalom has come to the earth. That would really be a gospel. It would be a gospel if you heard there was no more poverty or hunger or pollution in the world because sin was eradicated and evil banished, and everyone had enough and to spare.
This is the gospel of which Mary sings. And as she does, I can’t help but wonder: what should I do about this right now? How do I respond to the news about what God has started to do in the world through Mary’s child, and what he intends to complete? I think I need to try to live into this message of the great reversal. And that means, I think, that I need to try to get as low as I can right now because I want to be among those whom God lifts up. I don’t want to be among the high and mighty and rich, so that I am one of those whom God will one day put down. Don’t you want to be low? I think, for example, about my natural pride; my sense of self-importance. I’d like to get rid of that, and cultivate genuine humility.
Or how about this. If the Bible is true, wouldn’t it be a good idea to get lower in your lifestyle? It’s not just the people who live in 5,000-square-foot houses with a four-stall garages who are the high and the rich. In a world context, it’s people who have electricity and running water and three meals a day. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “God’s coming is not only a matter of glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for anyone who has a conscience.” The gospel of the Magnificat is good news for the poor and lowly, but it’s frightening news for the proud and the rich, and for anyone who has a conscience.
So wouldn’t it be better to scale down our lifestyle now, voluntarily, and share our wealth with those who have less, rather than waiting for God to take it all away from us in judgment?
Here is one more bit of the gospel message, though, tucked into the middle of Mary’s song: “his mercy is for those who fear him, from generation to generation” (v. 50). When I hear the Magnificat, I tremble. But I also pray for mercy. “Lord have mercy. Let me fear you as I ought. Help me to get low.”
Mary’s song has not yet come true. The “haves” still rule, and the “have nots” still go hungry, and the world goes on as it always has, thinking that God does not see or remember. But the day is coming when this will all change. Are you dreading that day, or, like Mary, are you longing and looking for its coming?