Christmas songs bring back memories. When I hear certain carols, I'm transported back to my childhood in Germany. I especially remember Stille Nacht, the German hymn by Fr Joseph Mohr that celebrates Jesus, born
of a virgin, sleeping in heavenly peace.
Here in Luke chapter one we see Mary's song, known as the Magnificat, (Latin for “magnifies”). It is the longest song in the New Testament. It has been set to music by J.S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn. Here we see Mary as the church's first theologian. We see her as the “God-bearer.” We see her as the “first Christian,” the first to trust Jesus as her Savior. She stands, with John the Baptist, at a unique intersection between the Old and New Covenants. She is given to us as a model of devotion. We should take her seriously. Jesus' mother is also our mother. She is a “mother” to all who accept Jesus as Lord. Her most significant role is to point us to her Son.
Mary's song is a proclamation. Her song is about the promise given her and all Israel. Her song is about the mighty actions of God. Her song is a collage of the stories of her people. Her song is our song.
Mary's Hebrew name is Miriam, and she is much like Miriam in the Book of Exodus--who was waiting in Egypt for a deliverer, only to discover it would be her brother, Moses. Now another Miriam waits, only to discover her deliverer will be her son, Jesus. After crossing the Red Sea, Miriam took a tambourine and sang a song of deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Now the New Testament Miriam sings, as a Second Exodus is about to happen--deliverance from the bondage of sin.
Let's look at the lyrics of this song...Mary says “My soul exalts” in verse 46; literally it “enlarges.” Other translations render this “magnifies” or “glorifies.” Her soul is enlarged, more than her womb. Her praise cannot be contained. She sings a song of wonder. God is about to deliver His people from sin, anguish, and despair. And we are being called to join her in magnifying the Lord!
“My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” verse 47. Her language is both personal (“my Savior”) and national. The entire nation has longed for this. God is about to keep His promise, and joy is the result. Mary praises God for noticing her, and Israel. God is not distant. He hears and sees and cares. We may wonder if God is aware of us. He takes notice, and draws near to us. He did so especially by becoming one of us, by taking our form, by experiencing life...and death.
Mary confesses her humble state in verse 48, yet acknowledges that all people will call her blessed (even Protestants). Someone called this kind of statement a “humble brag.” God responds to the cries of a humble heart. He lifts up the meek and the lowly. The saints of Scripture were ordinary people whom God used in extraordinary ways. We too, can be vessels of grace. We too, can sing!
Although Mary's pregnancy might not be seen by her family as a good thing, she says in verse 49 that “the Mighty One has done good things for me--Holy is His Name.” Mary sings of God's unlimited power and holiness, seen in unexpected ways. Her neighbors wouldn't understand, yet Mary takes the risk of bearing the Hope of Israel. Her being a “virgin” implies not only an unspoiled sexuality, but an unspoiled character…she is virginal in body, mind, and spirit (Longenecker).
She moves from herself to her people, particularly “those who fear” God, verse 50. God is both fearful and merciful. Only those who realize their sinful ruin and their need for mercy want God to be merciful. The rest want only their “just deserts.” Believe me, the last thing we should want God to be is “fair.” And though we fear God, because of His mercy we're not afraid of Him. The fear of God is the one fear that removes all others. We live in a fearful, fallen world...yet we have hope.
In strong words, Mary sings that the proud--who do not fear God, who think they need only themselves--will be “scattered,” verse 51. Our confidence is in God, not in self. This is also a rallying cry against those who take advantage of the poor...and the language makes this a protest song.
The weak and the poor will be filled “with good things,” verse 53. The needy will find in Mary's Son one who will feed the hungry, heal the sick, and lift them up. They will find justice at last. Any peasants hearing this would rejoice and exclaim, “It's about time!”
Mary ends her song by praising God's faithfulness to Israel, verses 54-55, starting with Abraham and the covenant promises made--which find their fulfillment in Jesus. God revealed Himself to Abraham and made of him a new people. He remembers His commitment to help His own.
Anyone hearing Mary sing that God “has brought down rulers from their thrones” would clearly know whom she had in mind. In the days of King Herod, such a subversive song was dangerous. People were losing their heads for such treason. Yet Mary's rebellious song came true! Caesar Augustus was hailed by Romans as a savior, the son of a god...but Mary sings of One who is the true Son of God. Caesar wasn't as strong as Caesar thought. Mary was fearless, a force to be reckoned with.
Why focus on Mary? Because Mary matters. We don't worship her, yet we ought to respect her. Some of our Catholic friends may honor her too much, yet we don't honor her enough. Fr Dwight Longnecker, a Catholic priest explains: “Our love of Mary is not in place of her Son.” She is venerated because she leads us to Jesus. Devotion to Mary should not take the place of devotion to our Lord. Pope John XXIII warned that Mary “is not pleased when she is put above her Son.” Bishop Robert Barron writes: “What we say about Mary is not to draw attention to her, but to Christ. Hers is a reflected light. Her task is to draw people into fellowship with her Son.” She is magnified in the course of her magnifying God.
Mary sings, and we should take notice. Mary's womb is holding the Promise, something to sing about!