Summary: Who will say with Mary: The Lord has looked with favor on my lowliness. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is also the most passionate, the wildest, and one might almost say the most revolutionary Advent hymn that has ever been sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary as we often see her portrayed in paintings. The Mary who is speaking here is passionate, carried away, proud, enthusiastic. There is none of the sweet, wistful, or even playful tone of many of our Christmas carols, but instead a hard, strong, relentless hymn about the toppling of the thrones and the humiliation of the lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. This is the sound of the prophetic women of the Old Testament—Deborah, Judith, Miriam—coming to life in the mouth of Mary. Mary, who was seized by the power of the Holy Spirit, who humbly and obediently lets it be done unto her as the Spirit commands her, who lets the Spirit blow where it wills [John 3:8]—she speaks, by the power of this Spirit, about God’s coming into the world, about the Advent of Jesus Christ.
She, of course, knows better than anyone else what it means to wait for Christ’s coming. Her waiting is different from that of any other human being. She expects him as his mother. He is closer to her than to anyone else. She knows the secret of his coming, knows about the Spirit, who has a part in it, about the Almighty God, who has performed this miracle. In her own body she is experiencing the wonderful ways of God with humankind: that God does not arrange matters to suit our opinions and views, does not follow the path that humans would like to prescribe. God’s path is free and original beyond all our ability to understand or to prove.
There, where our understanding is outraged, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps its distance—that is exactly where God loves to be. There, though it confounds the understanding of sensible people, though it irritates our nature and our piety, God wills to be, and none of us can forbid it. Only the humble believe and rejoice that God is so gloriously free, performing miracles where humanity despairs and glorifying that which is lowly and of no account. For just this is the miracle of all miracles, that God loves the lowly. God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” God in the midst of lowliness—that is the revolutionary, passionate word of Advent.
It begins with Mary herself, the carpenter’s wife: as we would say, a poor working man’s wife, unknown, not highly regarded by others; yet now, just as she is, unremarkable and lowly in the eyes of others, regarded by God and chosen to be mother of the Savior of the world. She was not chosen because of any human merit, not even for being, as she undoubtedly was, deeply devout, nor even for her humility or any other virtue, but entirely and uniquely because it is God’s gracious will to love, to choose, to make great what is lowly, unremarkable, considered to be of little value.
Mary, the tough, devout, ordinary working man’s wife, living in her Old Testament faith and hoping in her Redeemer, becomes the mother of God. Christ, the poor son of a laborer from the East End of London, Christ is laid in a manger. . . .
God is not ashamed of human lowliness but goes right into the middle of it, chooses someone as instrument, and performs the miracles right there where they are least expected. God draws near to the lowly, loving the lost, the unnoticed, the unremarkable, the excluded, the powerless, and the broken. What people say is lost, God says is found; what people say is “condemned,” God says is “saved.” Where people say No! God says Yes!
Where people turn their eyes away in indifference or arrogance, God gazes with a love that glows warmer there than anywhere else. Where people say something is despicable, God calls it blessed. When we come to a point in our lives where we are completely ashamed of ourselves and before God; when we believe that God especially must now be ashamed of us, and when we feel as far away from God as ever in all our lives—that is the moment in which God is closer to us than ever, wanting to break into our lives, wanting us to feel the presence of the holy and to grasp the miracle of God’s love, God’s nearness and grace.
“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed!” sings Mary joyfully. What does it mean to call her blessed, Mary, the lowly maidservant? It can only mean that we worship in amazement the miracle that has been performed in her, that we see in her how God regards and raises up the lowly; that in coming into this world, God seeks out not the heights but rather the depths, and that we see the glory and power of God by seeing made great what was small. To call Mary blessed does not mean to build altars to her, but rather means to worship with her the God who regards and chooses the lowly, who “has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” To call Mary blessed means to know with her that God’s “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation,” who are amazed as we reflect on the ways of God, who let the Spirit blow where it wills, who obey it and say humbly, together with Mary: Let it be with me according to your word [Luke 1:38].