Summary: An exposition of the Magnificat, highlighting the primacy and particulars of praise.
“The Magnificat: The Particulars of Praise” (Part I)
The Rev’d Quintin Morrow
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Fort Worth, Texas
December 8, 2002
Unless you’ve been lost in an abandoned cave, or marooned on a desert island, you have heard, at least since the end of October, and will continue to hear until December 24th, frequent use of the phrase “Christmas spirit”—as in “getting into,” “having more of,” or “sharing in” the Christmas spirit. But what is the Christmas spirit exactly?
According to Jacob Marley, Dickens’ literary business associate of Ebeneezer Scrooge, the Christmas spirit meant regret at a lifetime of wasted opportunities for good deeds. To distillers the Christmas spirit comes in a bottle, and approximately $75 million dollars worth will be sold and consumed this month. For the greeting card business the Christmas spirit denotes boxes of cardboard sentiments sent and received. Ninety-five percent of all Americans will send five billion plus Christmas cards this year. And if the malls are any indication, to retailers the Christmas spirit means moving merchandise off store shelves and larger profit margins.
At the end of the day, since this season is not about us or our oftentimes self-interested view of Christmas, but rather about God, and His invasion of space and time to rescue and redeem a fallen, rebellious, and helpless race from eternal destruction, it is who He rightly defines the Christmas spirit to us, and not the other way around.
Put simply and succinctly for understanding, and for the sake of time, let me tell you now that the Christmas spirit, according to God’s Word, and therefore according to God, is (drum roll please) worship. That’s right. Worship. Because of the unmerited, undeserved saving provision God Almighty has made in, by and through Jesus Christ to us, members of a race in active, volitional rebellion against its creator, the only logical and acceptable response on our part is praise and thanksgiving to the one making the provision.
The second lesson appointed for this Second Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:26-56, is one which contains the Magnificat, the familiar and stirring song of Mary as she is greeted by Elizabeth, and contemplates the reasons why God would use a seeming nobody like her to bring His salvation to a world of lost sinners. As we shall see momentarily, the Magnificat is nothing less than a profound and sublime expression of worship, flowing without rehearsal or forethought from the heart of a believing and obedient young woman. It provides us with the anatomy of worship—what genuine worship looks like, the object of worship, and the impetus for worship.
But before we examine the passage, a brief mention of the context for our text is vital to our understanding and application.
Put simply, the Magnificat is the response of Mary to the revelation that she was the one appointed to bear and bring forth the long-awaited and promised Messiah, God’s only Son and His instrument of human redemption. How much this young woman knew of her son’s true identity and ultimate mission to the Gentiles at this initial announcement we can’t be certain. In verses 26-38 of Luke 1 we read of the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary by the angel Gabriel. In verse 39 Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who was then carrying the Messiah’s forerunner, John the Baptizer. Elizabeth confirms the truth of the announcement given by Gabriel, as the infant Baptizer leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled by the Holy Spirit, upon Mary’s arrival and greeting. Then, notice—don’t overlook this—Mary replies, verses 46-55, in worship, with the words of the song of praise we know as the Magnificat.
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
The Lord manifests Himself to Mary and brings her revelation. Mary responds in worship. But here is what is most telling: Mary is the not the only one to receive a divine visitor, or a manifestation of the Lord, and revelation in the first two chapters of Luke, and its accompanying Nativity narrative in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, every manifestation of the Lord associated with the birth of Jesus Christ is followed immediately by the witnesses to that manifestation with worship.
Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, at his son’s birth, responds in worship. Luke 1:68:
Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He hath visited and redeemed His people; and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, in the house of His servant David….
The angelic host, in Luke chapter 2, appears and reveals to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night that born unto them, in the City of David, is a Savior who is Christ the Lord. They go to Bethlehem, find the parents and the baby, and, verse 20: