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An Advent Reflection on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
“God’s mercy is for those who fear God
I’m going to be honest with you, Mary’s song was not an easy passage for me to work through.
Reading this song of praise for God in a world that is hurting, has felt a lot like scrolling through Facebook recently - I can read about the pain of those witnessing and being victims of racism and homophobia that is quickly followed by those speaking of joy for a President-elect who is going to bring in a “new era of American greatness”…
This passage has left me continuously confused.
Why is Mary giving praise at a time like this? I know that she’s been given a message of hope for all people, but she’s also aware that her society is not in the best shape. There’s a powerful empire in charge, her people aren’t necessarily free, and there’s a pretty large gap between the rich and poor. And sure, she’s been given a promise from the angel Gabriel about conceiving the Son of God and has been blessed by Elizabeth, but I would think she would still be a little worried.
She could be worried about what might happen to her as a woman who is pregnant outside of marriage. She could be worried about what might happen to Jesus when he is born. Should she be telling people about the angel that visited her? What will people think? Who will this Jesus become? Will he be in danger?
And maybe some of my confusion is because I don’t totally understand the position that she’s in. I’m a male, I will never birth a child (let alone one said to be the Son of God), and I don’t even have a child.
Even though I don’t fully understand her situation, over the past week or two I’ve been wrestling with this text to no end because I know she had something to say.
So I kept reading.
And as I kept reading this song, the question that was re-appearing for me time and time again was about her purpose for singing. In the substance of the song - verses 50-53 - she is remembering God’s mercy and care for the lowly and oppressed. But why have a song with remembrance alone? If we think back to the structure of the passage...It opens with a few lines of praise, “My soul magnifies the Lord…” and then moves into lines about remembering God’s mercy, then it ends. That’s it. But is this song really only about the praise of God from the past or is it something more than that? What is really going on here?
In the spirit of remembrance, I began to remember back to New Testament class lectures earlier this semester and read more into Luke’s message throughout his gospel. His writing is focused on portraying Jesus in a highly prophetic light. His language and allusions are constantly moving the reader back to Israel’s history during the time of the prophets. His goal is to place Jesus within the lineage of God’s prophets, while also setting him apart as the one Son of God. Luke is clear with his intent, prophecy is very important for his telling of Jesus.
Now, we know that Jesus hasn’t come onto the scene yet - this is the very beginning of the story and he’s still in his mother’s womb - but that doesn’t mean that the prophecy can’t begin already in Luke’s gospel.
Before we get into this prophecy though, let’s think about prophetic messages in the history of the Old Testament.
These prophets are all given something - a message from God to the people.
Whether they liked it or not (probably not), they had something to say. They knew their message could be aggressive, offensive, even dangerous to proclaim, but they had something to say.
Mary’s been given something too. In her case it’s a child - Word of God being made flesh. But you know what - Mary has something to say (or sing) too.
Mary has the Word stirring - growing - inside of her.
So what does she have to say?
Mary holds the memories of God tight to heart when she sings out about God’s mercy for all who choose to follow. She sings of God tearing down the proud and powerful but lifting up and feeding those in need.
Coming back to my original questions and my challenges from the text: Is this song really only about the praise of God from the past or is it something more than that?
When we think about Mary in relation to the prophets, I don’t think there’s any way we should think that she is only saying these things to praise God.
This song reminds us about God’s mercy for those who are oppressed, especially while oppression continues to exist in the world. It’s a reminder in the midst of trouble that urges the need for continuing action.
Given the fact that this song is usually sung and preached during the Advent season - which we are in right now - this verse is connected to the expectation of the coming Christ who will be the prophet to spread his kingdom of peace and justice in this world. But this advent waiting is not passive. We are reminded that this waiting for Jesus’ birth is not about sitting back, but it’s an active and fully-aware pursuit of change in the world.
Mary has something to say.
Maybe it's not the same prophetic message from the Old Testament, when they speak to the impurity and disobedience of the people. But she stands in a society that's been severed, disrupted, broken - and she's saying “remember.” Remember God's mercy, remember the goodness in the world that's been given. Remember that the powers that be don't control us. Remember that there's something greater stirring. She can feel it - quite literally - and she can't help but say something about it. This may not be the expected reaction - it's not what I would have expected or how I would have reacted- but it's the needed reaction. In a time when anxiety is high and America is constantly waiting for the next issue or controversy to appear on our Facebook “trending column”, we need to hear about a "little" hope.
Like I said before, we're in advent right now, the season of waiting. Hope-fully waiting. Waiting for school to wrap up for the semester. Waiting for Christmas shopping and decorating to begin. Waiting for time with family, friends, more quality time with your pillows and blankets. Waiting for our new president-elect to begin not long after we celebrate the coming of this "little" hope.
What do we do with that?
I think we keep reading this passage.
We keep looking for the hope in what Mary knew she had to say.
We keep reminding ourselves of God’s message to the people through the prophets, and we keep reminding ourselves that the prophets were constantly telling these people to listen and pay attention to the world.
So in our remembrance, we actively wait during this advent season. We participate in spreading love and care to those who are oppressed and hurting. And - like classic christmas carols that are sung door-to-door or during a holiday house cleaning - we keep these lines on repeat.
“God’s mercy is for those who fear God
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We value highly the metaphor of journey. We’re different people from different places and backgrounds, representing an intergenerational community, and we’ve traveled different paths. So, we agree not to make assumptions about the person across from us, next to us, or in conversation with us. We challenge ourselves to be sensitive, knowing this community includes a diverse group of people from life-long followers of Jesus, to people who are just now open to the idea that God might exist. We strive to avoid offense, ask good questions, articulate and explain our responses. We don’t assume fluency in bible, spirituality, or Church language, because we believe the message of Jesus is not for Christianity, but for humanity. So, we do everything in the spirit of love and grace.
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