“Mary’s Song Prepares Us for Mary’s Son” (Luke 1:46-55)
One of the things we’re doing this month in our Advent and Christmas services is looking at a number of texts from Luke’s “Infancy Narrative,” that is, the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel, which concern events related to the birth of Jesus Christ. And one of the distinctive features of Luke chapters 1 and 2 is the inclusion of four poetic, song-like pieces–in other words, the four canticles of Luke. And those four canticles are as follows: Mary’s Song, the Magnificat; Zechariah’s Song, the Benedictus; the Angels’ Song, the Gloria in Excelsis; and Simeon’s Song, the Nunc Dimittis. The fact that these four canticles are referred to by their Latin titles shows their long history of usage in the church’s worship.
Our text today is the first of those four canticles, Mary’s Song, the Magnificat. Mary, newly pregnant with the Christ child, breaks into this song of praise that we call the Magnificat. Let’s listen now to her words and hear how “Mary’s Song Prepares Us for Mary’s Son.”
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary begins. In Latin that would be “Magnificat anima mea Dominum.” And so the first word “Magnificat” is where we get the title for this canticle. To “magnify” is to “make great.” Think of a magnifying lens. It’s not that a magnifying lens makes the thing you’re looking at any larger than it actually is. It’s just that when you magnify something, it occupies more of your vision. That which you are magnifying is all you can see at that moment. So it is for Mary as her soul “magnifies” the Lord. It’s not that she could make the Lord any greater than he already is. It’s just that she is totally occupied with his greatness. What he had done for her, and what he was in the process of doing for his people–this was so great that when she stopped to think about it, she couldn’t help but sing.
Mary serves as a good example for us in this regard. It’s good to stop and think about what the Lord has done for us and what he continues to do. That’s what we do here in church, isn’t it? When we stop and think of what God has done for us by sending his Son into the flesh as the son of Mary, we can’t help but to join Mary in her song of praise.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” Here Mary magnifies the Lord in a way we all can identify with. She calls God her “Savior,” in whom she rejoices. To know this same God, that he is our Savior, too–this is a joyful thing. God is the Savior of people who need his help, who are in need of saving. He looked on the humble estate of his servant Mary, and he is mindful of our low estate, as well. You and I–we were nobody special that God should look on us so kindly. And yet he is our Savior. What a joy this is! What a joy it gives us!
“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.” Now Mary magnifies the Lord in a way that only she could do. For only she had the unique privilege of being the mother of the Christ child. Imagine the feelings Mary must have experienced, to ponder that out of all the women in history she would be the one to give birth to the Savior of the world! “Surely, Lord, you could have chosen a princess or a queen; but instead you have chosen your lowly servant, a humble handmaiden. Lord, you have done great things for me. How mighty you are, and how mighty will be this little king I am carrying! How holy you are, and how holy this Son of God who will be born.”
Mary says, “From now on all generations will call me blessed.” Her relative Elizabeth had just called her blessed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Now Mary recognizes that not just Elizabeth but all generations will call her the most blessed of women for having had the great honor of giving birth to the Savior of the world.
Mary then expands her song from how God had blessed her individually to what God was doing for his people as a whole by sending the Savior into the world: “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Yes, from generation to generation God keeps on showing his mercy to his people. It started way back when, long before Mary. She recalls how the Lord has been faithful in showing mercy over time, generation after generation, throughout Israel’s history, culminating now in the birth of the Messiah.
But that same mercy which God shows toward his people extends also even down to us. From generation to generation, century after century, the mercies of the Lord are new every morning. Even now, as we come toward Christmas, Anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord,” 2012. Over two thousand years since we turned the calendar, marking the birth of Christ. Throughout all those years, and for all the years to come, we have a merciful God. His mercy extends, from generation to generation.
What is God’s mercy? God’s mercy is that he looks upon us in our sorry state and does something to help us. God sees our misery, the wretched condition we inflicted on ourselves as a result of our sin. And we are living in “the state of misery,” in more ways than one: sickness, strife, discord, death. A sorry lot indeed. But God shows his mercy toward us precisely in our misery. “Lord, have mercy,” we pray. And he does. His mercy is such that he cares for us day by day, he helps us in our distress, and he has provided the ultimate answer to all our woes in the person of this little child he sent. That’s why Mary is singing. She sees this child as the great sign, the great fulfillment, of God’s mercy toward humankind.
What is God’s mercy like, through all these generations? How does God work, how does he operate, in his dealings toward man? Mary tells us: “He 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.” What is Mary singing about here? That this is how God acts toward men, in a twofold way, in a twofold action. In a word–in two words, actually–he brings down, and he lifts up. He brings down the proud. He lifts up the lowly. This is Law and Gospel, this twofold word of God.
To those who are proud in themselves–like the Pharisee who stood in the temple, boasting–God will scatter them to the winds. To those who feel like they are in control, the rulers of their own destiny–God will bring them down from their thrones. To those who are rich in things, in the pleasures of this life–like the rich man to whom God said, “Thou fool!” or like the rich man who ignored poor Lazarus–God will send them away empty. This is how God deals with all who are secure in themselves, who feel no need for forgiveness, who have no use for a Savior. He will bring those haughty souls down.
But the lowly he will lift up. He exalts those of humble estate. This is the good news in Mary’s song. God shows strength with his arm on behalf of his not-so-strong, not-so-mighty people, whose arms are too weak to save themselves. God exalts those of humble estate–and if truth be told, you and I have a lot to be humble about! When I look in the mirror, I see a man who fails himself, who fails his family, who fails his neighbor and his God. That’s me. That’s you, too. We are exactly what we confess–poor, miserable sinners. But those are exactly the kind of people God lifts up–the lowly. He fills the hungry with good things–things like righteousness, things like the forgiveness of sins. I’m hungry for that, aren’t you? I need that, in order to live. Hungry ones, God will fill you, he will satisfy you.
What Mary is singing about here is what is sometimes called the “Great Reversal,” the great change in position that God will accomplish in the sending of his Son. The high and mighty will be brought low. The poor and lowly will be lifted up. Just the opposite, just the reverse, of the way the world sees things. God brings it about in the person of Christ.
For Christ himself came from the heights of heaven and was born the lowly child of Mary. He laid aside his glory. He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Christ Jesus was brought low–lifted up on a cross and then brought low and laid in a tomb–he, the Holy One of God. That’s why he came in the flesh–to take our place, to suffer death for us.
Yet this is exactly how he strikes down our high and mighty enemies: death, grave, devil, and hell. Those proud rulers are brought low, scattered, sent away empty–as empty as the tomb from which Christ rose. God raised this Jesus up, in victory over sin and death; and now you who trust in Christ–God will raise you up, too. This is the Great Reversal: God bringing down the proud and lifting up the lowly. This is what God will accomplish in the little baby to whom Mary is going to give birth.
Mary concludes her song of praise to God: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” Mary praises the Lord for being faithful to his promises, faithful to his covenant, faithful to his word. God had made a promise to Abraham, saying, “In your seed, Abraham, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” One of the descendants of Abraham, one from the nation of Israel, would be the one to fulfill this promise. And here he is, this Jesus who is to be born. He is the seed of Abraham who will bring blessing to the world.
And so Mary’s son brings the blessing to us. And that’s something to sing about! “My soul magnifies the Lord!” Mary’s song, then–Mary’s song prepares us for Mary’s son. In him the lowly are lifted up. In him God’s mercy extends, from generation to generation. So magnify the Lord with Mary, and let us exalt his name together!