Sermon - 15th December 2019
Magnificat: the Song of Mary
In a previous sermon, I said that Advent was a season of prophecies. I suggested that when we look towards the coming of Jesus we always do so in the context of what the coming of the Messiah meant to the Jewish tradition of faith. The significance of Jesus to the people of his own time was shaped by the Jewish traditions into which he came, and those Jewish traditions are present on every page of the gospels which are the foundation of our Christian tradition.
To the Jews of Jesus’s time, God was working out a divine purpose of liberation, freedom and justice. And this purpose is heard most clearly in the words of the various prophecies about how God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness.
When Luke was compiling his gospel, he uniquely included three powerful and moving songs of praise to God in his first two chapters. Each of them is prophetic. Each is an outpouring of emotion in response to a major event in which the working out of God's purposes can be seen.
When you look at the way modern bible publishers set out these texts, they are usually printed in the form of poetry, in rhythmic lyrical lines. These are not just ordinary speeches: they are set apart in the layout of the page and are treated as poetic proclamations with special characteristics.
Those three texts start with the Song of Mary which we heard in our reading today. This is Mary's outpouring of love and obedience to her God, and it starts with those remarkably uplifting words: “My soul magnifies the Lord...” often called by the first word in its Latin translation, ‘Magnificat’.
The second text is an impassioned acclamation by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, which is his response to the birth of the boy to Elizabeth and himself, despite their very advanced years. It is often referred to as “The Benedictus” as that is the first word of the text in Latin: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel...”
The third text is a short but highly moving prayer spoken by an ageing and devout man called Simeon when Jesus, as an eight-day-old child, is brought to the temple for circumcision.
Simeon's inner wisdom reveals to him that this child is the long-awaited saviour of his people and he says to God, “Now I can go in peace, knowing that I have seen your promises come true.” This text is also often known by its first words in Latin, 'Nunc dimittis'.
Not surprisingly, the church has taken these songs of praise into its worship. Those forms of worship were substantially shaped by the pattern of worship in the monastic communities with their use of psalms and bible texts in the daily worship of each community.
And in those traditional patterns of worship, the Song of Zechariah is typically sung or recited as the climax of morning prayer, and the Song of Mary is sung or recited as the high point of Vespers or evening prayer, with the Song of Simeon also appearing usually in the last service of each day – building on its sense of departing from this day in peace to wake to a new day.
These biblical songs from Luke's Gospel are deeply embedded in church worship, and they will probably be familiar to those who spent time in churches which follow traditional patterns of worship. They are loved and treasured as powerful statements that God delivered God's promises to humanity through the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth.
They have often been given the most glorious musical treatments by church composers, and modern musical settings are still being composed for church and cathedral choirs to introduce into their repertoire – this is particularly so in the case of the Song of Mary and the Song of Simeon as used in the Anglican service of Choral Evensong.
And then comes one of the most lovely paradoxes which emerge occasionally in this strange creation we call 'the church' - because every time we sing the Song of Mary, whether it's here this afternoon, or whether we're in a cathedral in the privileged setting of a wonderful Choral Evensong, we are actually giving voice to one of the most revolutionary texts that the church has ever embraced.
When you get beyond the opening acclamation of the greatness of God, Mary's song proclaims the coming of the Messiah of the poor. She speaks of a God whose love of humanity will make the poor and the lowly the top priorities. And as we travel further into Luke's Gospel we will see that these are also Jesus's focus as, in his words and his actions, he challenges the rich and the mighty throughout his ministry.
Mary doesn't just talk about the poor: she is one of them.
We need to set aside our images of a graceful, saintly, mature woman dressed in blue with a gentle maternal smile on her face. The Mary who visited Elizabeth is thought to have been a 14-year old servant girl, about to become an unmarried mother, with all the doubts and worries for the future that must have been raging in her mind.
In fact, the whole story of the birth of Jesus is the story of God's identification with the poor. He comes not for the well – they have no need of him. He comes not for the rich – they already have their reward. He comes not for the powerful, they already have the means to exercise justice but often choose instead to oppress.
He comes so that the poor - the unloved, the voiceless, those on the margins - may share in the benefits of God's creation. He comes to fill the hungry not just with the crumbs that fall from the master's table, but with all manner of good things. He comes that those who do not have life of any value may have life abundantly.
Here is where the Good News begins – amid a family scandal, in poverty, in a backwater, among the powerless. Jesus came not to the temple, the cathedrals, or the great religious monuments.
He came not to the Roman palaces, or to the seats of power in Westminster, Brussels or Washington. He brought the Good News to the poor, the excluded and the powerless.
So when one hymn writer wrote a hymn based on the Magnificat that begins:
'Sing we a song of high revolt...'
'He calls us to revolt and fight
with him for what is just and right,
to sing and live Magnificat
in crowded street and council flat.' (Fred Kaan)
the words may sound out of place, perhaps even a little disrespectful. But those words are remarkably close to the spirit of St Luke.
So perhaps the next time we hear the Song of Mary sung or recited, we might listen for just how revolutionary her prophetic vision really was.
And every time we make that song our own, in our private prayers and in public worship, we might recognise the radical changes that our faith is calling us to bring about in the lives of the poor and the powerless – those whom God calls us to lift up into lives of value, dignity, and justice.