We know the Magnificat (Luke 1:39-56) and no doubt have sung it plenty of times. It is one of the three great canticles of the New Testament – the others being Zechariah’s Benedictus (found later in the same chapter) and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (from the very next chapter) — likewise beautiful elements of our cherished liturgy. And, like the other two, we usually think of Mary’s song as a canticle of jubilation, praising God for the fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and the descendants of Israel. In the Lutheran Service Book it appears in different versions no less than five times. There is a reason it has a prominent place in the Church, a place that commands commentary and proclamation. It belongs to the Gospel of our Lord. So, it must be preached. Mary’s song provides sermon content for Advent and wherever the feasts of the virgin Mary populate the liturgical calendar.
In its situation here, we are presented with a young Jewish girl arriving at the home of her relative, Elizabeth, who is herself pregnant with the one who will become known as John the Baptist. Then something extraordinary happened. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaps for joy, and Elizabeth exclaims: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
Mary responds with the celebratory song we know as the Magnificat, opening with the words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
She utters an extraordinary song because what was taking place was something utterly unique in human history. What was taking place between Elizabeth and Mary pertained to a singular event which marked a climax in human history. This was no dreamy exchange between hormonally taxed pregnant ladies. Rather, it is a profound and weighty recapitulation of the entire history of God’s dealings with humanity in light of the epoch-making mighty act He was presently affecting through this senior citizen and virginal teenager. It is a historic one-off. God was purposely entering our domain to act for our salvation and, supremely, engage in the most intimate of self-giving — upon the cross and in the Holy Communion.
In short, what we have here is a profound and momentous verbalization of hope and expectation provoked by the Creator Himself who was at that moment breaking into our human situation and tackling the overwhelmings of our fallen world and sinful predicament, not in the unapproachable splendor of His heavenly glory, but as a vulnerable infant. “Almighty God is visiting us in order to liberate us,” was the message of these courageous maidservants of the Lord. The shocking part about it was God was doing so not with peels of thunder atop a quaking mountain, but at the end of an umbilical cord — this close, this risky way — a way that fully identifies with human love but also human hardship. Preachers will exploit the intimate and fully tactile reality of the Gospel. God in the flesh, flesh like unto our own, flesh derived from Mary’s very own body. Something truly momentous was happening in the world and the two women at the center of it were giving expression to it in words of hope for a hopeless people, living in an age which had lost vision in God to act decisively on their behalf. The consolation of Israel was dawning. The Creator was entering His creation. That is how big this news is. That is how utterly unique this moment is. Preach it as such. It is the one-off of history, setting history into an entirely new direction with this event driving it.
God was purposely entering our domain to act for our salvation and, supremely, engage in the most intimate of self-giving — upon the cross and in the Holy Communion.
So, the Magnificat invites us to enter into, consider, and embrace the worldview of a teenaged Jewish girl and her geriatric aunt: The one bearing the prophet Elijah which was to come and the other carrying within her womb the God whom she and her nation worshipped and feared – Yahweh enfleshed — and ourselves to be conformed to that understanding of the work and transformed by it. The Almighty was coming powerlessly to establish a kingdom unlike the world has ever seen or known, where the Sovereign rules in weakness and vulnerability and conquers by love and grace. Never before had it happened. And never again would it. There is only one rightful and enduring King of the world — Jesus the Christ, true Son of the Father, true son of Mary.
This, then, is the hope of the world: That God would come and save us from our enemies and justify unjust people such as ourselves. But know this, the hope Elizabeth and Mary express, indeed, the hope this Gospel lesson presents to entire world, is a hope against hope. It is a hope in God to fulfill His promises in His ways, in His unexpected and counterintuitive methods over-against the all-too-common hope of mankind to domesticate God and have Him fulfill our expectations of how we think things should be or, indeed, over-against our own ability to reverse the ways of evil and suffering in the world, of which we ourselves are so frequently the cause and source.
Our modern thinking tells us to hope in nations united together in diplomacy. Look to Washington or Brussels. The Gospel tells us to hope beyond such fruitless hope, to trust not in nations united or the United Nations but in God and man united in one person, Jesus the Messiah, who gives the peace the world cannot give. It is not what happens in Washington but what happened in Jerusalem, not bureaucrats but Baptism, not politics but pardon. There is the hope of the world.
We must keep this in mind when we read and proclaim Mary’s song or else, we will be reading something other than the Good News concerning the salvation wrought by our Lord Jesus Christ. The hope of Mary and Elizabeth stands in stark contrast to our natural expectations, not in agreement with them. It is counterintuitive to our self-sufficiency, not an encouragement of it. These two women expected redemption to begin not with a regal inauguration of the Great King’s reign on earth with pomp and pageantry, but with the rigors of labor and the agonizing pain of a full-term child passing through the birth canal because that is how it really is in the world. It is not what we would expect for God’s entrance into humanity, nor indeed what we ourselves would have planned. It seems too lowly, too unseemly, and not at all divine. Yet, it is the very way of God, the way of the real. Indeed, we would expect His entrance into the world to be surrounded by men, men of power, men of stature. Instead, it is literally through a woman and surrounded by beasts of burden. It is this hope of the incarnation and no other, this hope of the virgin birth that is the true Gospel of Christ. We believe, teach, and confess: He was born of the Virgin. God was made manifest in some Jew-girl’s chromosomes... and her name was Mary, the Mother of God. The Greek term for her is “theotokos” and it comes from the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. There, at Ephesus, arguments were marshaled forth to counteract the heretical teaching that Jesus was just a man, some guy with guru charisma. The Council based its arguments on the unity of the person of Christ, that Jesus the Son was fully and truly man and yet fully and truly the eternal, divine Logos, or Word of God. In doing so, the Council denounced all who denied Christ was truly divine and asserted that Mary, not only gave birth to a red-blooded baby boy, but also that she was “theotokos” – the bearer and mother of God enfleshed, God incarnate.
We believe, teach, and confess: He was born of the Virgin. God was made manifest in some Jew-girl’s chromosomes... and her name was Mary, the Mother of God.
That is why Mary breaks out into song – God was entering the world, as He said He would time and again in the Hebrew Scriptures. But the way He was to enter the world completely eluded the expectations of the Jews and, indeed, our natural expectations too. Their first-century Jewish situation of military oppression by (first) the Greeks and (then) the Romans drove a great number of Israelites to anticipate a Messiah with gripping leadership and military credentials. They came to believe it would be a charismatic general who would lead them into a rousing victory over their national enemies. They began to live by sight and not by faith, by the power of the sword and not the Spirit of God. As a result, their enemies became not so much sin, death, and the devil, but Caesar, Rome, and power politics. For them, salvation came to mean the restoration of occupied land, the destruction of the Roman legions, and the reinstitution of their disbanded monarchy. All of this would be done with the great skill and strength of God’s anointed servant – the magnanimous leader of Israel’s armies. This vision is but one way we all tend to domesticate God and deny the true nature of His self-giving to the world. A century later, Gnostics wanted to tidy up this messy God; wipe off the blood and the vernix. Jesus can be God but not birthed like one of us, not that vulnerable. So too with Muhammad some six hundred years later, in his ignorance of the role of the virgin Mary, he muddled the entire phenomenon of the incarnation making it no more special than the advent of one of the Old Testament prophets.
Today, our situation of personal entitlement, the celebration of the self and radical individualism drives a great number of people to anticipate a Messiah credentialed in psychotherapy, a personal trainer of well-being and holistic living who can help me cope with my life and achieve my full potential. We live by sight and not by faith, the new power of improved consumer choice and not the timeless Means of Grace. Therefore, our enemies are not so much sin, death, and the devil either, but rather boredom, mediocrity, and responsibility. Salvation has come to mean personal empowerment, non-commitment, and happiness in self-fulfillment. All of this would be done by God justifying our self-justifying ways. The victory of Christ yields the celebration of me in the age of narcissism.
Mary’s song in the mouth of preachers will disabuse auditors of their self-referential thinking and put the focus firmly on God in the womb, God on the cross, God in the tomb.
Mary’s song in the mouth of preachers will disabuse auditors of their self-referential thinking and put the focus firmly on God in the womb, God on the cross, God in the tomb
But when Mary sings in verse 51, that, “God has shown the strength of His arm; and He has scattered the proud in their conceit,” she speaks in an anticipatory way about the victory of God not on the battlefields of Judea, but on the cross of Golgotha – the horrid place where we see what looks to be the summery defeat of God in Christ but which actually is the place of His crushing defeat of our true enemies and oppressors: Sinful selfishness and a culture of death with Lucifer at the helm. It is through the humiliation of the cross that God, “...scatters the proud in their conceit.” Through the foolishness of the cross God makes foolish the wisdom of mankind, which would have the Son of God accomplish our salvation through a Climate Summit. But the Lord turns everything on its head. It is through the tip of the spear thrust into His side that waters of life begin to flow. His throne is one to which He is nailed, and so far from being clothed in jewel encrusted diadem and robes, He hangs before the world naked and with a crown of thorns pressed into His bleeding temples. This is the revelation of God, and it is marvelous to our eyes, for it is our salvation — and there is no other means, no other way. This is not the domesticated deity obscured by garments of glory, but instead the crucified Lord revealed in the nakedness of our humanity in real human history, bearing our sin and shame, and yet through this humiliation exploding any hold sin and Satan and even consumerism or political affiliation had over us.
And to what end? To the end that we might gain the benefits of geo-political liberation, the founding of a Christian nation? Not at all, but so you and I may receive the forgiveness of sins, the gift of His Holy Spirit, and the righteousness of Christ irrevocably gifted to us. This is God as He gives Himself to us. And it all began with the miraculous pregnancy of a virginal girl, who we rightly extol as Theotokos.
It is this incarnational, cross-centered coming of God human reason alone simply cannot grasp. It is too foreign to our way of thinking. It goes against our way of self-hope, self-confidence. For this reason, we by nature stumble at the notion that God squeezed through Mary’s uterus, and that He was beaten, bruised, and bled to death outside the walls of Jerusalem. The physicality and brutality of Good Friday is too much for us to swallow as the victory of God, too much for us to hold as the backdrop to the Christmas story. So, by nature we tend to gravitate to the sanitized glory of the ascension. But the virgin Mary here asserts there is no ascension without a bloody birth, a violent crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus’ corpse. As the Lord Jesus Himself said, it was for this reason He came into the world: To give His life as a ransom for many. His work, then, must be understood as one piece: The incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are one total action of God in Christ Jesus, and together they are a single accomplishment by God in an embodied state that avails for the salvation of the world. Indeed, it is for as many as are baptized into the one and only true religion of peace, where a holy (as opposed to an unholy) Spirit rules. That is how it should be preached. The promise of Mary’s song is that the Lord will never not have a body. This is our Gospel promise and assurance that the Father is perfectly satisfied with the Son’s blood atonement and, what is more, our bodies too shall be raised on the Last Day just as His was on the First Day of the New Creation, and we commune with this very body and blood here and now through the Sacrament of the Altar because the Ascension does not signal Christ’s absence but His abiding presence in glory, the glory of the Eucharist, the reign through Words and Sacraments of peace and reconciliation.