With few exceptions, the soundtrack this month has repeatedly jumped the gun. At this point even traditional carols, especially when sung with feigned sincerity by royalty-collecting pop-stars, have run their course.
Yet there is still one song which needs to be heard. This song might finally inspire an appropriately devotional Advent spirit. It might just foster a holy contemplation of what we are about to celebrate. It is the song of Mary, the mother of our Lord, and it comes not a day too soon. We call it the Magnificat, and it is tailor-made for faithful proclamation of the Gospel.
Before we get to the song itself, there are a few things we should consider about the rest of the Gospel reading.
1. The verses immediately preceding the appointed text provide the narrative context for the entire reading. As you study the text, therefore, include a careful reading of verses 26-38. Mary has just been told she will bear the same Lord whom she serves. He would be none other than the Son of God (υἱὸς θεοῦ), which must have evoked both terror and amazement (mostly terror, I would imagine). No wonder she runs to see someone who might be able to empathize.
2. John’s prenatal skipping (ἐσκίρτησεν) is a fascinating detail with seemingly great homiletical potential. But upon closer examination, it is hard to say what to make of it. It seems misguided to focus on the power of Mary’s voice or on John’s hearing ability in utero. Our theology of the Word of God rules out magic. Furthermore, it is hard to pin down the conceptual signified of an unborn baby’s leap. Any attempt to do so will require more eisegesis than exegesis. It seems wise for the preacher to not emphasize this part of the text and get to the song.
When Mary begins to sing in verse 46, she joins a long line of God’s people who respond to His gracious intervention with songs of praise. The choir includes Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15), Deborah and Barak (Judges 5), Asaph and his brothers (1 Chronicles 16), and Hannah whose song is remarkably similar to Mary’s (1 Samuel 2). Like many of them she looks back to the Lord’s work in the past and looks forward to that which is to come. There are several specific things about Mary’s song, however, that could be used to organize the sermon. I will share these ideas as potential structures:
- The sermon could follow the song’s movement from God’s grace to Mary as an individual (46-49), to His people as a whole (50-55). A sermon that takes this path will draw individual hearers into a corporate understanding of Christmas and the Christian life. We come as individuals, but God brings us into the community of His people spanning space and time. This might be helpful for single hearers getting ready to celebrate a “family” holiday.
- The sermon could work with the song’s contrasting images of God who is both mighty and merciful. In His might, God does “great things” (49). With the strength of His arm he humbles the proud (51) and dethrones the strong (52). In His mercy, however, God is the Savior of those who fear Him (50). He exalts the lowly and feeds the hungry. In a profound master/servant reversal He “helped His servant Israel” (54). It is worth noting that “servant” in the English is παιδὸς in Greek, which can mean either servant or child.
- The sermon could be organized around the song’s dual emphasis on God’s remembering and God’s acting. The remembering would focus on God’s promises made to His people of old, generation after generation, especially to Abraham and the fathers (50, 54-55). The acting would focus on God’s works of deliverance and sustenance in the past for Israel and Mary, the present for contemporary hearers, and future for all of God’s people (47, 53).
Each of these themes uses the language of the song itself to help the hearers contemplate the grace of God shown to Mary, to Israel, and ultimately to the entire human race. The sermon would proclaim, with Elizabeth, that Mary is “the mother of my Lord” (43). The proper emphasis here is on the Lord rather than Mary. By focusing on what God is doing (and will do) in this child as captured in Mary’s words, the sermon would evoke in the hearers a sense of awe and praise. The goal is to lead them to make the praise of the Lord found in the Magnificat their own.
The preacher might consider enacting this song in addition to talking about it. This could be done toward the end of the sermon or later in the service. A choir or a soloist could sing a version, or, with sufficient audio tools, a pre-recorded version could help hearers imagine Mary (and themselves) singing it. If you are looking for a recent version, you might check out this offering by Todd Agnew.(The images in this video may be more of a distraction than an aid. You might consider playing only the audio).
I can imagine ending the sermon with something like this: “Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. If you are anything like me, there is still much to do. Here and now, however, we pause to remember the great things God, in Christ, has done for us. We contemplate the great things God, in Christ, will do for us. In this way, we ready ourselves to celebrate His birth and His return. With Mary, our souls magnify the Lord. Our spirits rejoice in God our Savior, for He has done great things for us. Holy is His name!”
Concordia Theology: Various helps for preaching on Luke 1:39-55 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN, on Luke 1:39-55.
Martin Luther on the Magnificat: Martin Luther’s translation and commentary on the Magnificat.
Mary’s Magnificat by Bror Erickson: Rev. Bror Erickson offers some wonderful thoughts on the Magnificat.