Galatians 4. 4-7, Luke 1. 46-55
The other day I was watching a feather in the garden; a little feather, detached from the bird somewhere up in the tree. It seemed to have a life of its own. It sank a little, then was lifted on a current of air, it sped along to one side of the garden, then swirled and glided beautifully along to another, the sun making it look silver. It was buoyed up, joyful and beautiful. But it could not last, of course, and it landed on the moist ground, submitting to the inevitable. Joy is like that, it can be beautiful; but it is so often brief.
When the angel Gabriel (1:26) told the young virgin Mary that she was going to have a child who would be the Son of God she said, “How can this be?” He answered her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her so that the child’s conception would be divine and he gave Mary the added confirmation that nothing is impossible with God by telling her that her kinswoman Elizabeth who was old and had been barren was also pregnant. So, Mary, no doubt feeling the need for support, decided to visit her cousin. She entered the house of Zechariah and when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe (that’s little John the Baptist) leaped in her womb; Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a joyful cry, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord!”
The angel had told Zechariah that his son John would be filled with the Spirit even from his mother’s womb. Elizabeth’s response is evidence of this: Mary approaches, carrying the Son of God in her womb, and little John gives Elizabeth a jolly good kick. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and cries out: “Mary, my child is leaping for joy. The Holy Spirit has helped him before he can even speak to bear witness to the Lord in your womb.”
That’s all the confirmation Mary needs. She sees clearly a most remarkable thing about God: He is about to change the course of all human history. Mary is so moved by this vision of God, who loves the lowly, occupying himself with two obscure, humble women—one old and barren, one young and virginal, that she breaks out in song—a song that has come to be known as the Magnificat.
Mary and Elizabeth are wonderful heroines in Luke’s account. He loves the faith of these women. The thing that impresses him most, it appears, and the thing he wants to impress on Theophilus, his noble reader, is the lowliness and cheerful humility of Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth says: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord would come to me?”
And Mary says: “The Lord has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.” People can only truly magnify the Lord if they acknowledge their lowly estate and are overwhelmed by the mercy of our magnificent God. People like Elizabeth and Mary.
I think we should notice one other way that Mary’s godliness shows itself. Do you remember the story of Samuel and his mother Hannah? Hannah had no children and was abused by other women because of it, and she prayed earnestly that the Lord would give her a son. And he did. Well in 1 Samuel 2 Hannah sings a song of praise which is very similar to Mary’s song:
Hannah also prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in thy salvation. There is none holy like the Lord, there is none besides thee; there is no rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones; but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might shall a man prevail.’
The parallels are not word for word; neither Mary nor Luke is quoting the Old Testament. Instead, it seems to me that Mary is so steeped in Scripture that when she breaks out in praise, the words that come naturally to her lips are the words of Scripture. Being a young woman, she probably loved the stories of the Old Testament women of faith like Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, Ruth, and Abigail. Here is something we can learn from Mary; to steep our minds and hearts in the Scriptures so that the words and thoughts of Scripture fill our mouths as naturally as they did Mary’s.
Let’s look briefly at what she says in her praise to God. First, there is Mary’s expression of what she feels in her heart namely, joy. Second, she mentions what God has done specifically for her as an individual: he regarded her lowliness, he did great things for her, and thus gave her an enduring reputation for blessedness. Third, she spends most of the time describing the way God is in general.
Mary states that God’s name is holy. That is, God’s nature, his essence, is holiness. His ways are not our ways. He is separate from and exalted above all creation.
All his attributes are perfect, and they all cohere in a perfect harmony called holiness. But what Mary stresses is the way this holiness expresses itself. And her words are a warning to Theophilus and to us not to make the common mistake that because God is great, he is partial to great men or women, or because God is exalted, he favours what is exalted on earth. God’s holiness has expressed itself by exalting the lowly and abasing the haughty. When you think about it, how could God be partial to the things of this world, wealth, power and knowledge, which are, more often than not, substitutes for God?
People perish because they are enamoured by pride, power, and wealth. And probably Theophilus, as a ranking Roman official, has all three. There is a word of warning and of salvation here. Theophilus, look at what God is really like. He is not the least impressed by pride, power, or opulence. He has mercy on those who fear him, who humble themselves and turn from the ego boosting accumulation of wealth to the lowliness of self-denial for the sake of others. This is the way God is, Theophilus.
That’s the third section of the Magnificat. Now we move back to the second section. Here Mary simply sees in her own experience an example of the way God is. He considers Mary’s lowliness and does a great thing for her: he makes her the mother of God! It is such a singular and unimaginable blessing that all generations from that time on have acknowledged Mary’s blessedness.
While some denominations venerate Mary, we do not. But she is unique. No one else bore the Son of God. We can argue that the Roman Catholic doctrines of her sinless life, her perpetual virginity, her bodily assumption into heaven have no warrant in the New Testament. Luke (11:27-28) tells us that once after Jesus had spoken “a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.'” At another time in Luke 8:19-21 we read: “His mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”‘ Jesus seemed fairly blunt in both of these instances, and there surely is no indication that Mary should be venerated in a moral class by herself.
We yet share admiration for Mary. We can and should certainly copy her example when she responds from the heart to all God did for her, by saying: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
How does a soul magnify God? A mouth magnifies God by saying, “God is magnificent,” by speaking his praises. But no one hears a soul.
No one but you and God. But I doubt that Mary means she is verbalizing a silent prayer. I think she means that at this moment her soul feels the greatness and holiness and mercy of God. And the feeling is primarily one of joy. “My spirit rejoices in God!”
We also magnify God by rejoicing in him. It is good news to learn that we magnify God by rejoicing in him. It’s good news because we could be burdened by the hugeness of the task if we weren’t told that the only way to fulfil it is to trust God and be joyful in his mercy. That is what magnifies God most. Our faith, our trust, in Jesus is encounter, salvation, redemption, it is his gift to us. It is what gives us life.
We magnify God because if we don’t, we will, just like that feather, have no lasting lift, no means to rise in the sunlight. Magnifying God is what helps our spirit soar, giving us a song on our lips and joy in the morning.