Read the text here: Luke 1:39-56
Singing of the Promises
In many ways the opening two chapters of the Gospel of Luke is a lot like a great musical. Every time you turn around someone is bursting into song. There are a total of 4 songs within the first two chapters. It is as if the joy is too great to be conveyed in words and the various characters have to resort to song:
1. Mary’s Song - The Magnificat, 1:46-55; (Sermon for Advent 4)
2. Zechariah’s Song – The Benedictus, 1:68-79 (Sermon from Advent 2)
3. The Angel’s Song – Gloria in excelsis, 2:14 (Sermon for Christmas)
4. The Song of Simeon – Nunc Dimitus, 2:29-32 (Sermon for New Year’s Eve)
We begin with the elderly priestly couple Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth is barren, but hopes for a child. Zechariah is visited by an angel who declares that he and Elizabeth will have a child – John – who will be a prophet and prepare the way for the Lord’s anointed. Zechariah is skeptical and is rendered mute for his lack of trust. Next the Archangel Gabriel visits a poor, teenage girl named Mary. Mary is betrothed to Joseph, but he will not actually enter the story until chapter two. Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah. She gently questions the Angel, but then accepts the word of the Angel – Let it be unto me according to your word. In the next scene Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and when the two women come together the missions and identities of the two unborn babies are confirmed and celebrated. Elizabeth, the older and more established woman praises and defers to the younger unmarried Mary; and full of the Holy Spirit both she and her unborn baby John react to being in the presence of Jesus, even though he is also still unborn. Luke has confirmed for us that not only John is a prophet, but so is Elizabeth. In fact, she is more trusting and more faithful than her own husband, the priest Zechariah.
Mary responds then with the first song – known as the Magnificat in Latin for the first words that Mary sings: My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior! Actually a literal translation of this first line would look more like this: “My life magnifies the Lord, and my spirit – the essence of my very being – rejoices in God, my savior.” Mary has opened herself completely to the Holy Spirit and is a true servant of God. (In fact she admits as much in the next line where she thanks God for the fact that He has looked in favor upon his the lowliness of his serving-girl.) In this way she is the model disciple – and a model for all believers who would take up the cross to follow Jesus throughout the ages. At the conclusion of the song, in verse 54, she actually says as much – God has helped Israel (the people of God – now expanded to include the followers of Jesus) his serving-boy, in order (for them) to remember (make a present reality) his mercy, steadfast love, grace. This passage is amazing. Verse 54 completes the circle by bringing us into the song as part of God’s people. Like Mary, then we are called to open ourselves completely to God’s steadfast love and grace so that in word and deed, in life and in spirit every part of our being would magnify the God who saves us and who calls us to remember, to make this grace and steadfast love a present reality in our lives that others would also experience through us.
The next section of the song is the difficult and controversial part. When Luther translated the New Testament into German he actually left Mary’s song in Latin in fear of offending his Prince who might not like the line about casting the mighty from their thrones. And in our own time it was not so long ago that there was a law in El Salvador which banned the reading, singing and preaching on this text because it was considered offensive to those who were rich enough to be sent away empty. There is no way around this – we cannot spiritualize these words or ignore them, since they are just the first presentation of a theme that Luke will stay with throughout the Gospel and Acts. And that is: God is on the side of those who are on the margins, the poor and those who are suffering and struggling; and God opposes those who take, cheat, hoard, who use and abuse others, who resort to violence to enforce their way, who amass power and wealth and use it to put others down. But there are two points to be made to clarify exactly what this means. First, God casts down and sends away empty in the hope that they will open themselves to the Holy Spirit and also repent, turn around and become disciples, willing to giving of themselves completely to God; and secondly: The opening and closing – discussed in the above paragraph – make it clear that this is a song of promise, and those who are distracted by wealth, who are filled with self-importance and power, who use and abuse others, who hoard wealth and natural resources in order to enrich themselves and their own are simply excluding themselves from the promise; they are putting themselves outside of God’s grace / steadfast love. This section of the song uses economic language, and there is an economic dimension to this to be sure. But there is much more to it than that. Greed and self-centeredness can place all of us, regardless of our economic standing, outside of God’s salvation – not because God puts us there, but because we put ourselves there by the choices we make and the way we are in relationship.
Finally a word about salvation: we tend to think of salvation as a future oriented thing. Salvation is something that will happen when we die, or when Jesus comes again – something that happens in the future. Well, not for Luke. Salvation is NOW! That is one of the points of the song. Mary refers to God her savior. She is not talking about God who will save her down the road sometime in the distant future. God has already saved her! She is experiencing salvation now! And the question to be answered then is – how should she (we) respond? For we too have already been saved. Our salvation is now as well. We respond by emptying ourselves of all that would separate us from God and others, opening ourselves to God’s grace, picking up the cross and following Jesus in the way of service – and this is what it means to remember God’s mercy, steadfast love and grace – to live inside the covenant that God has made with our fathers and mothers of the faith: Abraham & Sarah and on and on…
What is God calling you to in this text? What are some of the ways you are called to remember? In what ways can you Magnify the Lord with your life and spirit?