“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The passage that has been most impressed on my heart this Advent season is the song of Mary known as the “Magnificat” (first word of this song in Latin, meaning magnifies) recorded in the gospel of Luke. The hope that this song holds out is what I want to carry with me into 2019.
The song is in response to all that God is doing in Mary’s life – which is quite a disruption by my standards - and particularly in response to her cousin Elizabeth’s declaration of Mary as blessed because of the child she will bear and for her trust that God would fulfil His word to her.
The song is intensely personal and prophetic at the same time. It begins with Mary glorifying God and rejoicing in what He has done for her. While we can speculate on all that Mary may have gone through as a consequence of becoming pregnant while still a virgin - confusion, fear, questions, shame - and we can speculate on what she did or did not know, what Mary tells us is that her whole being rejoices in this mighty God who has done great things for her.
And what has God done – He has favoured her, He has chosen to fulfil His plan of salvation through somebody who is a nobody in society. A young, poor, unwed girl was chosen to bear the Messiah. The Saviour of the world was in a womb of no social or political consequence. But what Mary says has come true - not only does Elizabeth call her blessed but also everyone who reads and hears this story calls Mary blessed. Blessed because of her courage and submission to God’s (not always fully comprehensible) call on her life.
The song then moves on from praising God for what He has done for her to praising God for what He does in the world – an extension of what He has done for her. The proud are scattered, the mighty are toppled while the humble (like Mary) are exalted. The rich are sent away empty while the hungry are filled with good things. The kingdom of God that is ushered in through the incarnation is an upside down kingdom (or actually the right side up kingdom). While every society favours those who are confident in themselves, in their wealth, and in their power, God is on the side of the humble, the weak, the poor, and the hungry. For every cry of the oppressed and those treated unjustly, there is hope in this Kingdom and in this King.
Lastly, the song speaks of God’s fulfilment of His covenant promises to Israel. God in His mercy has helped Israel – the child in her womb is the promised One who will save, redeem, and restore a world that is broken by sin. Helpless Israel, signifying all of us in our brokenness and sin, has hope in Christ – who became poor for our sake, who humbled Himself by taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. In Christ, the blessing of Abraham has come to the Gentiles, to all of us.
The song holds out hope for the humble, the hungry, and the helpless because it is only in being humble, hungry, and helpless that we recognise our need for a Saviour and realise that we have One who became humble, hungry, and helpless so that we can be filled, satisfied, and rich in Him. May this year be filled with the hope of this song!
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Luke 1: 46-55