Our gospel reading this morning contains one of the most famous – I’d even say infamous – texts in all of scripture. In this passage from Luke, right off the bat, we get the sense that something unusual is coming. This is a story about two women – the whole passage, all seventeen verses, details their conversation – and when you consider the time that it was written, it’s amazing that it was written down at all! Luke tells us that Mary traveled to the “house of Zechariah,” but Zechariah doesn’t even show up in this story. If you were here a couple of weeks ago, you can probably guess why that is! (Exactly right! Zechariah was stricken mute when Elizabeth’s pregnancy was announced). This story is about Elizabeth and Mary – not about Zechariah and not even about Joseph.
In this passage from Luke, Mary sings a song we could arguably call the very first Christmas carol. You have probably heard these words before. If you’re familiar with Holden Evening Prayer, then you have definitely sung these words before! This is the song that we call the Magnificat. Magnificat means “magnify” in Latin – it’s the first word of Mary’s song in Latin.
As I was reading over this text again this week, I found myself kind of struck with this idea of magnifying, of magnification. With her song, Mary magnifies the Lord. I think we usually read this as like Mary praises God, Mary proclaims that God is magnificent and majestic – and I’d say that’s probably pretty accurate. But still, the word magnify puts kind of quirky ideas in my head. I mean, what do you think of when you hear the word “magnify”? Like a magnifying glass, right? So now I’m imagining like Mary is this giant magnifying glass to look at God with, haha.
But as weird as the idea sounds, I think Mary does kind of magnify God in this sense through her song. When you use a magnifying glass, you are trying to take a closer look at something, trying to make it clearer, to show more detail. Mary’s song helps us to see God more clearly, in more detail. Mary’s soul does, indeed, magnify the Lord, and through her and her song, we get to see several different perspectives on who God is.
First and foremost, we think of Mary as a joyful, expectant mother – because, of course, she is! Both Elizabeth and Mary are pregnant in this story. Both of their children were conceived under miraculous circumstances, an unexpected gift of life from God. Mary finds out about Elizabeth from the angel who visits her – and immediately afterward, she sets out to go see Elizabeth. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, she is filled with the Holy Spirit and she cries out to Mary in blessing. Elizabeth’s blessing confirms that everything Mary has heard is true: she is carrying a child, and that child is the Son of God. Mary’s heart is too full of emotion to just speak a response, and so she bursts forth in this exuberant song! Mary rejoices that God has come near, that God has come to be among God’s people in the flesh!
I imagine God’s heart being filled with this same kind of joy. And, I mean, what a weird way for God to choose to come to earth! You’d kind of expect God to come as like a king or as somebody powerful – or at the very least, as an adult! But God chooses to come into creation the same way that all regular humans do: as a tiny, helpless infant. I just imagine God chuckling with delight at the unexpectedness of it all. God loves humanity so much that God just has to get the full, human experience. God isn’t coming near to us just in a spiritual or theoretical sense. Mary will physically give birth to Jesus – God made flesh – in exactly the way that all babies are born.
Mary was not an obvious choice to be the one to birth God into the world. She wasn’t wealthy or famous or well-connected. By our standards, she wasn’t even an adult yet. She was an unmarried teenage woman – a nobody among a tribe of nobodies, a member of a small minority group living in the Middle East under the dominion of a brutal empire. And the same goes for Elizabeth – she was an older woman who had never been able to have children, which was a source of deep shame for the culture in which they lived. Both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s pregnancies were absolutely scandalous.
And yet, this is the way that God chose to come into the world. God chooses to show up in the unlikeliest of places, through the most unlikely people. God shows up among those who have been marginalized and outcast and calls them family. God comes to those who have learned to see themselves with shame, and makes them holy and calls them to be proclaimers of the most amazing good news. God brings hope and life even in the most hopeless situations, because nothing is impossible with God.
Mary’s song is full of these impossibilities. After she gives thanks and praises God, Mary’s song turns downright prophetic. God shows strength and scatters the proud in heart. God casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. And at the very end, Mary explicitly places her hope in the God who comes to the aid of Israel, trusting in the angel’s promise that her son would sit on the throne of David. She is singing about a very specific, tangible, political reality. This is not some ethereal, spiritual kingdom. This is a kingdom that will rule over all creation – physical and spiritual – over all political powers and principalities, even including the ones that govern this country. This is a kingdom that has real world implications. And Mary’s song has motivated real world change – it’s telling that the Magnificat has actually been banned at various times throughout history, in places like Guatemala and Argentina and India under British rule – because of its radical message.
God’s kingdom is a radical reality, and Mary’s song reflects this. God has done wondrous and unexpected things in Mary’s own life, and she is full of hope and expectation that God will likewise transform the world. God is turning the world and its established order upside down, making the last first and the first last. For the poor and lowly and hungry, this is the best possible news. For those who are rich and comfortable and accustomed to power, this is very unsettling news. But it is good news, wherever we fall on that spectrum; good news that God does work in mysterious and even upsetting ways. God isn’t limited to doing what we think is right and proper and possible. God chooses the unexpected and impossible; God chooses the scandalous and the shameful; God chooses us, as limited and as flawed as we are, and through us, God transforms the world.
Our souls magnify the Lord, just as Mary’s did. Through her roles as a mother, as an outcast, and as a prophet, Mary gave others a glimpse of who God is. And in that vein, I invite you to wonder: what does your life say to others about who God is? How does your soul magnify the Lord?