46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
On December 12, in the year 1531, an image of the virgin Mary was said to have appeared in the fabric of the coat of a devout Mexican peasant, Juan Diego. The image was verified by several witnesses. Soon a shrine and then a basilica were constructed to house the sacred cloth with Mary’s image. Today, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City has become the most visited religious destination in Roman Catholic tradition, and the third most visited religious site in the world.
Fast forward almost 500 years, to November 26, 2011 (that’s exactly five years ago, yesterday) to Princeton Theological Seminary–arguably the heart of Presbyterianism in the United States–where a young, devout, Presbyterian seminary student (that would be me) is brushing his teeth one day, when he sees the image of the great reformer, John Calvin, appear in the swirling, pink marble tile of his bathroom sink in his seminary apartment. This really happened. Amy was my first witness, but there were several others. I even put the image of sink-Calvin on twitter and Facebook, side by side with an actual portrait of the historical Calvin just in case there was any doubt. I’d be happy to show it to you sometime.
What happens next? A shrine dedicated to Calvin’s image? Mass pilgrimages of Presbyterians flocking to see the location? Hardly. My image of Calvin was received with a collective shrug by most who saw it, and just a few months later, the seminary demolished the apartments, relegating sink-Calvin to the rubble heap of history (something Calvin himself would have been just fine with!).
Clearly, we as Presbyterians have a different kind of relationship with our faith heroes. And I think that makes it hard for us to understand why Mary is such a big deal in other traditions, like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Protestants are often afraid that if we like someone too much, if we elevate someone too high in our prayers, our creeds, our art and our music, that we might be in danger of breaking the first commandment–you shall have no other Gods before me, says the Lord. And so we cringe at some of the grandiose titles given to Mary throughout history: Holy Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven.
In our sincere efforts to avoid idolatry, however, I think something is lost. Christianity is a religion otherwise dominated by patriarchs, masculine deities, and male leading roles. It would be nice to find a middle ground, somewhere between a larger-than-life, God-like Mary of Catholic and Orthodox tradition and the almost invisible, insignificant Mary of Protestant tradition. In order to do that, it might be helpful to look at Mary through the lens of her own words, her own song of praise, which she sings in the gospel of Luke after her cousin Elizabeth greets her and acknowledges Mary’s miraculous pregnancy.
Mary’s song of praise (also known by it’s Latin title, the Magnificat) is a famous one, and has been set to music many times through the years. In fact, along with three other songs in the Gospel of Luke, it was probably one of the earliest hymns sung by the Christian church. And that’s a great place for us to start. A few weeks ago, we had a hymn sing Sunday, where we sang some of our favorite hymns.
I want you to think of your favorite hymn or song right now–what makes it your favorite? I’m guessing about half of you thought “the music,” which is a good enough answer, but in this case (Mary’s song) we have no idea what the music was. And in any case, if we took your favorite song and replaced it with the words to the 2017 tax code, you’d probably like it a lot less. So let’s try this again: Think of the words to your favorite song. What is it that you like about them? This time, I’m guessing that most of your answers had something to do with relatability–you can relate to the words; they speak to you, describe your situation somehow, even though they originate from someone else’s story. That’s a big part of what makes a good song: It’s personal.
Wait a minute! Personal? Relatable? Mary’s song? You mean I’m supposed to relate to what it feels like to be pregnant with God’s son? That happens all the time, right?
No. That’s Mary’s story, which is different from her song. Her story is unique, but her song is universal. Listen to the opening lines again:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
The Greek word for “soul” is ψυχή (psyche), which is defined by Strong’s as the vital breath, breath of life, spirit.” In the next phrase, the Greek word for “spirit” is πνεῦμά (pneuma), which is defined by Strong’s as spirit, wind, or breath.
The Greek words for “magnify” and “rejoice” are also a lot more similar in meaning than their English translations suggest. Basically, we have two phrases here that are essentially saying the same thing with a slight variation. If that sounds familiar to some of you, it’s because we studied the psalms not too long ago, and you might remember that repetition with variation is a key feature of Hebrew poetry.
Wait a minute…Hebrew? I thought you just said the words were Greek? Correct. Hebrew is the language of the Old Testament, and the New Testament is written in Greek. So Mary’s words here come to us in Greek, because Luke is the one writing them down, and that’s the language that he speaks. But Mary is a Jewish woman. Her native language is likely Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew. That’s important to remember because the Magnificat, while written in Greek (with a Latin title) is fundamentally a Hebrew poem, and is best understood in the same way we understand the Psalms or other Hebrew poetry.
Like the Psalms, the Magnificat begins with a personal connection between the poet (Mary) and God: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
If you need a simpler version of those lines, Mary is essentially saying the first thing we say when we pray with our children: Dear God. There’s a lot of meaning we take for granted in those two words. Why is God dear? That’s the next line:
For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
The NRSV translation for some reason adds the word “favor” here, perhaps taking it to be implied. But the Greek text simply says, “He looked upon the lowliness of his servant.” In other words, “He saw me.” I’m not invisible. I’m significant. Lowliness can mean many things. Some versions translate it as “humiliation.” It’s possible Mary could be speaking of her situation (she’s pregnant and her fiance is not the father!); she could be speaking of her poverty, her age, or even her spiritual condition. We start our worship service every Sunday with a prayer of confession not unlike this. God, we confess and acknowledge how low we are, and how low we can sometimes be.
The next line reads: “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
I’ve often wondered if Mary had a subtle, understated sense of humor, because it kind of seems like she’s making a joke here. The Greek word for “blessed” is μακάριος (makarios) and it’s the same word that Mary’s son, Jesus, will use over and over again in the Beatitudes (Blessed are those who…). But while “blessed” or “happy” is a good enough translation, the literal meaning of the word is to become big, large, elongated.
In other words, Mary could be saying, “from now on, everyone’s gonna call me huge.”
Even if Mary is joking, there’s definitely a multi-layered meaning to what she’s saying. This part of her song, her prayer, is pure gratitude, the realization that happiness and fullness are going to be so evident in her life that everyone will notice, not just now, but years and years from now, too.
Mary began her prayer with “Dear God.” She continued with “you’ve seen me for who I am” and now she says, effectively, “and I know things are going to be okay.”
It doesn’t get anymore personal than that.
Today we made it through the first three verses of the Magnificat: Mary’s focus on herself, her situation, and her connection with God. Next week we’ll look at verses 49-51, as the focus of Mary’s song shifts from herself exclusively to God–who God is, and what God does. And then the third and final week of the series, we’ll look at verses 52-55, as Mary’s song shifts again in focus to others in the world, and how God interacts with them.
This year, as you begin your Advent journeys, your journeys to Christmas, my hope is that Mary’s prayer will become your own;
That somewhere in the midst of shopping and working and cooking and traveling;
That somewhere through all the wrapping paper and glitter and plastic of the season;
That you’ll make some time and space in your life to approach God as Mary did;
With simple joy, with genuine humility, and with profound gratitude.