And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”Luke 1:46-47
For our Advent vespers services this year, I will be looking at the songs of praise that are recorded in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel: Mary’s “Magnificat,” followed by Zechariah’s “Benedictus,” the angel’s “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” and Simeon’s “Nunc Dimittis.” The first is Mary’s song, the “Magnificat,” Luke 1:46-55.
Christians throughout the ages have sung these words, especially as part of Vespers, or Evening Prayer. These powerful words were first spoken or sung by young Mary, whom all generations surely do call blessed. After the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was to be the mother of our Lord, she made haste to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who was also pregnant (with John the Baptist). Following Elizabeth’s greeting and blessing, Mary responded with the timeless words of her “Magnificat.” And all these centuries later, we continue to join her in singing this canticle, our souls magnifying the Lord, along with Mary’s and countless other Christians throughout history.
The Church’s Song, Our Song
We sing Mary’s song, because it is the Church’s song; it is our song. Just as Mary joyfully looked forward to the birth of her first child, so we look forward to the annual celebration of our Savior’s birth, and to his promised return. Mary sang this song as she awaited the coming of the Lord into the world. And so do we.
Advent is a time of waiting. And a time of preparation. Advent has sometimes been called a “little lent,” because it, too, is a time of preparation before a great feast. Just as the penitential season of Lent prepares us for the great feast of Easter, this penitential season of Advent prepares us for the great feast of Christmas. And so we fast tonight – from whatever we would normally be doing now – to gather together in worship, to prepare for the feast of the Incarnation of our Lord. And one of the best ways to do that is to sing Mary’s song.
As we sing Mary’s magnificent song, we remind ourselves of this wondrous fact that God has chosen to look with favor on our lowliness, and bless us with the gift of a Savior.
Many Reasons to Sing
Let me briefly touch on four essential aspects of this song, which are four reasons to sing it. First, and most obviously, its opening words remind us to magnify – exalt, glorify – the Lord, to give thanks to God, our Lord and Savior. Martin Luther puts it this way:
Mary sets things in their proper order when she calls God her Lord before calling Him her Savior, and when she calls Him her Savior before recounting His works. Thereby she teaches us to love and praise God for Himself alone, and in the right order, and not selfishly to seek anything at His hands. This is done when one praises God because He is good.
With Mary we also sing: “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” This is not a way of boasting about our lowliness, of course. As Luther explains, “When a prince takes a poor beggar by the hand, it is not the beggar’s lowliness but the prince’s grace and goodness that is to be commended.” It is God’s grace and goodness we are commending here.
With Mary we also sing: “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Again, the blessing points to what God has done. For Mary, certainly, but also for us. God has done great things for us all. When we pause to remember this, we can’t help but magnify our God.
Finally, we sing with Mary: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things.” We don’t have to go long these days before we hear or read of another wealthy individual, or powerful politician, being brought down and humbled. But we don’t sing Mary’s Song to boast about their ill-fortune. Instead we sing it to remind us that we, too, must be brought down from our self-exalting thoughts and actions. We must humble ourselves, so that God may lift us up. We must admit that we are but beggars in search of God’s grace. Only then can we clothe ourselves in Christ, and be embraced by his mercy. And only then can we magnify the Lord, and not ourselves.
When Christmas arrives this year, there will be many celebrations around the world. But what will people be celebrating? We gather tonight to remember to remember the true reason for this season, the gift of God’s son. Our world clearly needs a Savior. Our world clearly needs Mary’s son, Jesus. And that is what we have been given. The gift above all gifts. And that is the reason we join with Christians of every time and place in singing Mary’s magnificent song – to magnify the Lord, and to rejoice in God our Savior. Amen.