Sermon for Advent 3 (14 December 2008 )
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…
So begins the Song of Mary, a outpouring of ecstatic joy which we usually call the Magnificat, after the first word of the Latin translation.
We’re going to look at an aspect of the Magnificat, but before we do, let me take you back a bit. In St Luke’s first chapter, he tells a story. Let’s be clear: while some believers take it for granted that this story should be understood literally, others aren’t so sure. But either way, we can receive the meaning that the story carries.
It’s the story of an angel, visiting a village lass called Mary. And this was not just any angel, but the archangel Gabriel. Mary hears that she has been chosen to bear a son, to be named Jesus, and that he will be called the Son of God. Her response to this rather surprising news is: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” You heard it right, ageing Beatles fans: let it be. In other words, Yes.
Stevie Smith was an English poet who coined the phrase. ‘Not waving but drowning’. She once said,
If I had been the Virgin Mary, I would have said ‘no’.
Just as well she wasn’t! But have you ever thought about how the story may have gone if Mary had said ‘no’? What if the story had been of a Mary who had opted for security, for convention, for obscurity in the bush of Galilee? After all, unplanned pregnancies are not exactly always welcome news. They are bound to set the tongues of local gossips to wagging.
St Luke’s tells of a meeting between God and Mary, an instant in time when the cosmos holds its breath; a moment when the eternal God reveals a holy vulnerability. God’s hand is held out to this slip of a village girl, and God—God!—awaits her answer.
Mary’s Yes changes her life. She had been nothing. In her time and place, a virgin was not respected, as became the case in later centuries; rather, a virgin was unfulfilled. And if a woman never became pregnant, she was disgraced. The Magnificat says that God “has…lifted up the lowly…” Mary had indeed been lifted high. Let the gossips say what they liked.
And Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…” Mary’s song is resonant with Old Testament images and themes, it is a song which would not be out of place in the Book of Psalms.
The Magnificat is a song of humility before the God who descends to earth in order to save humanity. It is a song of the mighty God, but: God’s is the might of the truly mighty; might which can show itself in true tenderness, in patient faithfulness, in great mercy. Strength which lifts the lowly, rather than favouring the strong. In Mary’s Song, we see God’s might precisely in God’s mercy.
In Mary’s song, God finds in favour of the lowly and the hungry, and Mary is herself a living example of that. She is a girl who simply says Yes; a young woman who evidences extraordinary faith, and singular wisdom.
What if Mary had said ‘no’? But she said Yes. More to the point, what if we say Yes to God? What can God do with us, how will Christ be formed within us, if we say Yes? How will our lives magnify the Lord if we open our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ? How will God lift us up? What is there we need to let go of? Can we bear to share Mary’s joy? These are our questions today; and they accompany us as Christmas approaches. If God is gracious to us, these questions will never go away—until, with Mary, we too say Yes.