Luke 1:46b-55 – Mary’s Magnificat

Mary’s Magnificat by Br. Mickey McGrath

Mary responded,

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
    How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
    and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
    and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
    to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
    He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
    and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
    and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and his children forever.” (New Living Translation)

Mary’s great song of praise grasps the reality of being pregnant with the Messiah. Mary affirmed that the all-powerful God “has done great things for me.” Indeed, the Lord shows mercy to everyone who worships and adores such mighty acts.

It strikes me that Mary, instead of being full of worry and afraid of the future, and as an unmarried teen with child, is full of the Spirit and faith. Mary neither complained nor fretted for the nine months of her pregnancy; she praised God and was clear-headed about the grace shown to her.

Mary’s canticle gives us insight into the mystery of the incarnation: God chooses the weak, those of low esteem, and the powerless.

Mary was rather ordinary. She had no wealth. She possessed nothing which would cause anyone to pick her out of a crowd. Yet, she is the one chosen by God. And her wonderful response to grace demonstrated that there is so much more to any person than what we can see with our eyes and perceive through our earthly glasses of high positions and strength of personalities.

The mother of Jesus had the wisdom to discern that her situation typified the Lord’s egalitarian work of leveling the field. Mary’s pregnancy normalized the needs of all people. Her son, the Deliverer, would carry this understanding into his own life and ministry – declaring good news to the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for captives, telling those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

God is full of grace, mercy, and power to the powerless and the needy. The Lord has our backs. Perhaps if we all, both individually and corporately, continually used our words to identify and declare the great things God has done we would realize the consistent blessing of the Lord. 

As we near the night of our Lord’s birth, take some time to reflect on the ways God has been good to you in this Advent season, and like Mary, offer praise for each act of mercy. Mary exhibited no helplessness but had her heart calibrated to detect the grace of God when it was present.

Great and mighty God, I will praise you with all my heart.  You care for me and always show mercy to those who worship you.  Fulfill all your good promises in me, and in all your people, for the sake of your Son, the Lord Jesus.  Amen.

All I Want for Christmas Is Faith

Annunciation to Mary by Salvador Dali, 1965

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.  For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered.  “May it be to me as you have said.”  Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38, NIV)

Most of life is lived in the mundane, even in a time of pandemic. For the most part our everyday lives involve going about our business and dealing with the daily grind. That is because we are common ordinary people. So, we can especially relate to Mary because she is quite plain. 

To put Mary’s life in our contemporary vernacular, at the time of this encounter with the angel, she is of junior high age but has never attended school. She wears mostly clothes from Goodwill, and occasionally can get some from Wal-Mart. She cannot read because girls of her day rarely did. Her parents make all the decisions that affect her life, including the one that she should be married to an older man named Joseph. We do not know if she even liked him. She lives in a small town that most people cannot point to on a map. 

One night, into the bedroom of this young girl comes the brightly beaming divine messenger Gabriel whose name means, “God has shown himself mighty.” Mary stands there in her ratty old flannel nightgown, her life very quickly moving from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The juxtaposition could not be more pronounced:  a mighty angel and a plain teen-ager; a messenger of the Most High God and a girl barely past puberty; a holy angelic light which beams in a simple candlelit bedroom; an awesome power encountering complete vulnerability.

Annunciation by Mexican painter Angel Zárraga (1886-1946)

Mary, compared to Gabriel, is defenseless, fragile, and overwhelmed. She is in way over her head. That is why we can relate to her. We can get our human arms around Mary. She is like us. She has faced life with little power to make it turn out the way she planned. Forces beyond her have rearranged her life and altered it forever. She is the Matron Saint of the Ordinary. We can totally understand why Mary responds the way she does.

Mary’s initial reaction was to be “greatly troubled.”  She was disturbed and shaking in her hand-me-down slippers. The angel confidently told Mary that she had found favor with God. In other words, Mary was literally “graced” by God. The situation was not that Mary had some extreme spirituality, but that God simply chose her to be the mother of Jesus. And Mary needed to come to grips with what was happening to her.  This was well beyond anything she could have expected.  Becoming pregnant with the Savior of the world was not even remotely on her radar. 

Mary immediately sensed the crazy disconnect between what was being told to her and who she was. After all, she was a plain ordinary girl from the hick town of Nazareth and was being told that she would raise a king.  Maybe somebody in heaven screwed up. Maybe Gabriel got the wrong girl. Maybe his Google map sent Gabriel on a wild goose chase. Relating to Mary, we can totally understand that she would question how in the world all this was going to happen.  Not only is Mary ordinary and far from royalty, but she is also very much a virgin.  Nothing about any of this made any sense.

But the angel let Mary know that God specializes in the impossible. English translators chose to phrase the original rendering of Gabriel’s words as “for nothing is impossible with God.” I rather prefer the more literal translation which is “for there is nothing outside of God’s power.” To me, that is beautiful. There is nowhere we can go, no place on earth, no situation whatsoever that is beyond God’s ability and reach to affect divine power.

We do not always get straightforward answers to our questions about God, but Mary asked a question and got a straight answer: She really can be pregnant with Jesus because the Holy Spirit will come upon her, will overshadow her with power. If the story were to end there it would be a great story. But to me the most astonishing part of the narrative is Mary’s response to what was happening to her.

Mary believed the message and submitted herself completely to God’s will. I think we would completely understand if Mary simply said in her ordinary way that she was not prepared for this. We would totally “get it” if Mary pushed back on what the angel said to her. We could relate if Mary just dismissed the angel’s presence, like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol, as if Gabriel were just “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Yet, Mary not only believed; she also humbly submitted herself to what was happening. And this is what I believe we need to relate to most about Mary – not her being just a plain ordinary person in a non-descript village but stepping up to the calling she received. We, too, have received a calling in our lives. We, too, have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.  We, too, are ordinary people who have been given a very extraordinary task. 

Our response today can be the same as Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.” The Church is pregnant with possibilities because of the Holy Spirit. We know the end of Mary’s story. She gave birth to Jesus. She raised him in her plain ordinary way. She watched him grow up. She saw him embark on his ministry to proclaim the kingdom of God has become near. Mary did not always understand what Jesus said or what he was doing. And she experienced every mother’s nightmare in seeing her beloved son killed in a terribly gruesome manner right in front of her eyes. 

Yet, just as the Holy Spirit was with the birth of Jesus, so the Spirit was with Jesus at his resurrection from the dead. Jesus lived an ordinary life in a very extraordinary way. Furthermore, today Jesus invites us to do the same. Because Christ accomplished his mission of saving people from their sins and establishing a kingdom that will never end, he has given us the same Holy Spirit to follow him forever and call other people to follow him, too. 

To trust and obey is God’s only way to live into the life of Jesus. The Christian life may often be difficult, but it is not complicated. It is rather simple, just like Mary. Mary responded to God’s revelation with faith, choosing to fully participate in what God was doing. “I am the Lord’s servant” is our confession, as well. Along with Mary we declare, “May it be to me as you have said.”

Isaiah 11:1-10 – All I Want for Christmas Is a Savior

The Lion and the Lamb by Aaron Spong

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

 The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

In that day, the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10, NIV)

Christians believe Isaiah’s prophecy to speak of Jesus in whom all these virtues exist in wonderful perfection and practice. Jesus Christ has so clearly identified with us that we are in a vital union with him.  He still exists here on earth in the person of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was sent by the Father.  With the Father and the Son, the Spirit was sent to press the redemptive events of Jesus into the believer’s heart.  This is basic Trinitarian theology.  Yet these are not abstract ideas.  Prayer, discernment, and listening are the pathways forward to discovering the wisdom, counsel, and knowledge we need to live and serve well as Christians.

In some quarters of Christianity, the church exists as a mere stump of its former existence. For many Christians, daily experience of the Spirit has been supplanted by individual ingenuity, hard work, and getting ahead through accumulation of more and more.  Basic Christian spirituality then becomes a mere shadow of its former influence.  If we desire the Spirit of the Lord to rest upon us, we will seek Christ as our foremost importance.  

Indeed, it is when we are worn down to a stump and have no ability to grow or sustain life anymore that God enters, specializing in giving hope to the hopeless, justice for the poor, wisdom to the confused, and peace to all who desire a harmonious world.

In the awful feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, there is a faint sign of life. A fresh shoot becomes discernible. Could there be possibility amidst such impossible circumstances? Can there be life again? Do I dare hope again? Will things really change, and do so for the better?

The answer is “yes.” For where the Spirit of the Lord blows there is the force of resurrection power, spiritual energy, and fresh courage. Where others see only three-dimensional impossibilities, the believer has the capacity of faith to see multi-dimensional possibilities. The Spirit’s force generates possibility where none existed before. When the breath of God whispers to the sprout in the stump, pessimistic despair turns to optimistic hope, even joy.

Jesus Christ is the Christian’s hope. In Christ, there is security, well-being, and life. With Jesus, there is a vision of justice in which all persons receive what they need to live, thrive, and flourish in God’s world. Christ operates to our advantage and on our behalf without the personal greed and indifference of so many earthly rulers. The weak and vulnerable have a champion in Jesus. Renewal and restoration become very real possibilities.

I have lately taken a liking to a show called “The Repair Shop,” a British television series in which family heirlooms which have sentimental value for their owners are carefully restored by experts. What captivates me about the show is how one person can take an old broken-down item (and by all appearances now a piece of junk) and restore it to its once glorious newness.

There is more to my captivation of the show. I am struck by the sheer pleasure the restorers take in handling the old object, enjoying the process. Just by the looks on their faces, I can tell they consider it a privilege to be restoring such a precious object of the past.

Artisan Steve Fletcher restoring an 18th century French clock

I am sure this is precisely how God feels with us. Rather than envisioning the Lord as some reluctant deity who feels put out with having to rescue a bunch of dumb and wayward people, God is One who has delight in taking this old stump of fallen damaged humanity and restoring us to our original luster and beauty. Transformation is God’s specialty, and the Lord goes about the process of restoration with great care and delight.

The impossible possibility of God’s new creation is poetically described in the peaceful co-existence of animals and creatures who are inconceivably together without fear or violence. There is a time coming when death will be no more, and so, the necessity in this life of hunter and prey shall be forever negated. No more snakes terrorizing women and children. No more big fishes eating little ones. No more human fat cats preying upon and striking poison on the smaller and vulnerable.

The presence of the godly Ruler means the world will be governed rightly, detoxified of its sinful impurities; a place where the poor, the weak, and the little lambs will indeed be safe and secure forever. There will be peace because of the Prince of Peace. All creation will be full of God, and thus, free of all malice.

This beautiful prophecy from Isaiah envisions a deep, radical, limitless transformation in which there will be no more appetite to injure another; no more desire to devour another; no more lust for selfish control of another; and no more destructive passion for domination over others.

It is a thorough renovation of the human heart, human institutions, the animal kingdom, and even every blade of grass in creation. The Apostle Paul had this grand vision of God in mind when he wrote to the Church at Rome:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope thatthe creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23, NIV)

The implication for us as humanity was voiced by Paul to the Colossian Church:

Now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:8-11, NIV)

The transformation is all-pervasive, impacting everything public while also being intimately personal. It is a gift from God; it is the impossible made possible. And it is this precise thing which we acknowledge, celebrate, and long for in the season of Advent. When the angel came to Mary and communicated that Isaiah’s vision was coming to reality through her womb, Mary astonishingly retorted:

“How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel, with supreme confidence, answered Mary as a matter of fact:

“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…. For no word from God will ever fail.”

Mary’s response gives voice to our own desires and longings for the new order of things:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:34-38, NIV)

This is our confession, too. I am the Lord’s servant. You are the Lord’s servant. May God’s word to us about the coming of Christ be fulfilled, just as Isaiah has said. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus on a bright starry night.

Luke 1:46-55

 
 
            I like it that the lectionary has a traditional Christmas text in the daily readings at this time of year.  We are now in the post-Pentecost season of “Proper Time,” that is, it is the proper season of all Christians to avail themselves of the gift of the Holy Spirit through sharing the gospel, proclaiming the grace of God, and declaring the great things God has done and is doing.
 
            Mary’s song of praise, having grasped the reality that she is pregnant with the Messiah, affirms that “God All-Powerful has done great things for me, and his name is holy.  He always shows mercy to everyone who worships him.”  It strikes me that Mary, instead of being full of worry and afraid of the future, and as an unmarried teen with child, is full of the Spirit and faith.  Mary doesn’t complain or fret; she praises God and is clear-headed about his gracious nature.
 
            God is full of grace, mercy, and power to those who are powerless and in need of help.  It’s what he does.  He’s got this.  Perhaps if we all, both individually and corporately as churches, used our words to identify and declare the great things God has done, rather than bemoaning all that isn’t right, we would realize the blessing of the Lord.  Take some time today to journal the ways in which God has been good to you this week, and praise him for each act of mercy.  Mary didn’t succumb to learned helplessness, but had her heart calibrated to detect the grace of God when it was present.
 

 

            Great and mighty God, I will praise you with all my heart.  You care for me and always show mercy to those who worship you.  Fulfill all your good promises in me, and in all your people, for the sake of your Son, the Lord Jesus.  Amen.