My Soul Magnifies the Lord, Advent 4(C) – 2015

[RCL] Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 3 or 15 or Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

“My heart exults in the Lord … My strength is exalted in my God …”

Sound familiar?

Today we hear the Magnificat, that great song of Mary that the author of Luke and Acts has blessed us with.

But this quote isn’t from the Magnificat. It’s not even from the gospels. It’s from the Book of Samuel. It’s sung by another pregnant woman, Hannah the mother of Samuel, the great priest and prophet.

Hannah was unable to conceive and bear children because we are told, “The Lord had closed her womb.” In time, however, she does conceive and when she dedicates her son – her only son – to the temple, to become a priest she sings a song. Luke uses this song as a model for Mary’s song.

In both the mighty are laid low, and the lowly are raised up. God is active and acting in the world. And so these women sing, “My heart exults in the Lord!” “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

That’s an arresting phrase: My soul magnifies the Lord. MY soul magnifies the Lord. This is sometimes translated as “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” which means sort of the same thing. But there’s something more profound in saying “my soul magnifies the Lord.”

The more traditional (Rite I) version of the Magnificat has yet another translation that opens up an even deeper level, a more profound paradox.

It reads, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and then a little later it says, “For he that is mighty hath magnified me.” I magnify the Lord, but the Lord also magnifies me. It’s a double magnification and it’s maybe a little “through the looking-glass.”

But that’s where we are in Advent. Advent prepares us for Christmas, which takes us through the looking glass. There, everything looks familiar but everything is utterly and profoundly different. Because God has become incarnate, enfleshed, one of us, and that changes everything.

At the beginning of the service we prayed “that when Jesus comes he will find in our hearts a mansion prepared for him.” That should sound familiar too. In John’s great mystical account of the God-magnifying life of Jesus, Jesus says that he goes to prepare a mansion for us (“in my father’s house are many mansions … I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2) And now as we are on the cusp of welcoming God (again) – recognizing God as living and moving and acting among us (again) – we are told to prepare a mansion for God. You know the song: “Let every heart, prepare Him room.” We are told to prepare God a space, so that God might be born again in us. So that we might be born again. Our souls, our bodies, our very being will thereby magnify the greatness of God.

We delight in singing about the mighty works of God this time of year. We find it easy and comforting to sing about what God brings about in the world. We sing about God bringing joy and peace. Mary’s song invites us to consider not only the what, but also the how. The Magnificat can be read as an invitation to sing along with Mary about our part in that divine action. This is what Jesus’ incarnation tells us. It’s what Mary is telling us. That God goes about bringing peace, and joy, and love, and hope to the world through us. By magnifying God’s grace and spirit through us.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” can mean that through me, through you, through us others can see the Lord more clearly. Through me and through you, through the way we choose to live our lives and practice our faith in the world people can catch a sustained glimpse of that peaceful kingdom. They can experience the righteous reign of God’s justice and peace. They can share in God’s dream of shalom.

Through each of us, through our words and our actions, through all that we do, we magnify God. We magnify God’s being with our own bodies. We magnify God’s action with our own practices. We magnify God’s word with our words in the world.

God is the one who acts. We magnify that action and give it hands and feet and hearts and minds. We collaborate with God in the divine actions of lifting up of the lowly, feeding the hungry. A good question to meditate on in the remaining time before Christmas might be: how do I magnify the Lord?

That’s a big question. It’s easy to think that it’s too big for any one of us to handle. But another important lesson the Magnificat teaches is that you are enough. Whoever you are, whatever you have or haven’t done, you are enough. The song of Mary reminds us that all of the scripture points to the little, the lowly, the “who me?” as the vehicle for salvation.

Bethlehem is nothing special. Hannah is a long-suffering, put upon other wife who endures the incessant teasing of the wife who is able to bear children. Elizabeth was also thought to be barren, and endured disgrace because of it.

And Mary is no one. An underage woman from a nowhere town – Nazareth (“what good can come from there?”) – engaged to someone we’re told is from the house of David but that doesn’t really make Joseph all that special; a lot of people were distantly related to David.

All throughout scripture whenever God wants to do something it’s the little, the ordinary, the unexceptional that God uses. When God wants to create God reaches into the mud. When God wants to raise up a king for Israel, God chooses the youngest of many children, the one sent out to watch the flocks. When God wants to redeem all of creation God enters that creation fully and completely as one of the most vulnerable creatures on the planet, a human child.

It is through human beings, through human flesh, the substance that is also the vehicle for all sin in the world. It’s through this fragile and easily broken substance that salvation happens. It is through us that God works. Through us that God is magnified.

In Acts, St. Paul says that “God is that in which we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Mary reminds us that we are how God lives and moves and brings about God’s will in the world.

It is not through magic, but through a human being. Through Mary, and her child Jesus, and with the help of the Holy Spirit through apostles, prophets and martyrs – and even through us – that God transforms God’s dream of shalom into the reality of God’s realm of justice and peace.

And just like Mary and Hannah, though little, we are enough. Each of us is enough to magnify God. Imagine what would happen if we let God work. If we truly made room for God to be born in our hearts. If we let God magnify the good work that God has begun and is already doing in each of us. What if we joined together with others to magnify that work? Imagine the world that would be born from that.

As we prepare to welcome Christ once more into our hearts and our homes, may our souls magnify more and more the glory of God and our hearts exult in the goodness of God, this day and always.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Advent 4C.

Written by The Rev. Richard Burden, PhD
The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden was called as Rector of All Saints Parish in 2014. Born and raised in Colorado, Richard received a BA in Theatre Arts from Colorado State University, an MA in history from the University of Colorado at Denver and a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he studied Christian conversion in early 20th century China. He began his first career as a bookseller working at the Tattered Cover in Denver, and after a journey through academia he discerned a call to ordained ministry which led him to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, CA. Richard was ordained in 2009 and was first called to the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington to serve as Priest in Charge, and also to help develop a groundbreaking program of leadership and congregational development known as The Network for Pastoral Leadership. In 2013, he began to sense God calling him in a new direction, this time to New England. He is a Fellow of the Beatitudes Society. He says, “I went into ordained ministry because I wanted to be a catalyst for individuals and communities to become the people that God needs them to be and to do the work God so urgently needs them to do.” With his spouse Monica, he is also a parent to two school aged children. His recorded sermons are available at allsaintsbrooline.org, you can contact him through the All Saints Brookline Facebook page, twitter @allsaintsbline, and instagram.  

4 Advent (C) – 2012

Reflections at the end of Advent

December 23, 2012

Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Don’t you love it when people ask you, “Are you ready for Christmas?” A good answer is, “No, but it’s coming anyway, so let’s all be joyful!”

This week we pay for that bridge week between Thanksgiving and Advent by having a truncated fourth week in Advent. It barely begins before we move to Christmas Eve, then Christmas itself. But, truly, we’re never ready. Advent is a deliberate escape from the frantic pulse of getting ready. It gives us breathing room; only, this year, almost a week less than usual.

In today’s readings we are taken to a very different space from preparation, a space of ancient prophecy in Micah, theology in Hebrews, and a docudrama of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke. You will not likely find any holiday arts or crafts for sale that help us reflect on these spaces, yet each of them contributes greatly to our end-of-Advent experience, and spills over into Christmas. Let’s look at them in turn.

Micah was an eighth-century prophet. He is one of a group whose prophecies are primarily designed to call the Kingdom back to its common core values of righteousness and justice, especially for the poor. This passage today should not be understood in any other context. It is not to be viewed as a prediction of the birth of Jesus, though Christians often interpret it that way. It is rather a vision of restoration, of righteousness with kingship that cares for the values of a nation that have been lost.

While the image “she who is in labor has brought forth” is often equated with Mary, the phrasing in its original Hebrew is ambiguous, and the “she” could refer to the nation or something else. Micah is concerned about political history and its future, and how God will deliver God’s people, but he is not necessarily prophesying a Messiah in the way many have chosen to interpret his prophecy.

The significant message of Micah is that in the midst of turmoil and in a nation that has lost its bearings, God’s plan will continue to be revealed and it will involve leadership that brings in a reign of peace. This is a message of hope we badly need to hear in our time.

“Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” The psalmist picks up this longing for restoration and is a great lead-in to the reading from Hebrews.

Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God’s plan involves a restoration not based on sacrifice and expensive offerings, but on God’s gracious action of sanctifying each of us as holy beings, worthy of being loved by our Savior and Redeemer. Now that’s a Christmas present!

You can feel the emotional movement from Micah to Hebrews, a faint hope now answered in the birth of Jesus, a resounding message of peace for all humanity; those who have gone before, the living and those yet to come.

Finally, we get to this wonderful drama in the Gospel of Luke, the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. It helps to recall that Mary is a very young girl, likely in her early teens, while Elizabeth is older, mature. They have the intimacy of being related; but did they talk only of domestic things? One doubts they did. Both of them had remarkable experiences surrounding their pregnancies, and they share the awareness of Divine involvement. Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, rings down through the centuries, a fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, and the validation of a God who cares for all creation and loves it into redemption with justice and grace.

The early Christian church used this story of the Visitation in Luke as a foundation for the Incarnation. Luke includes it as part of the birth narrative because the church was seeking to explain and affirm that the birth of Jesus was not just another one of those “virgin births.” Many rulers had claimed similar origins to justify their deification. The forming church wanted to clarify the God incarnate, man divine, as an affirmation of humanity, and that is what begins to attract people to this remarkable gospel and to Jesus.

This last Sunday of Advent gives us a brief time to reflect upon and kindle within ourselves the light of the incarnate Lord. The foundation is laid for what we will find at the manger. Now let us prepare to join the shepherds and the angels in great joy over what God has done for us.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is an Episcopal priest serving as vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark.

4 Advent (C) – 2009

The winter Feast of the Visitation

December 20, 2009

Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46-55) or Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

In the beautiful month of May, in the springtime of the year, the church keeps a feast known as the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The gospel reading on that occasion is the one we just heard, the story of pregnant Mary’s visit to her elderly relative Elizabeth, who is herself pregnant with John the Baptist.

Now, at this time of year when the days are shortest and the nights are longest, we hear that visitation story again on the final Sunday of Advent, in preparation for Christmas, which comes in only a few days. We can call today the winter Feast of the Visitation.

What happens? Young Mary, a teenaged girl, has heard the angel’s monumental message that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, the other parent to the Son of God. In an exercise of the bravest faith and submission, she agrees.

Mary agrees, though this pregnancy seems to promise the end of her engagement to Joseph. She agrees, although her people remember well how in the past they would put to death a woman about to marry who was found not to be a virgin.

Mary agrees to this remarkable and scandalous motherhood. It seems she has been brought, all in a rush, to a dark stone wall. But her faith finds a door, her faith finds a door.

One barrier after another collapses in Mary’s life. Now she is on the road to Elizabeth’s home, a house in the hill country. Pregnant women in Mary’s time and place did not travel; they stayed at home. But Mary gets up and goes.

Why does she go? Is it to find refuge with an understanding relative against criticisms thrown against her because of the scandalous circumstances around her pregnancy? We do not know. But the meeting of these two pregnant women is thick with surprises.

It is common for babies to move in the womb in ways their mothers can feel. Sometimes these movements are called kicks. But John in his mother’s womb did much more. He jumped for joy! When Mary called out upon her arrival, John jumped in the womb of old Elizabeth. How startled his mother must have been!

The Holy Spirit then filled Elizabeth, and she cried out to her visitor, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Theirs is a culture that honors the elderly, but here we have the older woman offering extravagant honor to the younger one, a teenager mysteriously pregnant. Yes, the world is turning upside down! The old era, which Elizabeth represents, has not much time left. The new era, ushered in by Mary, is about to dawn.

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth is the first to utter this acclamation, which becomes a favorite Christian devotion down through the centuries.

She then says more. She asks:

Why has it happened that my Lord’s mother has come to visit me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby inside me jumped for joy! You’re blessed, Mary, because of the child you carry. You’re blessed, Mary, for believing that what the Lord told you would come true.

Here the older woman does not bless the younger, but recognizes that the younger woman is already superabundantly blessed. Yet we who know what will follow recognize that this blessing is not all springtime. It will have its winter season. A sword of anguish will pierce the heart of blessed Mary. She will cradle the baby at Bethlehem, yet years later she will cradle her dead son at Golgotha.

Suddenly the scene at Elizabeth’s house becomes a sacred opera. It moves into music. Mary does not speak; she sings. And what a song she sings!

We call this song the Magnificat, from the first word in the Latin translation. We also call it the Song of Mary. It is a universe away from any self-indulgent, sentimental ditty. Instead, what we have is an explosive celebration of the God who saves: the one who looks with favor on a humble servant, who does great things, whose name is holy. The God whose mercy is known by those who reverence him, who shows his arm to be mighty, who scatters the proud and throws down the powerful and throws out the rich, who lifts up the lowly, and leads the hungry to a banquet. The one who keeps his promise to our forbearers in faith, whose name is holy, who does great things! This is the God who sets Mary to singing, and maybe, as Herbert O’Driscoll suggests, Mary, pregnant Mary, footsore after trekking up the hillside, not only sings for all she is worth, but starts to dance as well.

Often we Christians don’t get it right about Mary. Protestants and Pentecostals and Anabaptists tend to ignore her, except perhaps at Christmas. Catholics and Orthodox appear sometimes to deify her, exaggerating the honor of she who is already higher than the cherubim. Episcopalians love the Mother of the Lord, but are rather diffident in talking about her. But sometimes we Christians do get it right about Mary. May this be such a moment.

For it seems that, in some mysterious way, reflection on Mary unlocks the door to Christian joy.

That joy rings out in ancient hymns – Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac – many of them modeled on Mary’s own song.

It sounds forth in the work of Anglican poets and preachers, among them Henry Vaughn, who calls out:

Bright Queen of Heaven! God’s Virgin Spouse
The glad world’s blessed maid!
Whose beauty tied life to thy house,
And brought us saving aid.
This joy radiates in the bright madonnas of Italy. It shines in stone in medieval cathedrals named for Our Lady.

Yes, reflection on Mary unlocks the door to Christian joy. Mary shares her song with us, asks us to sing the Magnificat. She invites us to delight with her in the God who turns the world upside down, who saves us through this girl’s courage.

Mary always points us to her Son, the one redeemer. Her existence reminds us that we can be as she is: the faithful disciple, the one who brings Christ to birth, the soul espoused to God.

Without such joy, Christianity is ever in danger of becoming less than itself, falling into respectable dullness or mean-spirited fanaticism.

However, where this joy of Mary singing the Magnificat is set free, Christianity becomes confident, the harbinger of an eternal springtime, rich with hope for this world and the next.

We live in a time, my friends, when people ache for such a hope. May we help them find it in the liberating God who is the subject of Mary’s song and the center of Mary’s life.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).

4 Advent (C) – 2006

The Song of Divine Triumph

December 24, 2006

Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

This morning may we reflect with open hearts on the words we just heard from the song of triumph. In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

As Jack Kornfield recounts in the book “How, Then, Shall We Live?” it is the custom in one African tribe that when a woman decides to have a child, she goes and sits alone under a tree, and she listens. She listens until she hears the song of the child who wants to come.

Once she hears the song, she returns to the man who will be the child’s father and teaches the song to him. When they make love to conceive the child, they sing the song to call the child to them.

When the woman is pregnant, she teaches the child’s song to the midwives and old women of the village so that when the birth time arrives, the people surrounding the mother sing the song to welcome the child among them.

Then as the child grows up, the other villagers learn the song. If the child falls or hurts his knee someone picks him up and sings the song. When the child does something wonderful, the people of the village sing this song. When the child goes through the rites of puberty and becomes an adult, the villagers sing the song.

It goes this way through life. At a wedding, the songs of husband and wife are sung together. Finally, when this child grows old, and lies in bed ready to die, all the villagers know the song, and they sing it for the last time.

Today’s gospel tells us of a pregnant woman who sings a song – a song about her child, who he is, and who he will become.

Mary’s song is her response to her cousin Elizabeth’s spirited greeting, but it is more than that. It comes from deep inside her. It knits together in a new way the sacred experience and language and hope of her people like pieces of a quilt transformed from scraps to splendor.

Nowhere in this song do we hear the name of her child, but somehow he is there in every phrase. Mary’s song is not hers alone; it is the song of the child who wants to come, who comes to do the will of God. This song echoes in the events of her son’s life, his death, and his exaltation. The song celebrates the God who keeps promises – not only to Abraham, but also to us.

The church has picked up this song and sung it often, particularly in daily evening worship. Mary’s song, The Magnificat, is a central text in the liturgy of the historic church. Who knows what number of settings musicians have composed for it through the years? Who knows how many voices have joined with Mary’s in singing her song through the centuries?

This is the song about Jesus sung by the human being who knew him best, influenced him most, and remained faithful to him always.

With his mother singing these words from her heart, does it surprise us that Jesus grows up to preach the Beatitudes?

The Magnificat announces that God scatters the prideful, dethrones the powerful, and drives away the rich. The God of the Magnificat takes sides, lifting up the lowly, providing a feast for the destitute.

Like mother, like son! The Beatitudes call happy those in need, those who hunger, those who weep. Only for the humble is there hope. The doorway to the kingdom has a low lintel; all must bow to enter. Jesus calls happy those who do not find that hard.

The Magnificat echoes through the lifetime of Jesus and through the lives we live as well. It points to a redemption achieved once for all, but that continues to unfold wherever the Good News takes root. The overthrow of oppression that Mary’s song proclaims turns out to be a continuing revolution. The battleground is every community of people and every human heart.

Each of us sings a song from deep inside, a song about the future.

If we are a mother or a father, that song may be about our child, because for a parent there’s a way the future appears embodied in a child.

But whether or not we are parents, each of us sings a song about the future. It’s about hope, it comes from the heart, it reveals who we are, and it shapes the time ahead. What we sing with our lives becomes our legacy to those who follow after us.

Just what will our song be?

Perhaps a commercial jingle that incites us to spend ourselves on what can never satisfy. That could be our song.

Perhaps a pop tune that steps aside from deep sorrow and true joy. That could be our song.

The problem is not with classics or pop tunes or commercial jingles. The problem is when we ignore how The Magnificat is not just Mary’s song and it is not only about Jesus; somehow it proclaims God’s hope and purpose for us.

Mary’s song is our song. We can live in a way that magnifies and rejoices in the Lord. We can do this by the grace of her Son, our Brother. The song that turned out true in his life can turn out true in ours as well.

May we sing The Magnificat with our lives. May it become our legacy to our children and all who come after us. When our final hour arrives, may we hear this song of divine triumph sounding in our hearts and ringing all around us and know it as our own. For the God who kept faith with Abraham, and Mary, and Jesus, and every past generation keeps faith with us as well.

I have spoken to you in the name of this God about whom Mary sings: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).