“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant.” –Luke 1: 46b-47
Music at this time of the year takes us to another level, doesn’t it? Those precious tunes and sweet familiar words truly bring us into a rhythm of the season where we begin to prepare for Christmas day. Once the carols sink into our system, we begin to synchronize ourselves with the Christmas spirit as we become linked to past Christmas days, and those memories warm our hearts, and we look forward to spending time with friends and family. The music calls us to lift our lives and celebrate with listening or singing. Sometimes I feel that the music of Christmas is so powerful that it inoculates us with joy for the rest of the year, a deep joy that pervades our being and reminds us that we are a part of something bigger. The music of the first two chapters of Luke tells the story of God’s power coming in a very personal way but being magnified through to the world. Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and the angels realize or proclaim this in their original, first Christmas carols.
At the end of the 19th century, Henry Burton wrote that reading these two chapters is like entering a cathedral filled with music. If the book of Luke was a cathedral, you would enter hearing glorious music: “On the one side are Zechariah and Simeon, the one chanting his Benedictus, and the other his Nunc Dimittis. Facing them, as if in antiphony, are Elizabeth and Mary, the one singing her Beatitude, and the other her Magnificat; while overhead, in the frescoed and starlighted sky, are vast multitudes of the heavenly host, enriching the Advent music with their Glorias.”
After imagining the first two chapters of Luke this way, we may never read it the same way again! All of these songs have couplets, idioms, and Hebraic meter that put them into a genre of poetic speech called Hymns of Praise. Mary’s song has been named the “Magnificat” because it is the first word of “My soul magnifies the Lord” in Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
Mary has been favored by God and has a message of grace for all people. It is a new part of her identity and will continue from generation to generation. When the angel Gabriel said, “You’re going to have this child,” her response was, “Behold the Lord’s servant; let it be according to your word.” Let it be! Remember the Beatles song:
When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
Though the song is about Paul McCartney’s mother, many connect it to Mary’s response to her cousin Elizabeth’s blessing. The idea that her soul magnified God gives us insight into the weight of that moment. John Ortberg wrote, “Everybody’s soul magnifies something. That’s part of being human. To magnify something is to give it an extraordinarily large place in your life. Your mind wanders to it when you have nothing else to think about. Your desires get shaped around it. Your identity gets tied up in it. Your joys and your sorrows are all wrapped around whether you’re getting more or less of it. It’s part of the human condition. We all magnify something. An alcoholic magnifies the bottle, a workaholic magnifies success, a hypochondriac magnifies their health or their illness,…and problems and obstacles and what might go wrong. Some people magnify money, some people magnify sex, some people magnify approval, and some people magnify security. We all magnify something.”
Mary’s song makes us stop and consider what our soul may be magnifying today. If our souls were magnifying God, we would care about others as God cares about us. We would see others as being children in the family of God, too. Mary’s Magnificat affirms us for the work that we are doing around greater Chicago, around our local area with our agencies, and for the work that has been done on our mission trips to Haiti, Guatemala, and Cuba. It also reminds us that we are a part of a global family. Mary, a humble peasant girl, receives a message from God and proclaims a rebellion against injustice and poverty. A grass roots revolution begins. Many times grass roots movements seem to lose their focus. Recently you may have seen reports of the “occupy” protesters that allow opportunities for many to come and proclaim their cause. Did you hear about the man who was against globalization? He decided he was going to protest, too, so he held up a sign that said, “Worldwide Alliance Against Globalization!”
But the Magnificat contains language that is pointed and clear, so much so that the government of Guatemala banned the public reading of this passage for a time in the 1980’s. The oppressed people of Guatemala were not reading Marx’s Manifesto or Mao’s Quotations, they were reading the Bible, and Mary’s words were a powder keg ready to explode against an unjust society. The Magnificat contains the words that could have been used in the Arab Spring, or in bringing down Hitler, Stalin, Mubarak, Hussein, Gadhafi, or Bin Laden. The revolution begins within each one of us, Mary seems to say, because she says her soul magnifies God, and in order for the soul to magnify God, all of the pride in our soul must be defeated. We must arise pure, cleansed, humbled, as a part of God’s family, in order for God to be exalted. Who doesn’t need to hear Mary’s Magnificat loud and clear?
The Billy Joel song “Piano Man” talks about a man in need of a song. He comes into the bar and says, “Son, can you play me a memory? I’m not really sure how it goes But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes.” Isn’t there a song that we are looking for in life, a song we long to hear that calls us to what we are really supposed to be doing, being, living, loving…a song that might make us forget the regrets, the failures, the disappointments of life…a song that might elevate life into what it should be? The song Mary heard magnified her soul; it created a revolution that includes you and me.
How do we find that song? It may not come to us as it did to the shepherds: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’” It may come more subtly, so subtly that chances are we might miss hearing it. On Christmas Day in Hillsborough, California, some carolers were turned away from a home. The owners told the carolers to go away as the plumbing problem couldn’t be fixed since the plumber was on Christmas break. Later they learned that they had turned away Bing Crosby and his entourage of carolers! I would bet that they never forgave themselves for missing that song. Can you imagine being caroled by Bing Crosby? In another California community, Palm Springs, an opportunity was not missed. Frank Sinatra had given a 75 pound solid milk chocolate Santa Claus to a hospital for disabled children. The chocolate Santa attracted much publicity as the days counted down until Christmas. Many showed up at the hospital to have their pictures taken with the gift that Sinatra said “had enough cavities to last a year.” The hospital administration began to feel the same way
about cavities, too, so in one of the most Grinch-like moves of our time, they began to remove the Santa from its display, declaring that it was not healthy for the children to eat. Yet, as they were removing it, they saw a blemish on Santa’s belly. No, it was more than a blemish, it was…teethmarks. Some little child had wheeled his or her chair up to the Santa and taken a big bite. It was as if the child said, “I’m not going to miss out on this!”
Mary held onto her song, it says she “pondered” these things in her heart. That is a prophetic word meaning that she really weighed what God was saying to her, as if she really struggled with what could be going on in her life. Does God want me to do this? What does this mean? Does God want me to do that? This kind of pondering is not calm and meditative, it is a call to action, a call to revolution in life, and questioning of the meaning of life and how life is supposed to be lived. Mary was not going to miss this moment.
Mary’s pondering had world-wide significance, beginning with her son, Jesus. Just as your mother’s words guided your life, I am certain Jesus remembered his mother’s words. When Gabriel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible for God,” we recall that Jesus taught in one of his messages, “For God, nothing is impossible.” And in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was struggling with the fact that Roman troops were about to arrest him. He prayed to God in Luke 22:42, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” In other words, “Let it be, Lord, let it be.”
Mary’s song seems to end abruptly, but it doesn’t. In fact, it is not over- we are supposed to carry the next verse in our lives. We are supposed to continue singing the original Christmas carol. It is a beautiful reminder that we must yield our lives to being in God’s family, just like Mary did. Listening for God’s call and being guided by it is your stanza in the original Christmas carol; it’s your life! That explains it. No wonder you like Christmas music so much!
So now you realize that you are a part of an original song, a divine symphony that includes the angels. If you feel humbled, scared, afraid, then don’t worry, you are in good company; Mary and the shepherds felt the same way. But being in the family of God means that you don’t have to sing perfect harmony to be accepted. Remember the Sound of Music when the children sang to their father for the first time? Standing there, nervous, wondering what he would think, all lined up…we are the same way. All lined up before God, ready to sing the song that magnifies the soul. But how do we sing to perfection? What gift do we give to someone who has everything? Thanksgiving, we give praise. Being God’s family is a gift. So find the song of your life and sing it. Let God magnify your soul, and let it be. Let it be!