Princeton University Religious Life

Our Own Magnificat

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 1:47-55


            On this third Sunday in Advent, churches everywhere are reflecting on this wonderful song of Mary’s.  For so many of us it is one of our favorite parts of scripture.  We associate it with Christmas, for starters - with the birth of the Messiah.  We hear Mary’s proclamation as the utterance of someone innocent, loving, lovely.  We see Mary as the ultimate person of obedience and of faith.  God gives her a really challenging role to play and she just yells, “Yes!”  There’s no prevaricating here.  Many of us, and perhaps more so those of us who are women, were raised with Mary as our model: we should always be available for service; no matter the task, if the appropriate authority asks we should say yes.  I’d like to reflect with you this morning on how Mary is actually a very good girl and a very powerful revolutionary, and how Mary’s world-altering song can be a model for each of us to compose our own Magnificat, our own song of praise and thanksgiving, of resistance and action, in response to all that we know God is doing. 

            I’ve said that Mary is a revolutionary, and boy is she ever.  She fits perfectly in the line of Hebrew prophets before her.  I hear Isaiah and Micah most clearly, but Amos and Hosea are in her words, too.  Mary calls out the fact that those who have let their privileges or wealth make them disregard the needs and the very humanity of others - these persons will finally see the spiritual vacuousness of their lives.  They will be sent empty away.  They are empty.  They see only their own status.  They quietly rejoice in their own domination.  Many of their choices in life have, as their ultimate goal, the preservation of their elite status.  Mary is revolutionary in the mold of Hebrew prophets because she doesn’t foretell a day when dominations will be reversed, but rather a day when dominations will be ended.  Isaiah wrote of a time when every valley will be exalted and every hill made low, when the rough places will be made plain.  Everything and everyone will be leveled.  All will be equal.  Human beings are human beings.  Everyone shares in the wealth of the society.  Everyone has what they need not just to subsist but to thrive!  A society in which everyone thrives - what a glorious day God has in store for us all!  This is a message of salvation for everyone!

            And Mary is a revolutionary in the way that she sees God still at work, as God was with our earliest ancestors, in forging the path of justice and salvation.  Mary lived in benighted times, as do we.  Then, Rome was a brutal occupier.  Jews in Palestine suffered financial extortion, extra-judicial killings, a rigged judiciary (remember Jesus’ “trial”?).  Wealthy Jews created money-based terms for religious observance that left them looking very devout while the majority of their community was too poor to afford to participate.  Our own benighted times include the incarceration of untold numbers of persons largely because they can’t afford the legal representation to advocate for them advantageously, and because sentencing laws are so biased; we have the structural and social holdovers of slavery, tax laws that benefit the already comfortable, and more.  Mary knew an unlevel playing field when she saw it.  Mary insists that, in the depths of benighted times, God is at work.  God has a plan.  God is executing that plan.  Then and now, these are facts that many have given up on.

            Mary’s Magnificat emphasizes a handful of things.  She exults about what God has done in her life, what God is achieving through her, what God is doing in the world now, and what God has promised still to do and that she believes will be accomplished.  Let’s consider what she says of herself as we think about how to compose our own Magnificat!

            What is God doing in her life?  She describes herself as one of “low estate.”  Certainly all of us who aim to be God’s servants know ourselves to be below the station of the creator of heaven and earth.  Mary is really of low estate also on human terms.  She is female, the property of her father who has betrothed her.  She is Jewish, a cruelly subordinated citizen of the Roman Empire.  She is young and unmarried and pregnant.  She is poor.  And God is blessing her constantly.  In the midst of hideous times she is making a way forward, all with divine help.  Everything is against her, but she perseveres, and thanks be to God, who is not the source of her persecution, but of her loving support.

            What is God doing through her?  Well, let’s start with her role as Theotokos (in Greek) - the mother of God.  She is to bear the Messiah, the one who comes to inhabit the throne of David his ancestor, and to lead the peoples into the way of salvation.  Yesterday she was a nice teenager engaged to another nice teenager, and today - boom!  God’s critical step in the history of our salvation centers on her giving birth to Emmanuel, God-with-us.  It’s because Mary is so beautifully aware of her ordinariness that her selection to bear the Messiah can give her such insight into God’s extraordinary plan for humanity - from someone so low can come the Messiah so high.  From a time so dark can break forth the beauteous, heavenly light.  God is only more awesome for working our salvation out of such lowly and humanly-debased material and times! 

            And Mary sings about what God is doing in her world - doing right now.  God is showing mercy all over the place, “from generation to generation.”  We humans are so rarely merciful to one another - when we are, the story goes into the newspaper.  Our hearts are warmed to read about people truly helping one another - reaching out in times of challenge or natural disaster.  But God is merciful to us all the time, keeping us going when we dig our own grave, showing us a path when the way ahead is strewn with boulders.  The human family starts innumerable wars, and God shows us how to end them; the human family leaves some of its members to starve and God puts human, angelic emissaries in the way to keep them eating.  God isn’t leaving us to ourselves right now and never has.

            And Mary sings about what God has promised yet to do - promises she believes are coming true; promises she believes to the core of her being.  She believes that God will level out human societies so that all will thrive, all will be able to worship most righteously, uninhibited by the smokescreen of wealth or the deprivations of poverty, by the haughtiness of elite status or the discriminations of low estate.  Mary believes that the plan of God’s salvation of the world, of which she has heard her whole life long, is no idle tale but a rock-solid promise that is on its way to fulfillment even now, even when all the evidence would seem to deny it.  God has promised it.  Mary believes it.  She will play her part.  Look out!

            So, what about our own Magnificat?  If we were to belt out our own song today, what would we say?  We have so much material to work with!  What is God doing in my life?  I hardly know where to begin - I’ve been given a wonderful family to love, hardly perfect, and the least perfect person in the batch is arguably me.  I am surrounded by friends on earth and friends above, a cloud of witnesses who show me daily what it means to love, what it means to serve.  God has given me work with meaning and purpose.  God has given me challenges - particularly, in these days political ones - that are forcing me to hone my theological voice, the particular voice God gave to me, to interpret these times and speak back to them.  In any moment of our lives, we can look around and see challenge, or we can look around and see God’s invitation to discipleship.  That was Mary’s choice.

            What would your own Magnificat say about what God is achieving through you?  How would you thank God for using you to holy ends?  Think about the ways you have eased the burden of a friend or relative, given shelter, tutored a kid, spoken the truth, testified to the fact and truth of God in ways implicit and explicit, shown love, said yes to “yes” things, said no to “no” things.  I look out and I see among you people who are adoring parents, wonderful kids (you won’t know what you give your parents until you become one yourself).  I see people who help the elderly, the incarcerated, the home-bound.  I see the teachers and librarians who help others grow wise.  I see scholars, young and old, who are creating and uncovering knowledge about how we can relate across cultures, how we can live more healthily, how to end wars.  Each of us has infinite reasons to sing out our praise to God for accomplishing so much through even us!

And how would your Magnificat declare what God is doing in the world?  Where do you see captives being set free, chains released, light inbreaking, love triumphing, people standing and walking unaided - whether they were compromised by others’ hatred, by poverty, by warfare, by illness, by ignorance, by wealth?

And how would your - our - Magnificat shout out praise for all that God has promised to do and that we believe will be accomplished?  God will level us all to justice and righteousness.  God will effect our ultimate and final salvation.  God will create something equitable and beautiful out of our every relationship, contract, compact, and structure.  God will redeem us from ourselves, and set us free to live eternally, in the palm of God’s loving hand, with grace.

            Mary let her own soul magnify God at a time of great darkness.  No matter what we think of the times we are in, let us also decide to let our souls magnify our God - reflect God, mirror God, expand what’s visible of God, highlight God, point to God.  In a world that badly needs to see God, let us be bright, magnifying lights for God, beacons, servants.  Like Mary, let us say “Yes!” to God, no matter how challenging or bizarre is God’s request.


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