December 14, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name;
indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
At this hinge moment of history, in a backwater Roman province, a young peasant girl, overwhelmed and pregnant, yet saw and knew and prophesied the coming of the Messiah in the tradition of all the great prophets from the Hebrew Scriptures. And alone among those prophets, she bore in her very body that very Messiah, incarnate for our salvation.
I’m about to do something that, in my Anglican tradition, we almost never do. (Imagine that I just inserted a smiley-face emoticon at the end of that sentence.)
We read four Scripture readings in our service every Sunday – an Old Testament reading (or reading from Acts during Easter), a Psalm or canticle, an Epistle lesson, and a passage from the Gospels. But generally, we only preach on three of those lessons – the first reading, the Epistle, and the Gospel. The Psalm or canticle (a canticle is essentially a song of praise with a Scriptural text) is meant to function as a prayerful response to the first reading. (We usually then sing a modern hymn after the Epistle for a similar reason.)
Now, the Psalms and canticles have clearly functioned both in their original context and in centuries of church tradition as prayerful liturgical responses, so I don’t have a problem with this practice. But when I looked at this coming Sunday and saw that the canticle assigned is the Magnificat (Song of Mary), I couldn’t do anything other than remind us of one of the greatest expressions of praise and prophecy in the entire Bible. (We use the term “Magnificat” to refer to this canticle, meaning “magnify,” because it is the beginning of the Latin translation for these words in the Vulgate: Magnificat anima mea Dominum, “my soul magnifies the Lord”).
If we know this story at all, we know the context already; Mary, overwhelmed by all that has happened to her, goes to the Judean hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39). John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb in honor of his cousin Jesus, and Elizabeth greets Mary with joy, crying out “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. . . Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:42, 45). In response to Elizabeth’s moment of prophecy and praise, Mary sings this song.
The song is powerful and visionary and echoes the words from Isaiah that Mary’s son will one day proclaim as his own. It tells of how the Lord will come in judgment to cast down the proud; the Lord will come in help and mercy to lift up the lowly and feed the hungry.
At this hinge moment of history, in a backwater Roman province, a young peasant girl, overwhelmed and pregnant, yet saw and knew and prophesied the coming of the Messiah in the tradition of all the great prophets from the Hebrew Scriptures. And alone among those prophets, she bore in her very body that very Messiah, incarnate for our salvation. Two thousand years later, in a time of fear and fatigue, her words still set before us the vision we wait for and long for and pray for—and celebrate—this Advent.
As I said yesterday:
Where do you not yet see the Kingdom?
Where do you see the Kingdom already?
You may have heard of the song “Mary, Did You Know?” released in 1991; its lyrics ask Mary if she had any idea what her baby boy would be capable of. In 2017 lyricist Jennifer Henry, inspired by the Magnificat (and its implication that Mary did in fact prophetically know Christ’s significance), wrote a version of the song that I dearly love. It’s never been commercially recorded—this is just a local church performance—but it’s well worth listening to as you ponder Mary’s prophecy. The lyrics are in the video description, and also here. My favorite stanza:
Did you know that your holy cry
would be subversive word,
that the tyrants would be trembling
when they know your truth is heard?
(Prayer for the Third Sunday of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer) Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Are You Striving for the Wrong Things?.
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
Click here to view Jennifer’s profile.