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Mary's Song

Fourth Sunday in Advent: 20th December, 2009
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Mary's Song — Luke 1:46-55

Christian worship is almost inconceivable without singing. Christians are redeemed people and their hearts should be so brimful of praise to God, who through the incarnation, has stooped to seek and to save them, that it spills out of their mouths in singing.

Not surprisingly, the infancy stories in Luke's Gospel are full of singing. Zechariah sings the Benedictus (Blessed be the Lord God of Israel); Simeon sings the Nunc Dimmitis, (Lord, let your servant depart in peace); a choir of angels sing the Gloria (Glory to God in the highest) and Mary sings her Magnificat (My soul magnifies the Lord). Any experience of Christmas that does not participate in heartfelt, exuberant singing and praise, falls short. There is a knowledge of God that can only come in praising God.

In her Spirit-inspired canticle of four stanzas, Mary exults in God's generosity; God's holiness; God's justice and God's faithfulness.

1. God's Generosity in Salvation

'My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed'.

Last October I led a pilgrimage to Malta and Italy. Most of the abbeys and churches we visited were dedicated to Mary and it seemed to some of our more Protestant pilgrims that Christianity in the Middle Ages must have been a religion of Mary, almost as though the Holy Trinity had a fourth member! But if the Middle Ages might be accused of excessive adoration to Mary, it is equally true that Christians in the Reformed tradition have tended to freeze her out of their language of prayer and praise.

Yet as one scholar has rightly pointed out; 'it was Mary who taught the infant Jesus his prayers, told him the stories of the heroes of faith, and took him to the Temple in Jerusalem. She prepared his meals, called him from the streets of Nazareth when it was bedtime. Humanly speaking, no one did more to shape Jesus as a person than Mary. ... It isn't hard to honour this woman, nor to learn from her quiet but determined faith.' Indeed one might say that to honour her is to honour him — 'all generations call her blessed'.

In this opening stanza of the Magnificat, Mary gives expression to her gratitude for God's sheer prodigality in her own salvation and transformation. She delights in one who was to be her life-saver. And this Christmas time we Christians will go into overdrive in praise of the Saviour of the world — the one who has rescued us in our 'lostness' from God.

And it was from her saved perspective as God's grateful servant that she offers worship not only with her lips but also in her humble service. And so it must be with us. Praise and service are essential and complementary aspects of worship. The whole of our work, and every aspect of our lifestyle, can and should express our worship of God. It is our total response to the total giving of God in his generosity and love to us. 'Seven whole days, not one is seven, I will praise thee'.

Mary's song pulsates with praise to 'God her Saviour'. She sings of God's overflowing excess — God's generosity.

Second, she sings of:

2. God's Numinosity

'For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation'.

In a famous painting of the 'annunciation' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mary is depicted as a young woman in a state of fear, cowering against a wall, with her eyes cast down almost in dread. If anything Rossetti's Mary seems to be trying to get away from the angel Gabriel. The painter captures her state of mind beautifully.

Luke tells us that Mary was greatly troubled by Gabriel's greeting, as any one would be at the size of the task and the weakness of the person charged with it. 'How can this be?' she exclaims. The painting conveys Mary's astonishment located somewhere between dismay and fear. It is an experience of the holy, the numinous, what the philosopher Rudolf Otto called 'the mysterium tremendum'.

The old African American spiritual song captures Mary's experience of God's holiness. During the monotony of routine manual labour, perhaps picking cotton, the old slave meditates on how to make God's story on the cross his own story and as he does so, he is overwhelmed: 'Sometimes', he sings, ' it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble'.

One of the great things about the worship at St Peter's is the part that multisensory ritual plays in conveying this sense that Mary had of God's numinous presence. Ritual that touches all five senses — sight, sound, touch, taste and smell — can prevent the church from becoming simply a religious talk-shop. Ritual that is open and expectant of the working of God's Spirit — what we might call, Spirited-ritual — can do what words alone can never do. It's a bit like music or art or drama. It has an intuitive element that draws on the right side of the brain, the side that processes reality in a non-rational affective fashion. As has often been said, 'a god who is small enough for me to understand isn't big enough for me to worship'.

Ritual without Spirit becomes empty externalized ceremonial. But Spirited-ritual energizes and empowers and heals. The Brazilian Liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff puts it well when he writes:

Seeing mystery in this perspective enables us to understand how it provokes reverence, the only possible attitude to what is supreme and final in our lives. Instead of strangling reason, it invites expansion of the mind and heart. It is not a mystery that leaves us dumb and terrified, but one that leaves us happy, singing and giving thanks. It is not a wall placed in front of us, but a doorway through which we go to the infinity of God. Mystery is like a cliff: we may not be able to scale it, but we stand at the foot of it, touch it, praise its beauty. [1]

Mary sings of God's generosity; God's awesome holiness; and third:

3. God's Justice

'He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts 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'.

The musical settings of the Magnificat which are sung in this church are utterly beautiful. But their very musical beauty can sometimes obscure the world-shattering content of the words. Mary's song is deeply subversive of the ways of the world that thinks that might is right, that money always speaks or that power is a possession. There is a topsy-turvy character to Mary's song. In it, pride, arrogance and power get short shrift.

The church is often indistinguishable from the world because it accommodates itself to the prevailing culture of injustice and indifference. But Mary's magnificat is revolutionary. It is a summons to Christians to form 'cells of dissent' in fostering 'cheerful revolution', planting a question mark over the grinding poverty that dehumanizes human beings, over all that threatens our environment (what kind of question mark has Copehagen planted?) and over all forms of discrimination.

The church must not dance to the tunes of either the political right or the left. Instead, it must learn to dance in tune with Mary's song. And we dance in tune with Mary's song when we don't stop saying what has to be said, and we don't stop saying it in public. The God of whom Mary sings is a God who threatens to upset the status quo, turning the world's values upside down.

Mary sings of a generous God; a holy God; a just God; and fourth, she sings of:

4. God's Faithfulness

'God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever'.

The theme of the fulfilment of God's promises to Israel makes up this fourth and final part of Mary's song. It is often pointed out that the Song itself echoes many of the themes of the song of an Old Testament heroine, Hannah, as she exults in the news that she too, is to bear a son — Samuel — for whom God had a special place in the salvation of the world.

God fulfils his promises. To Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants through the ages, God has 'remembered his promise of mercy'. However much others have been faithless, God has honoured the word given. Mary's God is not a dumb god but a god who makes and keeps promises. The great foundational promise to Abraham and to his descendants, is that through Israel, God's promise will extend to all nations, through the seed of Abraham, the Messiah born of Mary.

In her song, Mary rejoiced in the God whose faithfulness was found even at the lowest point in the history of Israel when the writer of the book of Lamentations could affirm: 'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, great is his faithfulness' (Lamentations 3:20,21).

Mary's song is thoroughly God-centred. She magnifies and glorifies God. Mary exults in God:

  • A Generous God, her Saviour who takes the nobodies of this world and makes them somebodies;
  • A numinous, mysterious, holy God whom we worship in reverent awe;
  • A God whose topsy-turvy subversive justice plants a question mark over all human injustice;
  • A covenant-keeping God, whose faithfulness is new every morning and whose commitment remains firm, even when we are faithless and live in flagrant denial of his love and care.

Such is the God of Mary's magnificent 'magnificat'. May its words and sentiments echo from our lips and burst forth from hearts pulsating with praise! May Mary's song become our song too as we worship the same generous, awesome, just and faithful God this Christmas-time.


Notes:

1. Alister McGrath, Christian Spirituality, Blackwell, 1999, p.52


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