And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on 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 put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”
“Henceforth all generations will call me blessed,” sang Mary of Nazareth about herself.
And it has been so, but, unfortunately, not for the reasons Mary named in her song. Her song is called the Magnificat, which is the first word of it in Latin. Mary said, “My SOUL magnifies God.” She didn’t say “my womb” magnifies God. “My soul,” she said, “makes God grow, and my spirit rejoices in God who is my savior.”
And she went on, proud Mary, in a song that could only have been sung with her head way back and her mouth wide open, to list the kind of saving she was talking about. She was singing of a social earthquake, of the mighty being pulled off their thrones, of the exaltation of those of low degree, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich, empty, away. And finally, the scattering of the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
Today, our Advent season of anticipation comes very close to fulfillment. We sing hymns and Christmas carols, we hear the ringing of handbells. Christmas is a season of music, and no gospel does it better than Luke. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus with song and poetry, more than prose. Mary hears that she is going to be a mother, and she sings. The angels sing of peace and goodwill, and later old Simeon will sing his song of farewell once he’s seen God’s promises to Israel fulfilled in the Christ child. In the Gospel of Luke, there’s music everywhere!
Would YOU sing if you were Mary? Mary’s being “great with child” wasn’t something she could explain or understand, not something she had chosen or planned. The angel had told Mary to “fear not,” but later Simeon told Mary the truth of what it meant for her to be “blessed among women” when he predicted that “a sword would also pierce your side.” Motherhood wouldn’t be easy for Mary. Yet Mary sang!
But her words weren’t a lullabye. Her words thunder forth more like a battle chant: “He has shown strength with his arm, . . and he has. . .exalted those of low degree.” That’s not a very mild-mannered Christmas carol.
Several years ago, CNN broadcast a retrospective called “The Sixties,” which explored the era of change that defined that decade. It also followed up with series about the following decades, but the 60s was the one most formative of my childhood, so I was hooked. The series sought to understand what drove rebelling, protesting, supposedly out-of-control students into the streets of Detroit, Chicago, or Kent State, and to share, with those who had never heard, the voice of Janis Joplin. Some of you may remember Bob Dylan singing how “the times they are a ‘changin’,” or you can still hear the echo of Jimi Hendrix’s screaming guitar. The sixties – times of violence, peace, protest, civil rights, a world seemingly turned upside down. The sixties began as a nearly spontaneous street outburst of MUSIC.
“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast,” wrote the 17th century English playwright William Congreve. That’s true. But music also has power to release, to cut loose, pull down, and raise up. Can you imagine Mary’s Magnificat sung, not by an operatic soprano accompanied by a full orchestra, but belted out by Lady Gaga, backed up by the Rolling Stones? How many ways we learn the power of music.
Singing is an act of resistance. It’s an act of joy and praise, camaraderie and remembrance, and so much else. But it’s also an act of resistance. When slaves sang their spirituals they were both praising God and protesting their masters. Civil rights leaders sang songs like “We Shall Overcome,” and protest songs continue today.
Singing of light in a world of darkness is nothing short of an act of resistance.
This season, we need to think of all those women and men, our sisters and brothers, near and far, who have lost the ability to sing. When a child is starving, when a child is THAT utterly emaciated and near death, that child no longer cries. Tears dry up, and the child is silent. The hunger is so deep that it has moved beyond pain, beyond feeling, to utter, empty silence. If you’re hurt, disappointed, defeated, and pushed down enough, before long you become withdrawn, quiet, and silent.
I can imagine that the leaders of Russia, or China, or Iran are seeking to report that their countries will be still and quiet this Christmas. The world has its own brand of “Silent Night,” but there’s nothing holy or bright about it. Fortunately, we know that the people of Russia ARE speaking up and out about their nation’s war against Ukraine. The people of China ARE resisting their government’s desire for complete control. And the women of Iran are CERTAINLY lifting their voices and exercising their power against the morality police of their nation.
There is always a Christmas when women are standing up and singing.
In first century Judea, in the winter darkness, without a star in the sky, people were shut up in darkened houses for fear of Roman soldiers. The streets were deserted and fearfully quiet. No one knew what the terrifying future would bring. But there, in the dark silence, a pure, clear, feminine voice cut through the night: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . he has put down the mighty from their thrones, . . . and the rich he has sent empty away.”
The light of Advent, like the light of Christ, is a protest and resistance to the darkness that gathers all around us. And that light shines through the voice of song.
A song can put into words what we are often incapable of expressing on our own, and Mary’s voice echoes – through centuries – a refrain of hope, joy, and justice. In her singing, Mary became the premier disciple, a woman whose clear voice was heard, not silenced. She was the first person to hear the announcement that God is with us, and she was the very first to believe. Despite all the oppression, closed doors, brick walls, blind alleys, and dark, silent death, Mary believed. And she sang.
Mary is called “blessed among women” – not because she bore God’s child, but because she heard and responded. She sang. And she’s a model for us all.
Sure, there were dark days ahead for Mary. Her joy as a mother was mixed with much pain, as it is for ANY mother. But her faith enabled Mary to sing.
YOUR life, too – and MY life – isn’t all Christmas carols and joy. Dark, cold January days lie just beyond our yuletide gladness. Covid, flu and other illnesses continue to haunt us. The daylight is still short, and the nighttime dark and long.
But for now, our faith enables us to sing. We sing because we believe; we believe as we sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Amen.