Canticles of the Christ: The Magnificat
Midweek of the First Sunday in Advent
Commemoration of Nicholas of Myra, Pastor
December 6, 2017
There are two penitential seasons in the Church Year. They both are seasons of preparation, of pondering our sin, considering our need for repentance. In Advent we prepare to celebrate the incoming of God into this world at Bethlehem. In Lent we prepare to celebrate the conquering of the grave at the empty tomb. Both of these seasons are more somber in their character than are the seasons of Christmas and Easter which are by their very nature seasons of unrestrained joy.
Even so, in the midst of the Advent season we can’t help but consider the joy that is ours even now and for all eternity. In preparation for giving birth to the Savior Mary exulted in a song of praise for God’s mercy and salvation. And we will see in the following two weeks similar songs of joy.
These three—the Song of Mary, the Song of Zechariah, and the Song of Simeon—are known as canticles. As such, they are songs of the Savior, of the Christ. They proclaim Jesus and His salvation He has come to bring. When they were spoken by these three individuals it was in response to the miraculous working of God in bringing about a pregnancy to a virgin, a birth to a woman beyond child-bearing age, and to a baby being brought to the temple but who would eradicate the need for the temple by sacrificing Himself for every sin of every person. When you experience such things, you rejoice! You praise God for His mercy and salvation. And so Mary, the mother of our Lord, Zechariah, the father of the forerunner of our Lord, John the Baptist, and Simeon, and elderly man who had been promised to see the Lord’s Christ, all responded in exclamations of praise.
It’s interesting that over time as the people of God gathered for worship that they would take words spoken by people from the Bible and turn them into songs. A well-known song is the Gloria in Excelsis, the words spoken by the angels at the birth of Christ—Glory to God in the highest. There is also the Sanctus, which means holy, based on the words spoken by Isaiah in the temple and the words spoken by the people of Christ on Palm Sunday—Holy, holy, holy and Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. These songs have become not simply songs but canticles.
A canticle is a song that takes the words of an individual in the Bible and puts them to music for use in the liturgy. Of the three we will meditate on during these three midweek services the Song of Simeon is very familiar to us, known to us as the Nunc Dimittis and used as the Post-Communion Canticle. The Song of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus, is not as well-known as it is used in the office of Matins, which is a morning midweek service. The Song of Mary, the Magnificat, is better known among us as it is used in the offices of Vespers and Evening Prayer, which are evening midweek services.
The first Canticle of the Christ we will ponder is the Magnificat, the word coming from the first word in the Greek, magnify, My soul magnifies the Lord. What prompted the mother of our Lord to speak to magnify the Lord was her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth had gone through her life never being able to conceive a child. But now that she was beyond that age the Lord promised her this blessing. Even beyond that, her child would be the one to usher in the promised Messiah.
Elizabeth was six months pregnant when her younger cousin came to visit her. Mary herself had just become pregnant. She greeted Elizabeth and at the sound of Mary’s voice the baby in Elizabeth leaped for joy. Elizabeth had her own song to sing to Mary, but really, as with the others, it was a song of rejoicing to the Lord. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how it is that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She then told Mary of her own son leaping in her womb and then said, “And blessed is the one who believes that the things that were spoken to you from the Lord would be fulfilled.”
In response to this Mary rejoiced. My soul, that is, my being, magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior. That is, because God is my Savior, my spirit rejoices. And why is this? Because He has looked upon the lowliness of His slave. Oftentimes English translations will translate this Greek word doulos as servant, and that is certainly a perfectly fine translation. However, that word in that culture often carried the force of slave. Mary saw herself as one who was not her own but belonged to her Lord, that is, her Master. As a slave she was in a lowly estate and yet her Lord looked upon her and regarded her as His beloved child.
Because God granted this grace to her, to give birth to the Christ, the Messiah, all generations would call her blessed. It is a gracious gift for us to recognize that God blessed Mary in this way. He did not choose all people for this blessing or even some. He chose one and it was purely by grace. Consider that God chooses each of us for various callings and it is not for us to determine whether or not we agree or whether we would like to be chosen for some other calling. We simply receive and rejoice. In His eternal wisdom He chose this ordinary girl to give birth to the Savior of the human race and generation after generation we call her blessed to have been given such a gift.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me. Imagine what it was like for her to hear Elizabeth’s words. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. The Mighty One, God the Lord, had done great thigs for Mary and holy is His name. Mary is overwhelmed by the undeserved nature of this gift. For her to receive it moves her to praise God.
But that’s not all. She also sees that her God is the God who acts in this world for the sake of the world. The gift she has received is a gift that is being given to everyone. Therefore, she says, “And His mercy is to generation and generation to those who fear Him.” In the rest of the Magnificat Mary lays out the way the Mighty God works His salvation for all people. Through His mighty acts He acts in mercy, and it is from generation to generation. The Holy One is rightly to be feared, certainly because He is holy and we are sinful. But understanding that He looks upon us in mercy we fear Him in another way as well, in profound reverence for the God who is above all and yet loves us beyond compare.
He has shown strength with His arm. What so many throughout history have sought is strength and power and glory. Powerful armies have dominated so many other nations. And yet, with His arm, God brings all their power to naught. He has scattered those who are arrogant in their thoughts. While so many seek power and glory for themselves the Almighty God has chosen a simple girl to carry the Son of God in her womb. God does more in His arm than all the armies of the world.
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the lowly. This encapsulates the theme of reversal that runs throughout the Magnificat and the Gospel story itself. Those who are high in their own hearts are brought down. Those who are lowly are exalted. Mary didn’t think much of herself in her standing before God. She knew she was a sinner and therefore rejoiced in God her Savior. What a blessed example for us to learn from. Our greatest attribute as Christians is humility. We don’t bring about our Lord’s will through any power we have but through our lowly estate.
The hungry He has filled with good things but the rich He has sent away empty. In our humble estate, in our hunger and thirst for righteousness, we are filled. With good things, with the good gifts of our Lord. And they are all given in the one who is in Mary’s womb, who will be born, who will suffer at the hands of the arrogant and self-righteous, at the hands of sinners as you and I are. He will rise from the grave and continue to give to His people His good things of forgiveness, life, and salvation. The rich? Those who place their trust in the things of this world, He will send them away, empty-handed. He has come to give all good things in His Son but those who choose the things of this world have nothing.
This is all brought to a close with the emphasis once again on God’s mercy. He has helped His servant Israel and has remembered His mercy. Here is a young peasant girl marveling at the grace of God given to her but rejoicing also in the greatness of the mercy of God as He promised. She is the recipient of the promise God gave to His people, Israel. She gives thanks that He is bringing about this promise to His people, Israel. As He spoke to our fathers, in regard to Abraham and to His seed forever.
Mary recognizes that this is it. This is the fulfillment of the promise given by God. This is the mercy, the love, the salvation, promised by God to deliver His people. That she is a small, but remarkable, part of it is cause to rejoice and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit her Magnificat has been recorded for us to ponder, marvel, and to sing. Amen.