In the Magnificat, Mary sings sings in the past tense: running her fingers through the prospect of promises fulfilled. Let us all be bold to magnify: to make plain things of God in our society.
Many of us will be expecting visitors to arrive at our doors this Christmas, the majority of visitors will have been invited, but a few may arrive quite unexpectedly – though hopefully all will be made welcome. This is the time of year when families and friends get together and experience the blessing of being around loved ones. Of course young children are expecting a very special visitor to enter their homes on Christmas Eve whilst they are asleep and that special visitor will hopefully bring lots of presents!
A word that is used in a more formal and official context when a visit is expected (or occasionally unexpected) is ‘visitation’. Perhaps in another sort of way we experience the blessing of a visitation when for example the heating engineer comes to fix the boiler, especially in this winter. Or when someone returns something, a pet or an item that had gone missing. Although there are of course unwelcome visits, when a burglar enters our home and takes away our valuables, or a visitor who brings some very bad news. The outcome of any visit is dependent upon the visitor and their purpose in visiting. So visitors can bring good news and lives can be made brighter or they can bring life changing news.
Today’s gospel reading is known as the ‘visitation’, when Mary the young pregnant girl visits her much older cousin Elizabeth who is also pregnant. The visitation of two uniquely special people is one of the most moving passages in the bible, which of course is only told by Luke, who has a unique way of telling these stories especially in relationship to women.
It is the meeting between two bewildered peasant women who are consumed with joy over God breaking into their insignificant lives. They have the intimacy of being related and so seeing each other becomes very special. Both of them had remarkable experiences surrounding news of their pregnancies, Elizabeth husband was told when he visited the Temple that he was going to be the father of a son (and don’t forget in those days there was no way of telling the sex of a child before they were born) and what is more he was told to name is son John and it is this church that is named after John the Baptist.
Mary was told by an angel, that she was pregnant which was even a bigger shock because she was unmarried. So these women shared the awareness of Divine involvement. Mary’s song of praise, ‘The Magnificat’ which you heard in the gospel reading, rings down through the centuries, and every time it is said or sung at Evensong it reminds us of a world that calls for justice and peace for everyone. When Mary sees Elizabeth she bursts into song. We can’t imagine anyone these days bursting forth in song when they are happy and praising God, it is just not what we do. We of course sing hymns in church, praising God, but they are chosen before-hand and announced so there is no spontaneity when singing them. But Mary’s song talks of God’s grace and mercy to her, and the promises God has made through the prophets.
In fact, almost every word in Mary’s song is a biblical quotation from the Old Testament, which Mary would have heard read her whole life. Her song echoes the prophets with its theme of redemption, freedom, and justice.
But there is something interesting about the Magnificat. Mary starts off in the present tense – “My soul magnifies the Lord” – but quickly shifts to the past tense – “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty away” These past-tense promises Mary sings about were believed to be fulfilled with the coming of the Messiah, who had yet to be born. What Mary is doing is singing about these promises in the past tense as if they have already happened. She’s running her fingers through the prospect of promises fulfilled.
Mary has a great sense of trust and faith, and her example should be a comfort and help for those who are finding this time of year to be less than joyous. If you, or those around are not bubbling with Christmas cheer, there is obviously a good reason. For some, the reality is that this is the first Christmas without a loved one who has died, or this Christmas is a reminder of the struggle to buy even a few presents, or it marks the ending of another year of emotional trauma. But Mary is expressing her assurance in one simple fact: God will do what he says. It would have been easy for Mary to doubt this. In many ways, her situation was one of the last places you would expect God to show up. An impoverished land, a backwater village, a run-down stable, a teenage mother, a poor child’s birth. It is so easy for us to romanticise Christmas with our cards, our nativity plays, and yes even to some extent with our carol services, we sadly fail most of the time to see the reality of how hard it was for all concerned. And yet, as Mary says, ‘the Mighty One has done great things for me.’ In the midst of all her struggle, she celebrates, she sings.
What Luke’s story tells us is this: God knows our pain and hears our struggles. You are not alone if this Christmas is less then a merry one. There is no stable, no place in our world or in our lives that is too poor, too remote, too embarrassing, too painful, too messy, that God cannot be found at work there creating, bringing forth new life. Mary and Elizabeth believed that God was with them. Their faith allowed them to see that God had not abandoned them to their troubles but was working in them and through them to bring new life. They believed that, in spite of the potential despair of the circumstances, God is at work and that this is part of the plan.
‘My soul magnifies the Lord’. This is how Mary begins her song. The word in this context means to make great, to exalt, but we most often use the word ‘magnify’ when we’re talking about making something bigger. We use a magnifying glass to help us better see something that’s otherwise too small. Something magnified is something that has been enlarged, made bigger, easier to see. In Mary’s case, she is saying that her soul magnifies the Lord. In other words, Mary, her soul, her spirit, is making God larger, more visible.
I think these are pretty daring things for Mary to sing about. She can clearly see herself, even though she is a woman in a male-centred society, even though she is very young, even though she is unmarried, even though she is pregnant and in a risky situation, she can clearly see herself as a powerful person – made powerful by God’s action in her life and her willingness to respond. A person who has the power then to magnify God for others, to make God more visible by serving as a vessel for God, a disciple for God. Everyone of us has the ability to magnify God, to make God larger for others, easier for others to know and see and draw nearer to. Actually the most important work we have as follows of Christ is to make God visible to others.
Over the years I have often pondered this scene in terms of the way in which Elizabeth extends her hospitality to Mary, how her welcome is wondrous, not merely for its complete absence of judgment of the pregnant, unmarried Mary but especially for her deep delight in what her cousin has done, there is no jealousy, just love. Yet what also strikes me, too, as this season spirals me around this passage once again, is not only how Mary and Elizabeth found refuge in each other, but how centuries later these women still stand out as so powerful and strong and how Mary’s song shouts out to a world in need of healing.
All of us at some time in our lives have found ourselves to be in a situation beyond our imagining, it is then that we often find it helpful to encounter someone who knows (from the inside) something of what it is to be in that place. Someone who can meet us at that special moment in our lives and knows exactly what we are going through, and has empathy and understanding, and therefore so wonderfully supportive. We all need visits in our lives . All of us find ourselves in need of help and encouragement, or to be given another perspective on a matter that – will only find – we will only find if someone visits us with the resources we need. Our lives from time to time do come unravelled and veer off course. We need God’s expertise and resources, yet it can be so easy to ignore his words his encouragement, often spoken through others.
As Advent draws to a close and we wait for the arrival of the Christ child, may we be reminded of today’s visitation and how each one of us can take a part in God’s perfect plan, meeting others on their journey of faith and helping them rejoice just like Mary did.