“My soul magnifies the Lord” Luke 1:46
The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, the words are so familiar that we may miss what they might say to us. If we read the words, we find there are a series of five contrasts, contrasts that tell us about God and that tell us about ourselves.
The contrasts begin in Verses 47-48, “my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,” says Mary, “for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.” Could there be a greater contrast than that between the Most High God and a humble country girl? It is hard for us to imagine how people at the time regarded God. His name, the LORD, was so holy that they did not speak it; he was a terrifying and overwhelming presence; he was the God who had met with Moses and Elijah; he was the God whose face could not be seen. It is this God who chooses this peasant girl, a girl who was no more than a teenager of perhaps fourteen or fifteen as his way of coming into the world. Can we imagine a greater contrast? When we read the story, do we have a sense of the awe inspiring presence of God? Do we have a sense of the courage demanded of Mary?
The second contrast comes in Verses 49-50, it is the contrast between one person and all people. The Song of Mary says, “the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” God is present with Mary, God works miraculously through Mary, God is praised for for his greatness and holiness, but Mary’s song points beyond a relationship between God and one person. Through what God does through Mary he becomes a God not just for her, but for all people throughout the generations. It is tempting for us to leave the words on the page, to think they are words about Mary, to think that they do not demand anything of us, but Mary says, “his mercy is for those who fear him.” We can have a sense of God’s presence and power, but, as Mary had to choose, so must we. Are we those who “fear him”, or do we regard him as God in some far less way? If he is not a God whom we “fear”, in that sense of awe inspiring holiness, then in what sort of God do we believe?
The third contrast is between real power and imagined power. Verse 51 says, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” The Jewish people have seen great empires come and go; the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians, each empire appeared in the Scriptures that would have been read in the synagogue, Sabbath by Sabbath, and each empire then disappeared. God’s strength continues century after century, and those who thought themselves great have been scattered, their names have been forgotten, their empires have become passing details in history. The verse has much to say to us today, when we watch the news and become concerned about worldly powers, we should remember that God scatters the proud, that those who believe themselves great in our own times will count for no more than all the proud empires of the past. Next time we watch the news, we might ponder God scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
The fourth contrast is that between the powerful and the lowly, in Verse 52, we read, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” In Mary’s time, when the country was occupied by a foreign power, when the religious leadership was concerned with its own privileges, when the gap seemed great between those living in fine villas in Jerusalem and those living in poor houses in the villages, the idea that God would bring down the powerful and raise up the poor was a challenge to all who had authority and wealth. Twenty centuries later, the “lowly” are as poor as they were in the days of the Gospel, but the powerful are infinitely richer and more influential than anyone could possibly have imagined in those distant days. The contrast is so much greater, but, if we believe what the Gospel tells us, the promise remains. The verse speaks in the past tense, this is not something to come, this is what God has done, in God’s Kingdom all stand equal. Watching the television news, meeting injustice face to face, it would be easy to feel that wrongdoing has triumphed, but our faith tells us that this is not God’s way, the changes he brings are a surprise, a shock to those attached to the ways of this world.
The final contrast is that described in Verse 53, “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” It is a statement about what God has done, about how his Kingdom works, but, when one looks at the world, it seems far removed from reality: the hungry are still hungry and the rich have not gone away empty. It is a contrast that is still to be fulfilled for those whose daily life is one of absolute poverty, those for whom every waking hour is a struggle to care for their families and themselves, but there are signs of God’s Kingdom coming. The communities where there is the greatest sense of sharing, the greatest joy, the strongest ties, are not those where affluent lifestyles are lived behind ever more sophisticated security systems, they are not those where people find themselves spending more and more on the latest cars, the latest technology, the latest fashion, the latest label; the strongest communities are to be found among those who are poorest in the world. Spend time in African villages where poverty is extreme and there is an extraordinary sense of the warmth and generosity of the people; spend time in the most affluent parts of Dublin, and people will pass you without speaking. There are riches that do not appear in financial statements.
Five contrasts that remind us of the faith and vision of Mary and that challenge us in our own Christian lives.