“Magnifying God” Colchester Federated Church, December 11, 2022, (Luke 1:46b-55) Third Sunday of Advent

This morning’s Gospel passage is the Magnificat, also known as the Song of Mary or the Canticle of Mary.  The Latin word Magnificat comes from Mary’s opening line in our text, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!  In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.”[1]  Or another translation is “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”[2] 

Mary sings this song of praise magnifying God after the Annunciation from the Angel Gabriel that Mary would give birth to a son and name him Jesus.  Gabriel had explained how all of this was going to happen and that even Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, in her old age, was going to have a child.  That child became John the Baptist, that feisty figure in the wilderness preaching about repentance and baptizing those who came to him to change their hearts and lives as we contemplated last Sunday.  Today we remember that Mary ended the event we have named the Annunciation by saying to the Angel Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant.  Let it be with me just as you have said.”[3]  This is the part that gets me every time—this trusting and unflinching acceptance on Mary’s part, especially given the likelihood that she was only twelve or thirteen years old at the time. 

Following the Annunciation and Mary’s visit with her cousin Elizabeth (who was also pregnant after being unable to conceive a child for many years), Mary has this heartfelt reaction to joyful, surprising, wondrous news.  That is the Song of Mary, the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat—a song of wonder, a song of joyful praise.  Mary praises God for looking with favor upon the lowly, for how God shows mercy to everyone.  Mary praises God for scattering people who have arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.  The powerful who sit on thrones are pulled down and the lowly are lifted up in this song that Mary sings.  The hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty-handed.  We have this temptation to make Mary meek and mild—read the Magnificat a few times and let those words sink into your heart.  These are powerful words.

It has often struck me that Protestants don’t know quite what to do with Mary.  When I was a hospital chaplain during my unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, there was a Roman Catholic patient who once asked me to pray a Hail Mary with her.  She was even watching Mother Angelica on the TV when I had come into her hospital room.  Now I was born and raised in the United Church of Christ—I don’t know traditional Catholic prayers.  So I began to root around in my notebook for a card that I had swiped from the Catholic priest’s office for just such an occasion.  She laughed as I said, “Sure, I’ll pray a Hail Mary with you, but let me find my Hail Mary card, it’s in my notebook here somewhere . . . ”  “But don’t you pray to the Blessed Mother?” she asked.  “Um, no, I can stumble through a Hail Mary, but I tend to pray to God and Jesus, not really anybody else.”

The question of what to do with Mary can be a complicated one for Protestants.  Moreover, if someone was raised Roman Catholic or Orthodox and makes their way over to a Protestant Church, that’s another complication.  Now we all know that Mary was the mother of Jesus and that’s significant.  She raised Jesus and obviously taught him good values.  Mary stood by him, including Jesus’ journey to the cross.  When others abandoned Jesus, his mother stayed until the end.  And yet, what do we do with Mary?

Over time, I have come to think of Mary and refer to her as our “sister in faith.”  Mary shows amazing trust in God time and again.  We could even think of the Annunciation in more Protestant terms as Mary’s Call Story.  There are a ton of these in the Bible.  Even today, ministers must get used to people asking, “When did you receive your call to ministry?  What happened?  Was it a moment in time or a gradual understanding that God intends you to be an ordained minister?” 

But callings are not just for ministers.  Lots of people receive callings—to be prophets and apostles, to turn around and change one’s heart and life, to begin life anew, to respond to the needs of others.  We are called in this church to be Christ’s disciples in Colchester.  To be a place of hope and healing.  To love our neighbors as ourselves.  These are callings, though the callings become more particular based on your community.  We can continually ask, “Who is my neighbor” and “How do I love my neighbor as Jesus taught?”

So perhaps we can see that the Annunciation is Mary’s call story.  The Magnificat is Mary’s Song praising God in response to that calling.  These are the moments in our Gospel passages where Mary gets charged with a responsibility, with a vocation.  The Angel Gabriel basically says, “Hey Mary, you are going to be the mother of Jesus Christ, God incarnate.”  Mary accepts her call, “I am the Lord’s servant.  Let it be with me just as you have said.”[4] 

Heather Murray Elkins (Professor of Worship and Preaching at Drew Theological School and a Methodist minister) tells a great story about Mary.[5]  She relates that in her first year of ministry a certain statue “came to live” in the corner of her office.  On a Saturday morning her husband got a call from a friend—the family friend was hired to clear the grounds of a former Roman Catholic monastery that had been purchased by an oil corporation.  The friend got nervous about bulldozing over all the religious art and statues that remained on the grounds of this former monastery.  So, he called to offer these religious objects to anyone who wanted them. 

Dr. Elkins (the Methodist minister) and her husband set off on a rescue mission of Roman Catholic art and walked the grounds of this monastery.  In her words, they were looking “at figures of two-thousand pound saints sentenced to rubble.”  They wondered what in the world they could possibly rescue with their bare hands and “drive to safety in an old VW Beetle.”  Finally, they found a statue that caught their eye—the figure of a young woman lying face down. 

After turning this statue over and brushing off her face, they recognize this as a statue of Mary.  Dr. Elkins reflected, “Her face is serene; curled around at her bare feet is a subdued serpent still clutching the eternal apple in its jaws.  Mary’s hands are missing.”  They searched the ground for her missing hands without success and as the light began to fade in the sky, they decide their rescue mission on these overgrown grounds of this former monastery was for Mary.  Husband and wife end up carrying this statue that weighs over a hundred pounds for a mile through the woods.  More than once, Dr. Elkins wrote, “She slips from our hands in the dark; more than once we have to grit our teeth, get a grip on our temper and trust by reciting, ‘Nothing will be impossible with God.’”  They did rescue Mary, and that statue has been proudly displayed in every office that Dr. Elkins has ever occupied.  Often, she has people stare in surprise at Mary in her office and ask, “Aren’t you a Protestant?”  “Oh yes,” she says, “She’s in my Bible.”  

So, what do we do with Mary?  Perhaps we remember that Mary accepted a call from God as a young woman.  Mary sang a song to God about the powerful being pulled down from their thrones and God lifting up the lowly.  Mary is a remarkable figure in our Bible.  Mary is our sister in faith.  And we can thank God for her example of trust, love, magnifying God, and devotion.  Hail Mary, full of grace, our God was with you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

[1] Luke 1:46-47, CEB.
[2] Luke 1:46-47, NRSV.
[3] Luke 1:38, CEB.
[4] Luke 1:38.
[5] Dr. Heather Murray Elkins, Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions, 2011, 363.

Photo by Haley Phelps on Unsplash