There is an old Medieval carol that speaks of Adam’s sin in eating the forbidden fruit, but it ends by saying, “Blessed be the time the apple was taken. Otherwise, our lady would never have been heavenly queen”–basically giving thanks for sin so that people could worship Mary. Protestants look askance at Catholics for praying to Mary and honoring her as queen of heaven. Unfortunately, we have made up for it by virtually ignoring her, a worse mistake than honoring her wrongly. At least at Advent we pay some attention.
God deliberately passes over the great and prominent in order to do his work through the lowly and ordinary. He chose Mary to be his mother, not despite the fact that she was a peasant girl, someone of no special status, but because of it.
Gabriel announced God’s blessing and told her that she would give birth to a son named Jesus, who would be called Son of the Most High. Betrothed, but not yet married, Mary was troubled and puzzled at the announcement. She missed the fact that Jesus would be Son of the Most High, not the son of Joseph and wondered how she could become pregnant when she was still a virgin. Gabriel explained that she would become pregnant by the power of God. Mary committed herself to God’s will, perhaps not realizing until later the emotional turmoil that being an unwed mother would cause her and those she loved.
Luke says that Mary went quickly to visit Elizabeth, an older relative who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. She might have already been reviled by her family and townspeople, but Elizabeth pronounced a blessing on her and her unborn child. Mary chose to ignore her shame and respond to the blessing. Her next recorded words are one of the great prayers of the Bible.
Being a poor girl from a hick town did not make Mary stupid or ignorant. The passage shows great familiarity with other prayers of the Old Testament, especially Hannah’s prayer before the birth of Samuel. Mary’s prayer, known as the Magnificat from the first word of the Latin translation, starts, “My soul glorifies the Lord” (NIV).
Older translations, closer to Latin, use the word “magnify,” which entails making something appear larger and closer by focusing attention on it by eliminating other things from view. Another key word, soul, has become a rather vague religious word to us, but we get our word “psychology” from the original Greek word, psyche. So we can think of the soul as what psychologists study: personality, intelligence, will, emotion, etc. Therefore, Mary praised God with her whole heart from the very depths of her being.
The second line of the poem restates the first: “my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” “Savior” implies protection and deliverance. If God is our savior, the military, the government, a spouse or parent, comfort foods, all the stuff we accumulate, etc. are not. Mary turned to the real source of salvation, but something troubled and puzzled her. Through Gabriel, God, the savior, told her to name her baby Jesus, which means savior. What did that mean? She must have thought about that for a long time.
Mary’s neighbors and relatives may have persecuted her for getting pregnant before getting married, but she was about to become the mother of God himself. The praise and honor she would receive from every subsequent generation of people more than made up for the pain she would experience from her acquaintances. All generations, she says, will call her blessed. Because of great things she did? No. Because God did great things for her in his power, holiness, and mercy.
The next several verses refer to what God has done. “He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel.”
The Greek verb tense, more complicated than anything in English, can indeed refer to past actions, as the English perfect tense does in our translations. Indeed, without the mighty deeds God has already accomplished, there is no good news to tell. But God’s works are not all in the past. What he has done promises what he will do in the future.
And so the Greek verbs also refer to acts that are still in the future, but which have begun to be realized. In that sense, Mary’s prayer is prophetic. Like the Old Testament prophets, she speaks of God’s intentions as if they have already happened, revolutionary intentions that represent a complete reversal of normal human expectations.
Proud people are usually proud because other people have told them all their lives that they are somehow special, whether they are naturally superior by accident of birth or whether they are every bit as good as those rich folks and ought to stand up for themselves. God will have none of it. He puts down those who exalt themselves.
Kings and rulers have always pretended to be a class apart from everyone else and a better sort of people. God cares greatly about the downtrodden and lowly, which explains why he chose a poor peasant girl to be the mother of God.
Remember, God exalted David from obscure shepherd boy to king and promised that his offspring would rule forever. But then the kings of his dynasty became proud and corrupt. They turned away from God and began to oppress the people.
God cast them down, and by the time Jesus was born, descendants of those kings had again become poor and powerless—just the right circumstances for them to be exalted again and produce the promised king who will rule forever.
Society’ expects that the rich will always be well off and the poor will always be hungry. So God feeds the poor and lets the rich fend for themselves. God is not bound by what human society thinks normal. He does not exist to live up to human expectations—except for one thing: when he makes a promise, we can expect him to keep it. God made a covenant with Abraham, intended eventually to bless all mankind. Through Mary’s unborn child, the Messiah, God fulfills the covenant promises.
I called this post “Mary’s Commitment,” not “Mary’s Prayer.” The prayer shows strongly that she chose to believe what Gabriel told her, regardless of the shame and opposition she received from her family and neighbors. She continued to believe in the face of that opposition. She prayed not in fear, but in bold hope.
We can join her prayer. If God is for us, who can be against us? If we have God’s favor, and we do, why should we get bent out of shape if we don’t have someone else’s? Let it drop. Focus attention on God’s favor.
We can also join her commitment. God still sides with the lowly against the proud. We need to be more concerned about the needs of the poor and outcast than with our own respectability and privileges.