My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, is one of the most loved, most sung, most revered pieces in all of Christian worship, and it has been part of our Anglican tradition ever since the first Book of Common Prayer was pub-lished back in 1549. The Magnificat invites us into the mysterious events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and into the intimate encounter be-tween two mothers-to-be: Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah, who in her old age is to be blessed with bearing John the Baptist; and Mary, the frightened but faithful young peasant girl from Nazareth, to whom the angel has announced that she will bear the Son of God. As Luke tells the story, Mary has set out from her home and hastened up into the hill country of Judea, to Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s house—an arduous journey which she will take again, great with child, months later.
Why did Mary make that journey? Was it the embarrassment she may have felt, being pregnant out of wedlock, and at such a tender age? Was it that she wanted relief from the cruelties of small-town gossip? Was it companionship she may have sought from her older and wiser kinswoman? The rightness of Mary’s trip is confirmed by Elizabeth’s re-sponse: her own baby leaps in her womb, and she is filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Somehow, Elizabeth is privy to the momentous events soon to unfold, and she celebrates the faith of her young kinswoman and her obedient response to God’s claim upon her.
Whereupon Mary herself bursts into song: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant….”
The Magnificat is known and loved throughout the Christian world; but nowhere is it sung with more heart and hope than in Latin America, in some of its poorest communities, in the midst of unimaginable hardship. The late Robert McAfee Brown, who taught at both Stanford and the Pacific School of Religion, and who had a deep interest in the Third World, describes being in Lima, Peru, with his wife, at a service with several thousand worshipers. They have all been attending a conference about how Christian faith and Catholic spirituality can be a means of overcoming the poverty and oppression and injustice that abound in the villages to which they will soon return. As the Mass ends and the priest dismisses them, the people get to their feet and begin to file out. And as they do so, spontaneously they start singing Mary’s Song.
As Professor Brown describes it, “On the lips of poor and oppressed people, the words are transformed from the whispers of a dutiful maiden into the promise of a wide-scale victory soon to be achieved. Those who have every reason to wonder whether God can any longer be called a God of justice and power are singing, ‘God has shown strength with God’s arm.’ Those who have so often been victimized by arrogant rulers who show no regard for the poor are singing, ‘God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.’…Those who worry about food for themselves and their children are singing, ‘God has filled the hungry with good things.’…They are singing of a new order,” says Brown, “a new world in which all expectations have been turned around.” (Unexpected News; Westminster Press; 1984; pp. 83f)
Now, I haven’t traveled in Latin America, but I have traveled in another part of the Third World, namely, Kenya and Tanzania, East Africa, and I can attest to the joy and confidence with which desperately poor Chris-tian people there sing the songs of their faith. I’ve seen them fill their little mud churches to overflowing and raise their magnificent voices in praise of God; and at outdoor gatherings I’ve seen them spontaneously form circles and start dancing and singing in their colorful garments. Poor people of faith know, whether in Peru, or Tanzania, or in the mountain hamlets of Appalachia in our own land, that God calls us to live in the hope and expectation of a new world of God’s own making.
But, you may ask, is that really happening? There is so much oppression in the world, so much corruption, so much violence and hunger and po-verty. Have things really gotten better? Well, yes and no. Take any is-sue—poverty, oppression, racism, health care, peacemaking—and we can point to both resounding victories and heart-rending defeats. But measurements of success and failure are not what drive people of faith to sing God’s praises, to sing about bringing down the proud, and lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things. People of faith know that this is God’s world, and that history unfolds under the sove-reignty of the Living God, who has endowed us with genuine freedom, who engages us with passionate, suffering love in Jesus Christ, and who goads us and yearns for us to respond with that same kind of love to God and one another.
Children understand all this with an innocence and trust that we adults need badly to reclaim. I’ve just received a Christmas card from a little girl named Esther Wanjiru who lives in an impoverished little village in rural Kenya. She’s a child Joannie and I have sponsored for some years through the Christian Children’s Fund. Her card is adorned with bright flowers which she has drawn herself. Esther loves to draw, and she often sends us pictures of happy things—animals she loves, the one-room house she lives in, the sun and its rays shining down on her little world. She lives in utter poverty; she’s been sick a lot; her family has often suf-fered the effects of drought—but she reassures us constantly of her love and trust in God and in the care she receives through the Fund.
Esther is now approaching the age at which, in all probability, the young peasant girl Mary received her momentous news and went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth. And the humble circumstances in which Esther was born and continues to live reflect those in which by God’s grace the Savior of the world came to dwell among us. It does seem as though God characteristically uses the poor, the lowly, the humble and meek to teach the rest of us what we need to understand about the way we are to live and to treat one another. You and I have so very much more than we need. You and I so easily cast our lot and find our satisfaction in the ways of those of whom Mary sang in her song—the proud, the powerful, the rich. The coming of the Holy Child of Bethlehem, amid the songs of angels and children, is God’s warning and God’s promise that in the fullness of time God’s gracious will shall prevail. The powerful shall be brought down from their thrones and God’s mercy shall rest upon those who love and obey him from generation to generation.