[ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stan Helton is a longtime friend of our congregation, currently serving with First Christian Church in New Orleans.]
We call it the Magnificat from the word “magnify” (magnificat in Latin) at the beginning of the Mary’s song:
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.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for 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.
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, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
(Luke 1:46–55 NRSV)
The theme of reversal is prominent in this song, not to mention, that the unexpected turn that a peasant girl might become the mother of God-incarnate. In this song the proud are not so haughty, kings not so high, rich not so sumptuous. In this song the lowly are lifted and the hungry fed. And in this song Israel is remembered and the promise of God is assured.
Mary knows that the only things her people can hang their hopes is God’s faithful to keep his promise to her people (beginning in Gen 12). But things have not gone well for her people.
Abraham did not get the land, her people became slaves in Egypt, and when they did get to the land, the nation was torn into. One piece, Israel, soon disappeared from history. The other piece, Judah, was exiled to Babylon for seventy years, and when they finally returned to the land promised by God to Abraham, her people had been ruled by various tyrants: after the Persians, came the Greeks. From the Greeks came first the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, then the Seleucids from Syria, and finally, as it was in Mary’s day, the Romans now controlled the destiny of her people. Despite a short time when her people were actually free under the Maccabean liberators, the promise of God appears unfulfilled, if not, a complete sham.
When read against this background, Mary’s song expresses hope against all hope. Her song is a bold reimagining of how things appear. The strong prophetic “God has done it” permeates her hope. Historically, not true yet, but still so certain in the mind of God, that the Spirit can say through Mary “God has done it.”
God has shown, scattered, brought down, lifted up, filled, sent away, and… “He has helped his servant Israel … according to the promise … to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Now here we sit some two thousand years removed from the time of Mary, and it still feels at times as if God has not kept his promise, but the prophetic word still stands, “God has done it.” How do we know? Because God kept his promise to Mary and her people. Jesus came.