Micah 5.2-5a; Hebrews 1-.5-10; Luke 1.39-55
THE words of today’s Gospel are so familiar that it is possible to become blasé about them. But fresh attention to their startling quality, meaning, and history can help us to see with clarity the truth about ourselves, and about Christmas.
Mary’s song is a carefully structured piece of writing. It follows the conventions of Jewish poetry, drawing words and phrases from much older texts, such as the Psalms and the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2.1-10). In Christian history, there is reference in the early sixth century to its place in the daily offices of morning and evening prayer. It has been established as a Gospel canticle at the evening office in the English Church for nearly 1000 years, and from the 14th century was also translated from Latin into English.
So we can reckon that, for at least a millennium, Christians have been reciting these words day by day in churches and cathedrals across the land, and they still do in our own time. Mary’s experience of the grace of God thereby becomes, in some way, characteristic of Christian discipleship in successive generations. We are reminded, as we see our lives through the lens of hers, of what God has done and is doing for us.
All life is here. In Mary’s song we find social upheaval, poverty, hunger, conflict, the intimacy of the experience of God, and the majesty of it.
Nor should we forget the context in which Luke places the Magnificat. Two women meet, both of them expectant mothers, one heavily pregnant. Elizabeth ushers her younger relative into the house, and out pour the words of a song that Christians have sung ever since. Although the setting is domestic and intimate, these two women, their story, and their children become public and universal property.
What is the truth about ourselves which this song might be able to tell us? I think it might be that we are pretty forgetful. We probably all know this at one level, because we put things down and cannot find them. A friend of mine said recently that he spent the whole of his first year at college in Cambridge looking for his keys. Misplacing things is part of life, but it’s not what I mean here.
We are forgetful in a way that is much more important, that goes to the heart of our identity. I think we are forgetful about the history of our faith. This does not mean that everyone should become a church historian — heaven forbid. But we should be curious about the origins of our faith, and its subsequent expressions in art, music, and worship, especially as we embark on the celebration of Christmas, when God took flesh and lived among us. What is it in our worship that is simply the contemporary packaging, and what specific and limited things might this say about the preoccupations of our time?
The portrayal of Mary is a good example of why it might be helpful to ask this question. Much of the contemporary packaging in which previous generations have wrapped her appears to be saying things that we now do not fully understand or appreciate. We are tempted to look for an image that conveys what we call realism, and can be disappointed when we find instead a woman in silk, haloed, attended by angels, or sitting on a throne. But those were simply ways that 15th-century artists such as Cosimo Roselli or Martin Schongauer, for example, chose to express the paradox of faith, that here was “heav’n and earth in little space”.
In contrast, in the recent celebrations of World AIDS Day, I came across the photo of a 24-year-old HIV-positive woman from West Kenya breastfeeding her baby. On the basis of advice from the clinic, her expectation was that the child would be HIV-negative. The child held within itself a future free from the scourge of that pandemic.
I found the allusions to Mary in this photo utterly fascinating. It offered an image of motherhood, and articulated deeper narratives: about poverty, disease, and oppression, but also about hope, healing, and life. I do not wish to say that this image is better than the older ones at demonstrating the truth that God took flesh from Mary, bore our hurts, and healed them. But it does speak eloquently of what the content of “tidings of comfort and joy” might be in the Christmas gospel that the mothers of Africa long to hear.
Our patterns of worship, and the communication of faith in a contemporary idiom do not happen in a vacuum. The words and images we use are already thick with inherited prayer and meaning. This, in itself, should cause us to approach the Christmas crib with awe. The newborn child has already been adored by Christians for two millennia. Our articulation takes its place with theirs, and will give way to the prayer of future generations. This calls for humility, and a fresh vision of our own littleness when confronted with the mercy of God shown to the human race from generation to generation.
The LORD says to his people:
2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
3Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
5and he shall be the one of peace.
5When Christ came into the world, he said,
‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
6in burnt-offerings and sin-offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7Then I said, “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God”
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).’
8When he said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt-offerings and sin-offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, ‘See, I have come to do your will.’ He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me –
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
even as he said to our fathers.”
Canon Warner is Treasurer of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Bishop- designate of Whitby.