Once again, I’ll be preaching this text on December 18, so I’ve already given it some thought. The way our congregation does the Advent candles, love is the culminating candle, the fourth in the Sundays of Advent and that which comes directly before the central Christ candle. Anyone who has been around theological disputes for the last decade (perhaps the last couple millennia) knows that love is one of the grand contested words in the Christian tradition, one that takes its cues from the stories that people tell and that resists assimilation into those stories and that becomes one of the truly knock-down arguments within Christian circles: nobody can come out of a theological dispute as the voice of wisdom if the other voices can demonstrate that the position one holds is un-loving.
A traditionalist myself, I always start out, when thinking and preaching and writing about love, assuming that the rich traditions of the Church, including but not exclusive to church song, must inform the words we use, and the Magnificat must be one of those grand, central songs. There was a span of time, I’ll admit out front, that Luke 1:52-53 was for me the core of the Magnificat, that the rest of it was basically liturgical decoration, but as I’ve written my sermon for next Sunday, I realize that the lifting of the lowly, while indisputably the content of God’s salvation that Mary sings, cannot stand alone lest it become an agenda for electoral politics rather than a song of God’s acts in the world.
What strikes me now about the Magnificat is that God starts out the song as Savior. Those familiar with the early generations of the Roman Empire no doubt will recognize that Savior is one of the titles that the Emperor claimed for himself. (I always want to write Saviour, because I think of the Romans as British, I suppose.) Mary’s song here, coming to us in Luke, thus starts out subversive not because of the social reversals later (though it gets there) but because “my Savior” in this song is not the Empire-appointed savior, one that secures “safety” by means of brutal wars and cultural assimilation. Instead, Mary’s Savior is the invisible God, who comes to each generation not in the trappings of conquest and territory but by means of stories, the faithful songs that the faithful sing about the powerful men who thought they could stand against God and the God-fearing weaklings of the world whom God chose to bear witness against them. Mary can sing confidently that generations will call her blessed not because she has powers of her own but because the God about whom Israel sings has placed her centrally within the grand Salvation Song.
Mary remembers, however, that God is holy, and that governs the song just as much as the word Savior steers it against Empire. Perhaps later in life Mary will fall victim to the same ideologies that seemed to follow Jesus, those that would make him a new Judas Maccabeus or a Philistine-smashing new David. Perhaps she beheld Jesus, suffering in Jerusalem, and despaired that her son was dying because he was a failed Messiah. But in this moment, singing this song, Mary stands back, averting her eyes and singing the holiness of the name of God, the acknowledgment that if God’s ways are strange, they stand so not because of a defect in the divine but because the hopes and the fears that life in Empire breed in all of us have distorted our ability to see the goodness of God. The Gospel is indeed strange, but the strangeness is a function of our inability to see straight, not anything in God which, seen through faithful eyes, would itself be amiss.
When Mary sings of the descendants of Abraham in the final lines of the Magnificat, then, she sings of those who, like Abraham, have been called away from the life of the grand Chaldean ways of Empire, those wandering the wilderness as God’s people, perhaps crying out like John, perhaps encountering the nations like Philip, but always tested like Christ Himself, always facing the hard realities of Satan and countering them with the Torah stored away in our hearts, with the gratitude that comes from seeing one’s self as a saved sinner, from the songs that God has given us to sing. The faith that sings might indeed give shape to a world that looks misshapen, might reveal the joy that lies beyond suffering, might illuminate for us God’s love at every turn.
May our songs shape us, strike the ears of the nations, and come to God as the gifts of faithful servants.