Luke 1:39-80: Magnificat

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church; originally broadcast Dec. 14, 2008.

Introduction:                       Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this third Sunday in the season of Advent. Home Church members have been working very hard this December, and I want to give a shout out to all of the Candle Tea volunteers. Sometimes you get unusual questions at Candle Tea. A young boy asked one of the interpreters in the Candle Room a question that weighed heavy on his mind. “What was the name of the Moravian who jumped over the Candlestick.” She let him know that his name was Jack B. Nimble. I never knew Jack was one of the Single Brothers, but that is how legends grow. I want to give a shout out to Meyers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte. They had their first lovefeast and candlelight service on Wednesday, and it was a beautiful service. It is so good to see these Moravian traditions enriching the ecumenical church.

A stalwart group of Home Church members went out yesterday and gathered cedar boughs to decorate the church. This Friday dozens of people will be working in the Fellowship Hall, making beautiful garlands of real cedar that will be hung in the Sanctuary. This is a tradition that goes back at least 150 years at Home Church. The practice of bringing evergreens into the sanctuary is much older than the garlands, and has its roots in pre-Christian Germany. I am often bemused at the perpetual debates over Christmas trees in towns and colleges around the country. I read in the paper that UNC Chapel Hill will no longer put up decorated trees in the library since the University represents many “belief systems” and is not a Christian school. The funny thing is that yuletide trees are not part of any single belief system. In fact, many Christian churches object to Christmas trees, especially in the sanctuary, precisely because evergreens had been part of pagan religion during the winter solstice. I am concerned that supposedly well-educated people think that Christmas trees or stars in December are specifically Christian just because they are used by Christians during this season. It would be like arguing that since most churches use flowers in church on Sunday mornings we should ban flowers in schools and government buildings. I think it is time that government officials and academics lighten up about winter decorations and focus on genuine problems, such as the anticipated cuts in financial aid to poor students.

Personally, I am glad that Home Church uses evergreen decorations as part of our celebration of the birth of Jesus. The evergreens remind us that there is life in the midst of winter’s death, and they kindle hope that spring and rebirth will come. We call Advent a season of Hope because we are anticipating the day when the light of Christ will shine in the darkest recesses of our hearts; when the warmth of Christ will melt the ice of hatred; and when the Prince of Peace will reign over all earthly governments. So, hang your festive garlands, put lights on your trees, light candles, sing carols of love and good cheer, and drink a cup of wassail this Advent, but may we also do what we can to live into the hope of a new age.

I Sing of Women and Salvation:               Last week we discussed the story of the annunciations to Zechariah and Mary, and we had a lively conversation about the importance of Mary in the church historically and for today. This week we are discussing a meeting between the mother of John the Baptist and the mother of Jesus. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we read of a visit between these women, and historians doubt that the Mary and Elizabeth really knew each other. Many scholars view this scene in Luke like one of those books or movies where two historical figures have a dramatic meeting even though they probably never met in real life. The main reason biblical scholars question the historicity of this story later on John does not seem to know who Jesus is when he comes to be baptized in the Jordan. In fact, in none of the gospels does John the Baptist recognize Jesus until the Holy Spirit reveals his true identity, but Luke brings Mary and Elizabeth together to make a theological point. Jesus and John were never rivals. God was working through both men for the salvation of Israel and the redemption of the world, even before their births.

Though there are doubts about the historicity of this story, it makes sense in context. Luke doesn’t tell us why Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth, but it is easy to guess. Perhaps she went to confirm the angel’s words that Elizabeth had also conceived. If the angel was right about that, she could rest assured that what he said to her was true. Or it could be that she went simply because she did not know what else to do. It is quite likely that she was confused and frightened by her pregnancy. It is hard enough for an unmarried teen-ager to be pregnant in our society, imagine what it would have been like in ancient Israel. Who would believe Mary’s story of angelic intervention? It is hard enough for people to believe it today even though we worship her child as the Son of God. We can picture Mary as a frightened young woman seeking refuge with one woman who might understand. We don’t know where Mary’s mother was, but it appears that Elizabeth served as a surrogate mother to her for three months.

We should also note the important fact that Luke begins his gospel with two women. Unlike Virgil, Luke is not singing “of arms and a man” whose fate is decided by the gods. Luke is singing about an old priest, his wife, a teen-age girl, and a bunch of shepherds. According to the standards of classical literature, Luke should be writing a comedy, but he chooses the most beautiful language he knows to celebrate God’s salvation. In the first two chapters of Luke, there are at least five hymns, perhaps more since Gabriel’s prophecies sound like hymns. This is the highest concentration of songs in any portion of the New Testament, and I think it tells us something about the birth narrative in Luke. This is not a story that can be confined to prose; it requires poetry and music. We need to avoid the temptation of turning the Gospel writers into Joe Friday on Dragnet who just wanted the facts, ma’am. Luke wants to impress upon us the magic and wonder of the birth of Messiah. The story of Christmas should lift us from the mundane and invite us to sing songs of hope and joy. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit when Mary approached her. Incidentally, this is further evidence that the early church believed that women could be prophets that proclaim the Word of God. Elizabeth declares a blessing on Mary, saying that she is blessed among women, saying:

Read: Luke 1:42, 45

Blessed Among Women:                 This blessing in Luke is similar to other blessings in Jewish literature, most notably Deborah’s statement that Jael was blessed among women for killing Sisera (Judges 5:24). In the Apocrypha, we read of Uzziah’s blessing of Judith among all women of earth after she killed Holofernes (Judith 13:18). We do not know if Luke knew these stories, but it appears that he was well read in Jewish literature, especially the Old Testament. It is possible that Luke simply used familiar language to express Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary, but it is possible that Luke expected the reader to know these earlier stories.

Perhaps Luke used this ancient blessing to identify Mary as a heroine that would save her people the way Jael and Judith did. Jael and Judith both used their femininity to slay powerful men who were attempting to destroy Israel. Could it be that Luke is telling us that Mary used her power as a woman to defeat Satan and his kingdom? It should also be noted, especially in light of last week’s discussion, that Jael and Judith both risked their reputations when rescuing their people. Both were alone in a tent with a foreign man, and there were rumors about what they did before killing their enemies. Mary was also risking her reputation (and her life) by being pregnant before getting married. Luke wants to remove any doubts her. The blessing indicates that she did the right thing and would be remembered for all generations. Just like Jael and Judith, Mary trusted in God and was a participant in God’s work.

Prenatal Spirituality:                     One of the more curious things in this conversation between Elizabeth and Mary is that the older woman reported that her unborn son leaped in the womb when Mary approached. Before modern science, the first movement of a fetus was often called the Quickening because it was believed that this was the moment when the developing infant came to life. Even though we can now see the movement of a fetus on an ultra sound, that first discernable kick of the child remains a significant for parents. It may be that Elizabeth was telling Mary that her presence brought life to the child in her womb. This would be a foreshadowing of Christ bringing life and new birth to the world.

Elizabeth says that the babe leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, and this is a major theme of Luke’s gospel. Joy is the proper response to the good news of Jesus. 250 years ago, this story of John the Baptist leaping for joy was important in Moravian worship and theology. Zinzendorf often made the point that John the Baptist leaped for joy even though he could not see, hear, or have any physical contact with Jesus. He leaped for joy because he could not express himself in any other way. Zinzendorf was one of the few theologians to argue that people with physical or mental impairment can still have faith and experience the love of God. Children can know their Savior in ways that adults have forgotten.

This was the essence of religion of the heart, for Zinzendorf, and it was proof that faith does not depend on intellect or any human ability. Faith is a living, spiritual connection with Christ, which includes the joyful experience of saving grace. Zinzendorf used this story of John the Baptist in the womb to justify the practice of infant baptism, by the way. Who are we to decide that God’s grace does not include children? Not surprisingly, Zinzendorf, like Comenius before him, encouraged mothers to sing hymns while pregnant so the child that is developing in the womb can know the same joy John knew when he heard Mary’s voice.

Respect for Women:           Some folks in church get uncomfortable with all this talk about wombs, and I can understand that, but sometimes Christians are more pious and prudish than the Bible. Luke put this story of Jesus’ conception into song and praises Mary for being the one who brought the Savior of the nations into the world. He’s not embarrassed to sing of the fruit of Mary’s womb, so why are we? Luke celebrates the fact that Jesus developed like all humans and that he was dependent on his mother like all of us were.

I apologize for bringing up good old Count Zinzendorf again, but he also taught that men should treat all women with respect because of Mary. This story in Luke is proof that there is nothing shameful about the female body or pregnancy. Perhaps during this season of Advent, we should think about how we as individuals and as a society treat women, especially women who are expecting children. What would happen if we remembered the way the elderly Elizabeth greeted young Mary with words of joy and blessing? What would happen if we treated every women, especially poor women, with the same respect that Elizabeth and Luke showed Mary?

It is only after Elizabeth prophesies that Mary speaks. She had little to say to the angel, but once Elizabeth confirms that she is blessed among women and that her child will be special, Mary lifts up her voice in song. The canticle she sings is called the Magnificat because that is the first word of the song in Latin. There are many beauty musical settings for this song, which are often used during Advent. One of my seminary classmates was a professional singer. He named his cat Toby the Magnificat.  Unfortunately, those who know me know that I could not sing the Magnificat without divine intervention. So I’ll just read the words, but keep in mind that this was always sung in the church.

Read Luke: 1-46-55

Magnificat                The first thing to note about the Magnificat is that it is very unlikely that Mary composed this hymn on the spot. We have to remember that no one had a tape recorder in the first century, and Luke had not even been born when this meeting with Elizabeth took place. It is possible that Mary sang a song that was familiar to her, much as some of us today spontaneously break into song, but it is more likely that it was Luke who put the Magnificat on Mary’s lips. You could think of this like a Broadway musical. My wife and daughters love musicals, but it strikes me as odd when all of the cowboys start singing the same song and dancing in a musical. I also usually wonder who’s playing the music when the Jets and Sharks are doing their number, but they tell me you have to leave such skepticism aside when watching a musical. John Adams didn’t really burst into song when it came time to write the Declaration of Independence, but the songs he sings in 1776 communicate important things about the founding of the country.

The canticles in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are like the songs in a Broadway show. Luke has Mary sing the Magnificat as a way to communicate something for which prose is inadequate. The question among biblical scholars is whether Luke composed this great hymn or whether it was a hymn already known to him. There are also several passages in the NT that appear to have been hymns sung in the early Church. Some were probably Jewish hymns adapted for Christian use; others were composed by Christians. The Magnificat may have been written during the days of the Maccabean Revolt. If so, it is doubly appropriate that we sing it during December since Hanukah commemorates a miracle during that Revolt.

Why do scholars like Raymond Brown think that the Magnicat was originally Jewish? Aside from the fact that it is sung by a Jewish woman, the main reason is that the hymn is about the salvation of Israel. No one would think it odd if this hymn were included in the book of Psalms or had been part of the worship of the Temple. It could have been sung at almost any time in Israel’s history. There is nothing in the hymn that is specific to the situation of Mary, other than verse 48, which refers to the Lord’s handmaid that all generations will call blessed. There are some clear parallels to the song of Hannah in I Samuel. Both are songs by women who have just found out that they are unexpectedly pregnant and will give birth to special children. Both rejoice in God’s ability to overturn the normal social order. Those who are strong, proud, and arrogant have been scattered, like the men of Babel, but the lowly have been exalted.

Liberation:                The Magnificat, like the Beatitudes in Luke, offer a radical critique of human society from the perspective of God. The powerful and mighty will be cast out of the chairs of power, but those of low estate will be lifted up. The hungry will be fed and the rich sent away empty. For many centuries, the Magnificat has been sung in Latin in Catholic churches, but the radical message of this song was generally buried under elaborate musical ornamentation. Monks and nuns chanting in the chancel identified themselves with the poor that Mary sings of, even though they were well cared for by endowments. During the 20th century, some Catholic leaders highlighted the meaning of the words in the text.

One of these Liberation Theologians, Don Helder Camara, noted years ago: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Liberation theologians reclaimed the Virgin Mary from the powerful who constructed golden altars to her memory. They proclaimed the Good News revealed in the Magnificat. Advent is a season of hope, but the Magnificat reminds us that it remains a season for repentance. According to Luke, the rich and powerful may have less reason for singing in the kingdom of heaven than the humble and downtrodden.

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  • Adam Stiener  On December 18, 2008 at 10:01 pm


    this is to let you know that I do on occasion visit your site.

    You correctly make reference to Zinzendorf’s religion of the heart, not intellect. Such understanding on Zinzendorf’s part might well be traced even to his pre-Unitas Fratrum experience and association. I would think that his religious upbringing as a child would have introduced him to Luther’s Small Catechism. Here he would have learned – most likely been required to memorize – major segments of this booklet (as I had to in confirmation class so long ago in Germany), thereby also the explanation (“What Does This Mean”) to the Third Article of the Apostles Creed which says that by one’s “own reason or strength” one “cannot believe in Jesus Christ nor come to Him”, etc., etc. (I hope my English translation is more or less correct on tis one).



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