Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 24, 2023
Luke 1:46b-55 Commentary
The Year B Lectionary makes Mary’s song, “The Magnificat,” an alternative Psalm lection for both the Third and Fourth Sundays in Advent. For Advent 4B the main Psalm lection is from Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26. This commentary will be on Luke 1 and Mary’s song but if you want to read a prior Advent sermon commentary on Psalm 89, you can click here.
Did the young girl Mary, perhaps still reeling from the shock of what the Archangel Gabriel had recently told her, actually compose the song we now call “The Magnificat”? Or did she at least sing something similar after meeting with her cousin Elizabeth and later Luke spiffed it up? Let’s admit that under the influence of the Holy Spirit who had placed no less than the Son of God into her uterus as a microscopic zygote, it surely is possible that even at her young age and even in the face of a grand miracle she could have had the insights we see in this song.
We don’t know precisely how quickly Mary went to visit Elizabeth after her encounter with Gabriel but Luke 1 seems to indicate it was almost immediately. And since we don’t know precisely where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived—Luke identifies is only as some town in the hill country of Judea—we don’t know either how long her journey was. How long had she been living with this news? How long had she been pondering it? We don’t know. But a bit of time has passed by the time she arrives in that town.
But surely the way Elizabeth greeted Mary must have also spun Mary’s head around a bit. She is by far the younger woman in this encounter. Yet Elizabeth greets her like royalty. Elizabeth wonders aloud how she is worthy of a visit from the mother of the person Elizabeth identifies as “my Lord.” And then under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—and take note: Elizabeth is the first person in the New Testament said to be filled with the Holy Spirit—she gives Mary quite the benediction as well.
First a luminous, glorious, strong, and no doubt rather intimidating archangel (“Fear not” angels always have to say right off the bat) visits Mary but then greets this young woman as though she were by far the more important of the two beings in the room. Now Elizabeth does the same thing. How did this happen? Just a couple weeks earlier Mary was regarded as nothing special in particular. To most of her society she existed probably a fair number of rungs down most any social ladder you could name. She came from a backwater town in the Roman occupied area of Palestine and was destined to marry a simple carpenter named Joseph after which she would produce babies, raise them, live a quiet small-town life, and eventually die as no one history would remember. Now suddenly she has come to the realization that history is indeed going to remember her. History and untold millions or billions of people she will never know will call her “blessed.”
Now that’s a change of fortune! If it set Mary’s head and heart to spinning, it also apparently got her thinking. And the outcome of that thoughtfulness is in her song. Because Mary connected what God had recently done for her to what God seems always to do: he upends things. God does not pay attention first and foremost to the people society always fawns over: celebrities, politicians, the super wealthy, the famous. The proud and the arrogant cut no ice with Almighty God. The rich folks who think their money means they can get whatever they want—often at the expense of doing something for the poor and needy—get no more than a shrug from God.
Actually, Mary suggests that in the long run God will not merely shrug these people off. He will actively send them packing. And in their place will be people like Mary: the lowly and needy of the earth who somehow occupy a particularly warm spot in the divine heart. God does not choose the most likely characters but the least likely ones to elevate to places of honor. The very people we tend mostly to overlook—the last, lost, least, and lonely of the earth—are going to end up being highly favored even as Mary was.
In short, Mary saw in what had been happening to her lately a kind of curio showcase window of God’s overall M.O. And of course in Luke this song is just a preview of coming attractions for how the miracle baby conceived within Mary will conduct himself as well. Jesus will consistently be unimpressed with self-important folks and most certainly he will have little to no tolerance for the self-righteous folks he encounters. Again and again those who thought they had their own salvation all sewn up in a tidy package scorned Jesus because of the bad company he kept. Jesus would break bread—share life and intimacy with—prostitutes and tax collectors and even helped out the odd Roman centurion or Syrophoenician woman and Samaritan woman at a well and unclean lepers and women with issues of blood and . . . well, the list goes on and on.
Jesus was rejected as the Messiah because he paid attention to all the wrong people. But his mother Mary through her song in Luke 1 says that actually that is precisely what qualified Jesus as being the Messiah: he was just doing what Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had always done: stooping low to show special regard and favor for the lowly, the destitute, and yes, the very ones too often shunned by the religious establishment.
As is often said in connection to the Parable of the Lost Sheep: God counts by ones and always counts most especially the lost and scorned people for whom he goes looking but on whom religious folks often turn their backs. Small wonder it is Luke who, taking his cues from Mary’s song, gives us parables involving lost sheep, coins, sons; parables involving Good Samaritans and a poor man maned Lazarus and other unlikely heroes. If it seems like Luke had a bit of an axe to grind, it’s because he did.
[Check out our special Advent and Christmas Resources page for even more preaching and worship ideas, sample sermons, and more for Advent 2023.]
In my sermons and in past commentaries on Mary’s Song “The Magnificat,” I have often evoked C.S. Lewis’s characterization of this as what he termed “a terrible song.” No, that was not an aesthetic judgment like saying it was a poor or a bad song. He meant “terrible” in more its root sense in the Latin terribilis as something fierce, alarming, frightening, maybe even awe-inspiring. Below is a bit more of Lewis’s commentary:
“I think, too, it will do us no harm to remember that, in becoming Man, [Jesus] bowed His neck beneath the sweet yoke of a heredity and early environment. Humanly speaking, He would have learned this style, if from no one else (but it was all about Him) from His Mother. “That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hands of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant.” Here is the same parallelism. (And incidentally, is this the only aspect in which we can say of His human nature “He was His Mother’s own son”? There is a fierceness, even a touch of Deborah, mixed with the sweetness in the Magnificat to which most painted Madonnas do little justice; matching the frequent severity of His own sayings. I am sure the private life of the holy family was, in many senses, “mild” and “gentle”, but perhaps hardly in the way some hymn writers have in mind. One may suspect, on proper occasions, a certain astringency; and all in what people at Jerusalem regarded as a rough north-country dialect.)”
~~ C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1958, pp. 5-6.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!