Commentary: Sing it again – Finding hope in the Magnificat

By John A. Stroman, Special Contributor…

When Mary learns that she will give birth to the Messiah, she sings an aria of freedom. Her song presents no sweet lullaby in anticipation of her baby’s birth but a message of freedom and hope for the homeless, the hungry, the refugee, the abused and misused, the powerless, and the despairing. These words express a vision for a better future: “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).

Her song captures the words of hope from Hannah and Miriam and echoes the cry of deliverance from the Exodus, “Let my people go!” Mary passes these words of hope into the world, where Jesus proclaims this theme of deliverance in his inaugural sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . . and to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).

John Stroman

Charles Wesley captured the same theme in the lyrics of his Advent hymn, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free.” I find Advent one of the most uplifting and inspiring seasons of the Christian year because we hear again that we are not alone in our struggles: Immanuel—God is with us!

Mary’s words of liberation and freedom set the stage for the beginning of a new sense of deliverance and hope for a dark and fearful world. The word hail means to greet with enthusiastic acclaim and welcome. This Advent let us say, “Hail, Mary!”

The biblical account of Advent is rooted in Old Testament events, beginning when God promised Abram, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). For Christians, the promise to Abram reached its fullest expression of deliverance in the birth of Jesus. In the biblical narrative from the Exodus to Bethlehem, we discover that God’s main concern is deliverance (a theme expressed in the ninth-century hymn lyrics traditionally sung on the first Sunday of Advent, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel” [UM Hymnal, No. 211]). Mary’s canticle lifts the curtain on a new chapter of God’s activity, accomplishing what the apostle Paul calls “a new creation” (see Gal. 6:15). God has taken the initiative to reveal the Divine self to us in a manner never previously accomplished.

After an instant of fear and doubt following the angel’s annunciation, Mary declared, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). From this moment on, all generations will call her “blessed.” The world will never be the same.

The Scriptures present Mary as one whose importance extends beyond the Annunciation and birth narrative into the life of the church. She is the only New Testament character present at Jesus’ birth, at the Crucifixion, and at the Day of Pentecost. Luke’s Gospel portrays Mary not just as a mother but also as a disciple and a prophet. But in Luke’s portrayal of her as a worrying, troubled mother, Mary becomes the most interesting part of his story. Even after the wondrous circumstances surrounding the birth of her son, there seem to have been times when she did not comprehend who he was and the full implications of his ministry.

Mary “pondered in her heart” what she had undergone as she tried to accept certain realities that went beyond her understanding (Luke 2:19). She believed when there was no evidence to do so. In pondering, Mary kept these matters in mind, holding them at the center of her being until the truth was disclosed.

Beverly Gaventa points out that if Protestants are to talk about Mary, they must begin in a “Protestant-like” way. “That is to say we must begin with Scripture” (The Blessed One [Westminster John Knox, 2002], 105). Within the Scriptures Mary stands out as an important character, significant in her own right. She remains primarily the mother of Jesus, who followed him to his death and beyond. But the Magnificat suggests that she was an extraordinary reader of Scripture as well, capable of weaving passages into a new song of deliverance and hope, a song that has become one of the most frequently sung hymns in church history.

But for most Protestants, Mary remains almost invisible. We see her at Advent and Christmas, but by Epiphany she disappears. Historically, Protestant thought has protested certain Catholic practices, including a protest against Mariology (the devotion of Mary that goes beyond Scripture). Consequently, Protestants have lost sight of Mary’s substantial role in the biblical narrative.

By focusing on Mary’s life we can gain a fresh approach to Scripture. The Mary in the New Testament is believable. She knew life as we know life. If that were not true, there would not have been an Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. The Incarnation stands as Mary’s greatest achievement, forming the heart of the biblical narrative of deliverance and hope. Through the birth of her child, God is with us. God entered the real world of flesh-and-blood human beings. Through Mary, God became incarnate, embodied, and fully present in our world. We affirm this fact every time we repeat the words of the creed, “born of the Virgin Mary.”

When Mary appeared at the foot of the cross, she remained silent (John 19:25). We can assume that both her silence at the cross and her absence on the morning of the Resurrection at the empty tomb may have been the result of her pain and grief. The women who did go to the tomb early that morning brought spices (Mark 16:1). They were expecting to find a dead body to prepare for burial, not meet a resurrected Lord. When the women ran to tell the disciples (who were hiding behind locked doors) that Jesus was alive, they were met with disbelief (Luke 24:11). Mary was not the only person among this small band of followers who suffered from grief and loss.

But events change quickly. A fifth and final reference to Mary in the New Testament is found in the book of Acts. All of the followers of Jesus who were with him after the time of his resurrection and ascension came together and devoted themselves to pray continually for the coming of the Holy Spirit in the upper room in Jerusalem.

Among the disciples were certain women, “including Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14). On the eve of Pentecost we see Mary for the last time in the New Testament as she prays and waits with Jesus’ disciples for the life-giving Spirit of God. Mary no longer doubts. Now she knows that the promise given to her on that night in Nazareth over 30 years before, “and of his kingdom there will be no end,” is true. That night the angel’s last words to Mary were, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

Sing it again Mary! Remind us that if we or if any church loses sight of human sin, darkness, oppression and poverty, we will certainly miss the full impact of Jesus’ birth.

The Rev. John “Jack” Stroman is a retired United Methodist pastor in the Florida Conference. This essay is adapted from his newly released book, Singing Mary’s Song: An Advent Message of Hope and Deliverance. © 2012 by John A. Stroman. Used by permission of Upper Room Books. All rights reserved.

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