Singing from Mary's Sheet
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever." (Luke 1: 46-55)
This familiar Christmas passage is often called Mary's Song or the Magnificat which is Latin for magnify. Mary sings this song in response to Elizabeth's exclamation of blessing to her when she arrived for a visit and when John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth's womb, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Mary sang this song to magnify or to extol God. When we magnify something, we make it bigger, so we can better see it. Like a magnifying glass. Or when someone is put up on the jumbotron at a ball game, so everyone can see their silly dance. In the case of this song, Mary is narrowing in on the greatness of God. She is filled with wonder at what God is doing and can't help but bubble over into praise.
What makes this song all the more remarkable is the challenges and trials she likely went through before her visit to Elizabeth. She had probably been ostracized by many in her community. We don't know how her family responded, but they had every legal right to reject her, or worse. We know from the book of Matthew that Joseph wanted to divorce her after he heard the news of her conception. We should also remember where Israel is in her history. Since the exile, they have not had a king on the throne. The prophets have been silent since Malachi. Romans rule the world and their land. So in many ways, it's a dark time, for Mary and for her people. Yet as we see, she sings a song filled with wonder and thanksgiving.
Magnifying the Lord in Thanksgiving
In her song, Mary shows us how to give thanks to the Lord. And we can learn a few things from her for our own songs of praise.
We praise God by rehearsing Scripture: Throughout her song, Mary references directly or indirectly many psalms and other Old Testament passages. One obvious one is Hannah's prayer from 1 Samuel. The first verse of her song mirrors Psalm 103:1 where the psalmist wrote, "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!" As an Israelite, Mary was steeped in Scripture; she knew God's word. And having sung the psalms in worship, she knew how to sing praises to the Lord. Singing praises to God for who he is and what he has done was natural to her and this song is spontaneous praise. She is overwhelmed by the goodness of God to her and ultimately to her people. Mary faced a significant turning point in her life. A huge event just happened. An event that was a mixture of both trial and hope. She learned that she would bear the Messiah, but that blessing also brought about difficulty and challenges for her and her family. She processed and prayed and praised by rehearsing what she knew from God's Word. Mary shows us how to respond to all the events in our life: whether momentous or hard, whether joyous or painful, by focusing on who God is and what he has done.
We praise God for who he is: Throughout her song, she weaves in and references God's character: he is her Savior, he is holy, he is merciful, he is mighty and strong. In our own praises to God, we need to tell of who God is, his character, his goodness, and faithfulness. We need to tell of his grace and mercy. On this side of the cross, we see all of these character traits Mary mentions on full display. He is our savior: he saved us through the death of his son on the cross for our sins. He is holy: his holiness requires payment for sin, a payment we could not pay, but Jesus Christ paid it for us. He is merciful: through Christ, we have not received what we deserve--death for our sins. He is mighty and strong: the grave could not hold our Savior, he conquered sin and death and rose in victory to sit at the right hand of God.
We praise God for what he has done: Mary praises God for two things in this song: what he has done for her and what he has done for Israel. She praises him for his grace to her in seeing her humble estate and gifting her with the promised Messiah. She praises him for remembering his promises to her people and to the promise he made to Abraham when he promised that all the world would be blessed through him. On this side of the cross, we praise God for what he has done in our own lives in choosing us in Christ before the foundation of the world, in bringing us from death to life, in forgiving us of our sins, in giving us the gift of the Spirit, and in working in us to make us more like Christ. We praise him for meeting our daily needs and for keeping and sustaining us. We also praise him for what he is doing in the church, locally and around the world. We praise him for creating the church, for purchasing her with his blood and washing her clean. We praise him for his faithfulness, to fulfill the promise to Abraham by grafting us into the tree by faith.
We learn from Mary's song to turn our eyes and look upon God in his goodness and faithfulness, whatever the circumstances going on around us, and to sing his praises with awe and wonder. Mary did not yet know exactly how God would use her child to bring salvation. She knew the promises from the Old Testament. She knew he would bring redemption. But she didn't know the details. On this side of redemptive history, how much more should we rejoice and sing praises to God! How much more should we magnify our Savior for who he is and what he has done!
Mary's story of hardship mixed with wonder and anticipation is our own story as well. We all live with the hardships and trials of life in a fallen world. But we are not without hope. We have the fulfillment and the fruit of the promise given to Abraham and incarnated in Mary's womb. We have the gift of Jesus. We have hope forever. We have new life, peace with God, and a Savior who lives and reigns to intercede for us. So, as we spend this Advent season dwelling on the incarnation and gift of Jesus, even as we may struggle with our own personal trials and heartaches, like Mary, let us turn and marvel with wonder at who God is and what he has done for us in Christ.
Christina Fox writes for a number of Christian ministries and publications including Revive Our Hearts, Desiring God and Ligonier Ministries. She is the content editor for enCourage and the author of A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope Through the Psalms of Lament , Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ Helps Friendships to Flourish and Idols of a Mother's Heart. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two boys. You can find her at www.christinafox.com, @christinarfox and on Facebook.