He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
Luke 1:46-55 is Mary's song of praise to God. It spills out of her heart after her relative Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist, acknowledged her blessedness as the mother of Jesus. Mary's song is often called the "Magnificat" which means "Praise," from the first word of the Latin translation of its first line: magnificat anima mea Dominum (literally, "My soul praises the Lord").
Mary's song focuses on God's great works, especially his tendency to turn everything upside down. He "took notice of his lowly servant girl" when choosing a mother for the Messiah, rather than selecting a woman of prominence (1:48). The Lord "scattered the proud and haughty ones," rather than honoring them (1:51). "He has brought down princes from their thrones, and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands" (1:52-53). God's kingdom inverts human structures and values, as is seen so clearly in Mary's own experience.
We can read Mary's song and say, "Oh, what wonderful thoughts!" But do we really take seriously what she said? When I do this, I must confess that the "Magnificat" unsettles me. Why? Because I tend to be proud and even haughty. Because, though I'm not a prince, I am a person with authority and not necessarily all that humble. Moreover, I am certainly not hungry. And in comparison to most people in the world, I am rich.
So, Mary's song can be unnerving to me, as, indeed, it should be. It challenges me to consider my values and goals. Am I striving for the wrong things in life? How much of my life is devoted to seeking security, reputation, and power? How often do I hold on to my material blessings rather than sharing them with the poor and hungry?
I don't believe the purpose of the "Magnificat" is to make us feel guilty for what we have in the way of possessions or influence. Rather, it calls us to devote our lives to being, like Mary, a willing and humble servant of God. It reminds us that, like Israel, we are called to be God's servants in the world, serving others as a reflection and extension of God's kingdom. Mary's song stirs in me a desire to live today for what really matters, so that God might use me for his purposes and glory.
In the days before Christmas, we can easily get caught up in mass consumption as we scurry about buying presents and enjoying lavish Christmas parties. Mary’s song encourages us to step back, to think about our values and our striving. Perhaps, this season of Advent can offer a different way, a way of seeking, a way of serving, a way of sacrifice.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever thought about what Mary's song really says? How do you respond to its potentially unsettling message? How might you live today for the things that really matter?
PRAYER: With Mary, my soul praises you this day, O Lord. My spirit rejoices in you, my Savior. You are the Mighty One, the holy God at work in this world.
Mary's song challenges me, Lord, to be honest about my values and desires. It forces me to admit that I often line up with those who are on top in this world, those who end up on the underside when your kingdom turns everything upside down. Forgive me, gracious God, for my selfishness, for all the ways I let this world form and shape me.
In this season of Advent, may I live as your servant. May I be truly humble before you and others. May I use well the opportunities and gifts you place in my hands, serving you and others for your glory. May I seek after what really matters, offering myself to you in every facet of life.
All praise be to you, O Lord and God, my Savior! Amen.
Image courtesy of Laity Lodge, one of our sister programs in the Foundations for Laity Renewal.
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