the church of holy magnification

We are on the verge of Christmas. In just three days we gather to celebrate on the eve of the holy birth. If we are not careful we may get ahead of ourselves. But the text will not allow us to get to Christmas yet. It sets us in Mary’s first trimester. Luke picks up the story at the moment angel Gabriel announces that Mary will conceive and bear a child. Then Luke writes: “In those days.” In those days immediately after the conception of the Messiah. It is early - very early - in her pregnancy when Mary visits her elderly cousin Elizabeth in the Judean hill country. The first evidence that the angel’s announcement is not in error comes when Elizabeth - now in her six month - senses unborn John leaping in her womb when Mary, not showing yet, arrives. Elizabeth, overflowing with the Holy Spirit, shouts out blessings, amazed at her impossibly good fortune. Our nativity scene needs a second building. In addition to a stable we need a Judean peasant’s home, where Mary spends three months with cousin Elizabeth, pondering what is happening to her, preparing for the birth of the Messiah. That is what we do here this morning. We ponder what is happening to us as we prepare for the arrival of the Messiah. There is not much time. But there is enough time.

Mary is in her first trimester. She wonders about the tiny human that has just begun to form within her womb. She hears the startling announcement of the angel Gabriel and the outburst of blessing from her cousin Elizabeth. Then, in the tradition of matriarch Hannah, she sings. She sings the most famous song in the history of Christianity. She sings the song that is traditionally sung by the church at every evensong on every day of the year. She sings the first and greatest Advent song. Yet her song is largely unknown among us. Ask us to recite the lyrics of Christmas carols and we can offer quite a few first verses by memory. Invite the lyrics of Christmas songs from the secular realm and we can add many more. But ask for even a few lines of Mary’s song and most of us are stymied. It is a problem. It is a problem because Mary’s song teaches the church - teaches us - how to prepare for the arrival of Jesus Christ. Without her song fixed in our shared memory we might easily forget to be a magnifying church.

Magnification. That’s what Mary’s song is and does. It is the “Magnificat”. It’s title comes from the song’s first word in Latin which means: “Magnify.” Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Mary has an almost infinitesimal child in her womb. It is the Messiah, the Saviour, the Lord. He is hidden, invisible, insignificant among the powers and principalities of the world. Mary understands that this is all God needs in order to save the world. She does not wonder at how this tiny beginning could possibly result in the redemption of the world, the forgiveness of sin, the reconciliation of God and humankind. Instead, her soul magnifies the Lord. Mary’s soul is a great magnifying glass that focuses on the little fetus and enlarges the significance of this child to universal proportions. This is what a church that sings and lives Mary’s song will do in this pregnant season of waiting for the Lord. We will be a church of holy magnification (yes, I have now added this to my list of suggested names for new church plants). Too often the church in the modern age has been known for reducing and limiting God. We have been shy about making claims for what God is up to in Jesus Christ. We have minimized rather than magnified, in order to be seen as reasonable and practical. In the process we have made it harder for our neighbours and our children and our grandchildren to see what God is doing in Jesus. Our minimizing has reduced our expectations for God. Minimizing God is not what the church is for. The church is meant to magnify the Lord. It is the reason that the Magnificat is meant to be known by heart, by rote, by memory, by us.

The Magnificat teaches us to enlarge the arena of God’s activity. It invites the church to magnify what Jesus means for the world. Mary does not simply call Jesus a great teacher. She does not just sing that Jesus will do wonderful things. The Magnificat magnifies the importance of the tiny unborn child to extraordinary dimensions. It magnifies the power of God's future to such a degree that this seemingly distant future breaks in upon the present, upon us. Mary teaches the church to sing the future in the present tense. It is not about God will do, it is about what God has done and is doing. Mary knows that as soon as the Messiah has been conceived - and before he has been born - God’s promised future is already here. Do you grasp what she is saying? Mary sings that the breakthrough of Easter Sunday has already occurred even though her pregnancy will be a long Holy Saturday of waiting. She has no evidence, no proof, no miracles to point to that confirm her bold claims. Yet she does not hold back. She knows that the kingdom of God is already here, even if no one can see it. Mary magnifies the Lord, singing that “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” She knows the proud still imagine they pull all the strings and are in control of their own future. She is under no illusion that the powerful have suddenly resigned their positions of authority and prestige or quit any and all corruption. Mary is herself one of the lowly and hungry. There has not been any outward change in her social status or location. Yet Mary sings that the upside-down realm of God has arrived. All it takes is the conception of the Christ-child for this gospel future to be real, here and now.

When we sing with Mary as the church of holy magnification we find our true voice. Then we sing that in Jesus Christ all who know what it is to be held down, shut out, ignored, abused, forgotten or silenced are lifted up, let in, attended to, healed, remembered and invited to speak. Mary’s song sounds like foolishness to the philosophers and political scientists, the pragmatists and realists. Her song is full of hyperbole. The Magnificat exaggerates. It is outlandish. It magnifies the scope of God’s action in Jesus Christ to cosmic dimensions. Precisely. Mary’s song intends to enlarge the imagination of the church. The Magnificat is not a news report. It is a poem. It is a portrait of God’s future, our future, that is now inevitable because it has been conceived in the mind of God and in the womb of Mary.

This is how we will prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ. We will magnify the Lord. We will not minimize the power of God to heal and save and reconcile. We will enlarge our hope for the lost and the least and the last. We will live knowing that the resurrection power of Easter newness is at work long before we can feel it kicking or see its birth or point to its flesh and blood reality. With faith that is the size of a mustard seed - with faith that is the size of a fetus at the moment of conception - the church magnifies the extraordinary power of God to move mountains and to save souls. To save even your soul. To redeem even this earth.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful thoughts! Things I'd never contemplated before.