Musicians seem to have a take on the world that mirrors the Almighty. Reflecting creation itself, music essentially forms something meaningful out of nothing at all. Random waves of air become organized into patterns that bring sensibility out of chaos and resonate deeply with the human spirit. I wonder if Mary, the mother of Christ, was a musician. Did she have hope that her understanding of the waves of God’s breath in her body could be organized through musical expression? Or was her song effortlessly delivered to her lips in much the same way she found herself carrying the tiny human form of the Divine?
The “Song of Mary” is sung from the depths of her heart in response to being identified as the bearer of the Savior of the World. Her song has much in common with Hannah’s as she took her cherished firstborn son, Samuel, to live with the high priest in the temple. Truth be told, the song probably also reflects the musings of any woman who has found herself awed at the prospect of bringing an act of love to full personhood within her own body. Mary’s song is both personal and universal, as is the work of the child she carried, calling forth change in both the heart and the social order.
We come to this song and are caught up in the passion and wonder Mary expressed—a canticle that both encircled and transcended her personal experience. We can almost forget that we are hearing the song as part of a greater cantata, while Mary could only guess at how the rhythm of her heart was to impact the course of human history.
In the midst of what started as an ordinary day, responding to an extraordinary moment in which she is recognized by an unborn John the Baptist, Mary’s heart is bursting. In dramatic fashion, Luke as writer/director calls for a “stop action” moment–like one of those old Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, suddenly the narrative halts, and the main character begins belting out: “Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day!” Nothing communicates or calls for raw emotion better than a spontaneous outburst of show-stopping song. For Mary, and for us, there is not only a “beautiful morning,” but also “A Whole New World.” This is no Disney magic carpet ride for two. As worshippers looking in on this experience, we might find a principal that leads us to understand that an emotional encounter with God goes beyond the encounter itself and moves us toward greater purpose. Mary is moved by emotion toward true worship. What does she do with her feelings? She magnifies the Lord.
It is perhaps worth considering what she does NOT magnify. To magnify is to change focus—to make larger those things that one wants to look at in more detail. Mary does not magnify morning sickness, or the terror of being shamed in her community as an unwed mother. She does not even magnify the remarkable response of John in his mother’s womb or the mystery of how she became pregnant to being with. Instead, in a spirit of pure joy, she magnifies the Lord. Mary moves from a reflection on her own experience and towards a deeper understanding of the Lord’s mighty works for the whole world.
I wonder what it might look like for us as gathered communities to consistently come together in pure joy–because we have seen the mighty works of the Lord in our humble personal experiences and we simply can’t wait to magnify those mighty works we have seen throughout the week in the presence of the body of believers. From the personal toward the universal recognition of God’s greatness, in small communities of faith.
Mary’s song provides us with further evidence of the movement from deeply personal to radically universal. Mary does not just passively accept her role as a personal act of submission. It was that and more! Mary fully embraces her place in God’s universal plan: “from now on, all people will call me blessed!” Mary has completely aligned herself with the mission of God, whatever it means in her present experience and whatever it means in the future. There is a term for this kind of being fully onboard with another person in the psychology of parenting world. The word is attunement. I was reminded of this terminology very early one morning when I received a text from my adult daughter, who said something like “I may be thoughtlessly waking you up just like a real baby…” And I responded to her, “No, just like when you were a real baby, I was already awake.” There is a rhythm established between healthy and focused parent and child that is reinforced by our essential biological patterns. Baby looks at Mom, Mom looks at baby and they lock into each other. Their breathing reflects each other’s, their heartbeats establish a kind of musical rhythm. Baby needs to eat, mom has already gotten ready. Baby becomes anxious, mom gets anxious, then adjusts her responses to bring down the anxiety, and baby calms. The two are attuned to each other. It is a love song in the making, where each individual gets on the other’s “page.” This happens with each baby born into a family.
Mary was in that kind of relationship with God. It was deeply personal, yet also universal, for God is already and always on the page of all humanity, as well. God knows each flicker of personal attention, each thought of the personal mind, each need of a hurting body, each fear and feeling that impacts an individual’s life. But that personal attunement is meant to lead us toward greater significance than our individual blessing. Mary models the embrace of something far greater than her personal relationship to God. She is a participant in God’s plan of salvation that has been building from the foundation of the world, has come to her through historical events of her people, and will extend universally to make a family of God throughout all time.
Is it over-reaching to say that through our adoption into the family of God, we too are part of God’s plan of salvation that has been building from the foundation of the world? Is part of God’s plan for each of us to “Carry Christ” to those we meet? Can we be so attuned to the Spirit of God that we are aware of both the individual and universal need for a Savior, so that we are guided in our personal interactions and our social behavior to carry Christ in ways that others are able to respond and embrace God’s loving plan of redemption?
I wonder what it would look like in our worship if our primary purpose was to become attuned to our place in God’s plan…if our sole goal was to look into the eyes of God so that we can feel what God feels, see as God sees, and act as God acts so that we can do likewise. I wonder how we each could magnify the Lord in our worship to help each other attune to God and to those around us.
And that leads us to the final point of Mary’s song. Mary recognizes God as a God of mercy for all. Throughout Scripture, God’s mercy and God’s justice are intricately intertwined. God leaves the proud and self-sufficient to their own devices, and intervenes and raises the humble and needy, not because they deserve it, but because they ARE humble and needy. We live in a by-your-bootstraps kind of society. We expect people to take their responsibilities seriously, to take care of themselves and their families, to do what’s right because it IS right. But how do we know how to do what is right according to God’s mercy?
I don’t know about you, but for me, it is a constant battle to be attuned to God’s mercy. I see so many needy people all around me that I don’t know who I can truly help and how. As a city-dweller, there is frequently someone who is demonstrably needy in my left-hand turn lane, whether they are trying to fund a funeral, find a meal, or just build back their cash store. And I can’t give to each one of them from limited resources. So how do we approach great need worshipfully when we leave our churches?
I’m going to suggest a few things to you that I have found to be important in addressing overwhelming need so that the mercy of God may be magnified.
First, know your primary avenue of help–do you support a soup kitchen? Give to a homeless shelter? Volunteer through the ministries of the church? Have a foster child? Have a career dedicated to improving the circumstances of the poor? Choose and keep a focus on your primary expression of merciful living.
Second, check your attitude of mercy. Is it in harmony with God’s? Are you looking at the person asking you for money as though they are a pest, or as though they are created in the image of God? Do you avert your eyes and dehumanize them, or do you connect your eyes in respect? Are you responding as one who is proud and arrogant, or in recognition of your own humble limitations of time, energy, and cash? Do you decline a request with grace extended or grace withheld?
Third, are you attuned to God so that you can make a sacrificial exception at the prompting of the Holy Spirit? Not every need is your call, but if you are attuned to God, you will sometimes be called to go outside your norm, to make a second-mile outreach, to give to someone who “doesn’t deserve it,” to find the extra help someone needs. This may mean reaching into your pocket or into your heart, determining whether you need to make a referral, a phone call, or take what might be a risky move to address an unconventional need.
Fourth, take the universal perspective. How are your beliefs about God’s care for the individual reflected in your public and political actions? How are you taking part in changing systems that oppress and violate God’s care for everyone, regardless of their position in life, and how can you change or separate yourself from unjust systems? Ask yourself the hard questions.
This is where we need to have open conversations with a trusted local community of saints to help us discern our part in extending justice and mercy. I wonder what our worship would look like if it reflected God’s big picture concerns about justice and mercy…
Mary, the Christ bearer, modeled for us in this one brief passage what it means to worship, reflecting on our personal experiences in order to move us outside of ourselves to the greater work of God in the world. The passionate, personal emotion of a song should move us toward the magnified greatness of God and God’s loving intent for all Creation at Advent and throughout the church year.