This is the first of three short talks delivered at our candlelit Thursday evening "Breathing Space" Communion services, which will focus on three of the songs that feature in Luke's account of the nativity, which are known to the Christian church as the Magnificat (the Song of Mary), the Benedictus (the Song of Zechariah) and the Gloria (the Song of the Angels).
This first talk focuses on the Magnificat. At the end of the service we heard this version by Orlando Gibbons, from his Second Service.
Our daily Advent meditations this year focus on Christmas carols, so I thought in these three Advent Breathing space Communions we might think about three Biblical songs associated with the Nativity. We’ll be thinking about the Song of Mary, which we call the Magnificat, the Song of Zechariah, (the Benedictus), and the Song of the Angels to the shepherds, which is the beginning of the Gloria. They have become well known and well used in Christian liturgy, but they were initially drawn from Luke’s Gospel.
Tonight we heard the first of them. After Mary discovered she was pregnant she went to be with her relative Elizabeth, who was also expecting a child – John the Baptist. Both pregnancies were miraculous according to the story. In the ancient world that was a sure sign that the child to be born would be special. But although Mary and Elizabeth had something in common because of that, their pregnancies were also very different. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah hadn’t been able to have children, so when she unexpectedly conceived her neighbours would have seen this as a wonderful and joyful event. But Mary’s pregnancy looked like a disaster. She wasn’t married. She had no business being pregnant according to the social conventions of the time. There was a real risk she would be rejected by her husband-to-be and by her community. She could even have been accused of adultery and stoned to death. Is she seeking for refuge when she goes to Elizabeth? I wonder what she thought as she sought her out. Would Elizabeth reject her?
But she needn’t have worried. Not only did Elizabeth rejoice to see her, even her child “leapt within the womb”. Mary’s relief comes through in her song. Elizabeth’s joy gives her permission to rejoice too, not just for herself but for others as well. And in fact it is the whiff of disgrace around her son’s birth, which is at the root of her rejoicing. This child, born against a background of disapproval, will, throughout his ministry lift up those who are shamed and trodden down by society. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones;” sings Mary, “and has lifted up the lowly.”
Luke put these words into Mary’s mouth many years after the event, of course. He wrote his Gospel around 80AD. But he didn’t just pluck these scenes out of the empty air. Luke’s imagination is guided by what he knew about the adult Jesus and his impact on those who followed him. He was part of a Christian community which had seen and been involved in the transformation of people’s lives as they came into contact with Jesus and his followers. Luke also wrote the book of Acts, from which our first reading came, and in it we heard about one of those transformations. Peter and John, after the Resurrection and Ascension, had become leaders of the early church. One day as they were on their way into the Temple to pray, they came across a beggar, disabled from birth, unable to support himself any other way than begging. It was hard to avoid him. He was sitting at the gates of the Temple. It was a good place to catch people who might want to assuage their guilt with a quick donation. But he was also there because he couldn’t go any further in.
Disability and disease were widely understood as punishments from God, a sign that you were ritually unclean, so this was as far as he could go. There he sat, day after day, as people went past him, probably not even looking at him. When he asked Peter and John for money, though, Peter didn’t respond as he expected. He didn’t just toss him a handful of small change, or hurry past averting his eyes. He stopped and “looked intently at him,” the Bible says. What was going through Peter’s mind? Perhaps he remembered the crowds of sick people who had come to Jesus “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”? “I have no silver or gold,” said Peter, “but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk”. And he “took him by the right hand and raised him up.” And the man was healed, not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually and socially too. “He entered the Temple with them” – this place from which he had been barred –“walking and leaping and praising God” – filled with joy, with his life restored to him.
The words Luke gives to Mary in her song are not just pious poetry, they set down the real experience of seeing people at the bottom of the heap receive their lives and their dignity back. However we feel about the physical healings in the Bible, which don’t sit easily with our modern ways of thinking, it’s clear that “the lifting up of the lowly” wasn’t just a noble aspiration, but somehow part of the DNA of the early church. And it is still part of the DNA of the church today. I spent this morning in the Hospice in the Weald, visiting someone there. I couldn’t do much but sit and hold her hand and pray, so that’s what I did, but it seemed to help. Dying can be a low place to be, and maybe my hand held out to hers lifted her up just a bit. I talked to the chaplain there too, who day after day, lifts up those who are beaten down by illness or fear, and I know there is an army of volunteers there who in their different ways make that a blessed place to die. They aren’t all Christian, of course, but many of them are, because this is what we do. We do it in the foodbank too, and in countless other projects, as well as in the personal, neighbourly “lifting up” that goes on unseen and unsung in our community. This is what we do, and we do it because God in Christ has first done it for us - lifted us up, given us dignity, love and life in him.
Tonight we might be the ones who lift up those who have been brought low by life, or we might be in need of that lift ourselves, but whichever it is, in that outstretched hand, we touch the hand of God, and, like Mary, we rejoice.