Church of England Diocese of Bath & Wells Portbury

Sunday 15/08/21

The blessed virgin Mary 

 Luke 1:46-55 Isaiah 61:10-end

Why and when do you celebrate? How do you express your overflowing joy and exhilaration? It could be some really good news, like a full recovery from a serious illness that gets you to shout and sing for joy, to dance round and round and to call others to share your joy. It could be passing a difficult exam or getting the dream job. Or it could be that you or your loved ones were saved from a flood or a bad accident. Or, even winning a sports match… Whatever it is that gets you up and wave your hands and raise your voice in exaltation, it sure feels good to celebrate. And what we need to do when we celebrate is to share. We need to take it out there, so that all who hear will rejoice with us.

The Magnificat – taken from the Latin translation of the first word of Mary’s song here in Luke’s gospel, is one of the most famous of Christian songs. It has been said and whispered and sung and set to music in countless cathedrals and churches and monasteries and we know it as a set canticle at Evening Prayer. [Another song we have that’s like it, is Hannah’s song and the one that Zechariah said and we know as the Benedictus] The Magnificat is an expression of hope and fulfilment that Mary could not contain; it had to be shared. She draws on her tradition, knowing that the promise of God’s renewal of the people goes back for generations. Of course, there will be heartache: she will lose her son for three days when he is twelve, and have to watch him die on a cross. But Easter and Pentecost will bring back the moments of triumph and joy that she feels now and from that time, they will never be taken away.

The Magnificat can be seen as a celebration of promise – even though later events were extremely painful for Mary, the promise will still hold. It will be as the Lord has said. The words God speaks can be trusted, as time has already told.

I’m sure we can all relate to the fact that life holds moments of great joy as well as deep pain. And we can’t always know that after a period of suffering there will be healing and peace. We only have to look at history: wars, economic depressions, natural disasters and pandemics, to know that human life is not one long celebration. Life is not a bed of roses, and if it were, roses do have thorns…

Mary was from a humble background, living quietly in a town called Nazareth; the town that one of Jesus’ disciples referred to with the question, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’. And yet God had chosen her to be the mother of his Son. It’s understandable that Mary was baffled by the announcement of the angel Gabriel, but as soon as he puts it into context, corroborating it with mention of her cousin Elizabeth now expecting a son against all odds, she accepts and acts.

She visits Elizabeth and as they are sharing the dream of Israel, that one day all that the prophets had said would come true, Mary bursts out into this song, the Magnificat: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.

Can we always sing for joy? Can we continue to be hopeful and cheerful in the face of difficulties and pain? How do we cling to the promise of eternal life when we are fully aware that life now is not as good as it could be? Both Mary and Elizabeth knew from their own experience that living in the dark days of Herod the Great was bleak. His brutality was well-known, and the threat of Rome loomed largely over the people. But these women, as well as many of the Jews of their time, had learned the Scriptures and knew the writings of hope and mercy, victory and fulfilment, and God’s promise to act and come to the rescue.

Their sons would grow up and become agents of God’s revolution, claiming victory over the powers of evil and despair. The world, kept in slavery for so long, was going to see a new dawn. The light of Christ, was beginning to shine and those living in poverty and oppression would see and know hope. That’s what Mary’s song is celebrating. Things may not yet be perfect now, but, as the prophet Isaiah says:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. Amen.

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