Message for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C (12/19/2021)
Sing along, will you? “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord: be strong, take heart!” That’s the refrain we sing at home as we light the candles on our Advent wreath, usually at meal times. This year, I’ve enjoyed hearing our three-year-old, Simon, start in without any direction from us; as soon as he sees the lighter in my hand, he breaks into song.
There’s something profound in that simple ritual. The refrain has gotten under everyone’s skin now, shaping the way we as a family mark this season of watching, waiting, longing for the promise of Christmas to become a reality. Our Advent song is so ingrained in our shared life that the words come naturally: “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord: be strong, take heart!”
What is it about song that resonates so deeply with our lived experience? What is it about song that so powerfully expresses our firmest convictions, our most fervent loves, our highest hopes? “Singing,” writes one interpreter, “is a kind of storytelling that has been used for as long as people have been telling stories. Singing helps us remember the stories that are most important to learn by heart; it helps us teach the most important things to our children so they learn them by heart and grow up always knowing them and never forgetting them.”
Maybe that’s why Mary’s prophecy in our Gospel from Luke today, often called the Magnificat, takes the form of a song, in order that we might learn it by heart, that it might become part of who we are. Mary’s is the first of three lyrical prophecies in Luke chapters 1 and 2, enveloping the baby Jesus in poetic praise, and thus setting the stage for his messianic ministry. The words are likely based on liturgical compositions that predate Luke’s Gospel, so these canticles may have struck a chord with first-century listeners to whom they were already familiar. Imagine your favorite carol in the mouth of one of the main characters in the Christmas story; that may have been how Luke’s first audience heard Mary’s Song.
So, it’s not just a pretty poem. Neither is it an isolated prophecy that belongs to Mary and Mary alone. The Magnificat is a shared song of hope, like the refrain our family sings around the Advent wreath, like your favorite Christmas carol, like every song that’s embedded deep in your heart and emerges at the slightest prompting to refresh your memory as to what matters most. If you’re not convinced of the power of that kind of song, imagine what centuries of Evening Prayer would have sounded like without the Magnificat. Sing along, will you? “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you, / You have looked with love on your servant here, and blessed me all my life through.”
So, what matters most to this particular song? What joys and longings does Mary express in connection with the terrifying privilege of bearing the hope of the whole world? “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, / for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant…. God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. / God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, / and lifted up the lowly; / God has filled the hungry with good things, / and sent the rich away empty.”
For as unobtrusively as it will take place, the advent of Christ will nevertheless shake the very foundations of human society. According to the song of Mary’s heart, her pregnancy is the onset of a great reordering, a bend in the arc of the moral universe toward justice. It’s the definitive sign that in God’s realm, the distance between the powerful and the poor, between the dominant and the downtrodden, will collapse. To borrow the words of one interpreter, “God is at work [in the incarnation] to subvert the very structure of society that supports and perpetuates… distinctions [between the powerful and the lowly in the first place].”
No wonder this is such good news to Mary, a poor, unwed pregnant girl from a backwater town in a far corner of the Roman Empire. And, no wonder the conviction of her heart makes for such a memorable song.
This week, a colleague of mine wondered if Mary might have sung this song not once, but all throughout Jesus’ childhood. What if she sang it as a melody to soothe him as he nursed, a refrain to accompany their daily activities together, a lullaby to coax him to sleep at night? How might this song have gotten under his skin? How might it have influenced his sense of identity and purpose? There’s no way to know for sure, but listen for the echo of Mary’s Song in the words of Jesus’ inaugural sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, / because God has anointed me / to bring good news to the poor. / God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives / and recovery of sight to the blind, / to let the oppressed go free, / to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Whether or not Jesus knew his mother’s song by heart, the Magnificat is nonetheless an anthem for change, a song to accompany the work of Jesus’ ministry and God’s ongoing work to bring about a more just and peaceable world. And in this way, the Magnificat endures together with the songs that fuel movements for change in every generation; Mary’s Song is enshrined alongside “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Wade in the Water” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “We Shall Overcome.” “I can hear change humming,” writes poet Amanda Gorman in her new children’s book, “In its loudest, proudest song. I don’t fear change coming, / And so I sing along.”
I don’t fear change coming, and so I sing along. I can’t think of a better summary of Mary’s sentiment as she sings the hope of the gospel – the hope of God’s kingdom come on Earth as in heaven – even as she awaits the arrival of her firstborn child, the one who will change everything. It’s the same song that rings in our ears and resonates in our lives of faith as we await the one who is to come again. It’s the humming of our loudest, proudest song. So sing along, will you?
Liturgy © 2021 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; text: Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, Köln, 1710; tr. composite; music: French processional, 15th cent. Text sts. 2, 6, 7 © 1997 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“My Soul Proclaims Your Greatness”; text: With One Voice, 1995, based on the Magnificat; music: English folk tune; arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1872-1958; text © 1995 Augsburg Fortress, arr. © Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“Wait for the Lord”; text: Taizé Community; music: Jacques Berthier, 1923-1994; text and music © 1984 Les Presses de Taizé, admin. GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
Holden Evening Prayer; Marty Haugen; © 1990 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“Savior of the Nations, Come”; text: attr. Ambrose of Milan, 340-397; Martin Luther, 1483-1546; tr. hymnal version; music: J. Walter, Geistliche Gesangbüchlein, 1524; text © 2006 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“Blessed Be the God of Israel”; text: Carl P. Daw Jr., b. 1944, based on Luke 1:68-79; music: English folk tune; arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1872-1958; text © 1989 Hope Publishing Company; arr. © Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.