A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson
2 Samuel 7:1-11,16
The Magnificat (Song of Mary)
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord: and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
If you were writing a piece of creative and original poetry for English 101 these opening words from the Magnificat which we said this morning in place of a psalm would barely be considered ‘achieved’. More than half of the words in this marvellous and much-loved Evening canticle are not original but come from different parts of the Old Testament. As a compilation of key themes in the Bible and in what is called salvation-history it rates an ‘excellence’ at Level 3!
When it comes to musical settings for words used in worship, there is unlikely to be any text more widely set to music than those we know as the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. A quick count of settings in our music library reveals at least forty, almost all of them sung regularly by our Cathedral Choir. For centuries the Magnificat, perhaps more easily described as the Song of Mary, has been part of the daily worship of the Church. No one knows when it first came to be used regularly in worship – but it is very early. From an Anglican perspective it was the genius of Thomas Cranmer, in his revision of the daily offices 450 years ago, and his attempt to encourage ordinary people to worship daily, that put the Magnificat firmly on the map. It forms part of the framework of Evening Prayer, still popularly known as Evensong.
In Luke’s Gospel Mary sings her song when she goes to share the news of her pregnancy with her much older cousin Elizabeth – herself soon to have a baby. The song is a paean of praise to God – sung with the excitement of one who senses, as surely all mothers do, that this as yet unborn child, is the most important child ever to come into the world. It is an outpouring of love to God who has blessed a young woman with a baby – and who, struggling to find words to express her joy, turns to the poetry and song that others have used. It comes as no surprise that the Magnificat is similar in content to an earlier song sung by Hannah – mother of Samuel. Nor is there any problem with the way she uses words drawn from other parts of the Bible. We all do that – when we are excited about something we often end up using well-known phrases, snippets from songs or books that help us express our thoughts.
But put the Magnificat into the wider context of Luke’s Gospel and a different picture emerges. Luke is widely thought to have been written some time after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies in 70AD. He himself tells us, in his introduction to the Gospel, that he has considered the whole story and now tries to write an orderly account of all the events – making sense of what has happened. We should not be surprised then to find references to other events as Luke looks for themes and connections in the extraordinary story he is telling. And it is an extraordinary story – for he is saying there is a new king, one who is greater than David – so revered by their ancestors.
Read the opening chapters of 1 Samuel – the parallels to Luke are quite obvious. An older woman yearning to have a child, the connection with the holy place, the wonderful song of praise which incorporates the great things God has done. The story of Samuel begins the story of King David – hero and darling of the Old Testament. More than anything else David ushers in an era of prosperity and well-being for the Jews – giving them a united kingdom, free and strong. David’s days were the glory days of ancient Israel. A thousand years later the story was still told to keep the hope of people alive, people who had been oppressed by one foreign nation after another – and had now suffered a further humiliation at the hands of the Roman armies. Would that there could be a king like David!
Luke says there is one. Yes – there is a king like David – one who will save the people from the invading armies, one who will turn things upside down, who, incredible as it may seem, can draw on power even greater than that of the Roman legions. He, Luke, has carefully researched the subject, reading what others have written, and is now ready and confident to tell the world. The story starts with the unlikely account of two old people – who have no children. They go to pray and an angel promises they will have a child. It’s the stuff of fairy tales – or at least the tales that grandmothers tell when times are difficult.
The story that Luke has to tell is one written to encourage and strengthen people who are facing calamity, who have lost their way, who need a new vision. It is the story of God coming among them in a new and vibrant way. It is a story that will set the imagination alight – and that is often all that is needed. When people are down-trodden, oppressed, dispirited, the hardest thing is to set free the imagination, to allow people to dream of better days, of a time when things might be different – to see that there is a tomorrow. And how we need that message at the end of this extraordinary year!
So Luke draws heavily on the great themes of the Old Testament as he weaves his account of the events surrounding a man called Jesus. Into the mouths of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon, he puts words which remind the people of their past and their experience of God. Every verse of the Magnificat is charged with meaning, with references which will trigger off the imagination. So Mary sings about the promise of blessing to Abraham, the rescue from slavery by Moses, the feeding of the hungry wanderers in the wilderness, the crushing of the power of Nebuchadnezar and his Babylonian armies, the way in which ordinary people can make a difference.
But Luke does not only look back to the past. As we read through the Gospel we become aware that what happened in the past is happening again in Jesus. God, says Luke, is alive and active in Jesus. The tables are turned on the rich and powerful once again – the stories of the lost son, of Dives and Lazarus, the rich fool, the pharisee and the tax collector all attest to this – as does Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Jesus, whose name means saviour, is doing all that God had done in the past. Perhaps the most powerful statement of all this is made in the incident in Luke chapter 4. Jesus takes his turn to read in the synagogue, choosing a passage from Isaiah.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He 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 favour.’ (Luke 4: 18-19)
Nor does Luke leave things with Mary and Jesus. His second volume is the Book of Acts. Here he tells how the disciples of Jesus continue the imaginative work, the task. The Good News of God’s activity resounds across the world as people preach, teach and live the Gospel. Like Mary they too draw on the past to retell the story, to encourage their own generation. A word here, a phrase there, is enough to kindle the flame and inspire others to pick up the story.
So it has been down the Christian ages. Thomas Cranmer recognised the power of the vision, the vitality of the imagination, the bearer of the promise. Whether intentionally or not, Cranmer gave us a daily reminder of God’s saving activity in the world as we sing the Magnificat. Drawing on the imagination, the vision, the energy of the Song of Mary, the church continues to be true to the Gospel of Jesus the Saviour.
Back in 2005 a new Archbishop of York was appointed. Born in Uganda, John Sentamu rose to be a judge before fleeing from the dictator Idi Amin. Fifteen years ago it was something of a miracle that a black African should hold such a senior position in the Church of England. But then, God is full of surprises – we need only to look at God choosing Mary to be the mother of Jesus. Commenting on his appointment Bishop John had this to say:
“It is important that the Church of England’s voice is heard locally, nationally and internationally, standing up for justice, bringing Good News to the poor, healing to the broken-hearted, setting at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaiming the death of Christ and his resurrection until he comes again. What an exciting prospect.”
So the Song of Mary continues
‘God has come to the aid of his servant Israel, to remember the promise of mercy, the promise made to our forebears, to Abraham and his children for ever.’
Disclaimer: I almost never rehash my old sermons so this is an exception – first preached in Wellington Cathedral fifteen years ago. It is as relevant today as it was then. FDN