1 Samuel 2: 1-10; Luke 1:46-55
By Jo Bailey Wells
I’m preaching today on a piece of poetry — some of you might want to add, “Not just poetry; it’s a song, a canticle.” Those of us who have said the Magnificat or sung it at Evensong or Vespers daily (surely it’s a candidate for “most oft repeated text” from Scripture) — who know its words by rote and probably a good few musical arrangements by heart too — might wonder how, according to St. Luke, it springs spontaneously from the mouth of a teenager, when she visits her cousin. No pregnant pauses here — but an outburst of joy as they share the meaning of these pregnancies.
If the Magnificat were a tweet in 40 characters it might say something like, God turning world upside-down. Promise, surprise.
Or “teen language” might say something more like: Awesome. Confusing. Cool. Moi?
Mary is excited. Mary is overawed. Mary is determined. Yet — also — Mary is articulate. And Mary has remarkable perspective.
She rehearses the tradition. Just as Mother Julian saw the whole world in a hazelnut, so Mother Mary condenses the whole of biblical theology into a sonnet. Actually, a psalm. The song of Mary is similar to the song of Hannah, future mother of the prophet Samuel. That’s Mary’s role model when it comes to someone who discovers she’s pregnant and turns in praise to God. Or to put it the other way around, someone who rehearses the divine drama and discovers she is one of the players within it.
We have received the text of the Magnificat, like the rest of the New Testament, in Greek. But I want to propose to you that originally it belongs in Hebrew. I say that because it springs from the Old Testament, and in particular from the hymn book of Israel, the Psalter — a sort of ancient equivalent of the Book of Common Prayer.
What we have here is a tightly knit psalm which in form and style is comparable to the classic Psalms of David. It has four strophes; these fall into couplets, pairs of lines that belong together in parallel; the second echoes and intensifies the first; and the whole is organized around a central core verse to expound the conviction that God has acted definitely, powerfully, finally, in the new life that is emerging in an ordinary womb. New life that will affect the destiny of all humankind, forever.
Now, you may well wonder how a young woman of Galilee, we presume of humble origin, would have been able to master the complex techniques of psalmody that the choir directors of ancient Israel had inherited from Canaanite, Egyptian, and Akkadian cultic poets. And apparently uttered this piece spontaneously — (as per Tim Brooke Taylor’s instructions) without hesitation, deviation, or repetition. Well, only the appropriate forms of repetition known as parallelism distinctive of Hebrew poetry.
You’ve got to give her an A* for this GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education] piece. Not sure which subject … Interdisciplinary. Literature, history, politics, religious studies.
One answer is that she knows her Old Testament. Another would be that the Spirit is inspiring it. Surely both are likely. She’s steeped in the texts of her tradition. She’s so steeped in that tradition that when a new thing happens, she makes sense of it through the lens of what God has done before.
Just like the organist who improvises, the Spirit is so familiar with the forms and themes of the context that playing with them is easy. The Spirit can rearrange them, invert them, intensify them, reimagine them. When something suddenly happens — an angel appears, or a vicar disappears — there are the resources to work things out, a playlist to shuffle, so that we can engage the unfamiliar through the forms of the familiar.
Rehearsing the patterns of the old to make sense of what is new. A combination of faithfulness and flexibility. Drawing on patterns and phrases from 150 psalms to create Psalm 151 — the one that joins Old Testament to the New, which is just why it sits between the readings every Evensong. It’s the hinge, the pivot, the segue, the bridge.
And it demonstrates that when something new and strange and confusing is upon us, we should expect God to work in the future in keeping with the way he has worked in the past. Rehearse that past, and if we do so asking not so much what it meant as what it means, there’s a chance we’ll be the better open to the future, ready for the new, open to change when the change seems legitimate. We’re steeped in the past so we can rehearse it by rote, yet we’re also agile with it, not fixed in its ways. If you’ve ever dabbled with jazz, you’ll know just what I mean.
That is how innovation happens: it doesn’t clash with tradition; rather, it grows out of the faithful practice of tradition. Innovation is traditioned. And that is how the God works, the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, yet who — in his special calling of Mary — did something new and definitive and pivotal, reshaping his world forever in becoming one of us, in taking flesh, in being born of a woman just like the rest of us. In order to turn his world upside down, starting not at the top but at the bottom.
Now: there is only one Mary, the God-bearer, the Magnificat-singer. But what might we learn from Mary about discerning God’s ways in his world?
Conveyed through the strophes: Awesome. Moi. Confused. Cool. She rehearses the divine drama and discovers she has a place within it.
- It starts with God; not me. Too often: “Wow, I’m pregnant. God, you’re good.” But start with God — find our place in relation. The Christian story is the baseline, the true and lively myth, which begets the renewal of our humanity. To be adept we need to know it, rehearse it, voice it. We know God’s faithfulness by looking backward and remembering what he has done.
- Not all past is past — it erupts into the present. Mary announces a revolution, one that begins in the human heart. She articulates the vital link between social justice and individual dedication. Then she obeys, she follows, she commits. Having rehearsed the divine drama, she finds herself within it, part of the story, cast into a role on the stage — and throws herself in wholeheartedly.
There may be only one Blessed Virgin Mary, but the news of the gospel is that in Christ each of us, all of us, find ourselves part of the biggest, deepest, widest, greatest story on earth and in heaven, invested with a name and a role and a calling. We discover God’s world, then we discover God made each of us for a purpose. The calling is a call into God’s story. God is awesome. And God calls … moi.
Musicians, liturgists: next time you hear the Magnificat sung, listen for the way it interprets the poem. Musicians are remarkable at understanding the text. They are fantastic biblical exegetes, the best kind of preachers. Listen for how the setting captures the phenomenal vision of God in all its immensity, the awe; and then how the lens narrows to focus on our destiny, on you, and me. Toi. Through Mary, God does a new thing: he sweeps us into the frame. Momentarily it gets Confusing. But for sure it all ends in Cool.
Now, where is it that we go about rehearsing the tradition and retelling regularly the drama of salvation? Friends, it’s right here. It’s in our liturgy of worship. Most particularly it’s at the Eucharist. It is here — within this collective of people, not least within a historic building that has rehearsed the drama for century after century.
It’s through our forms of common worship — that we too bubble up with the joys of God’s work in the world — his powerful arm, past and present — which brings us to locate ourselves within its horizons. Even you. Even me. Yes, God chooses to work out his purposes in the world through his ordinary people. Ordinary people who, through their willingness, their obedience, the dedication, become the vessels, the carriers, the bearers of God’s extraordinary promises. Forever.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Jo Bailey Wells is the Anglican Communion’s Bishop for Episcopal Ministry.