1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
When Catholic friends of mine come to visit Protestant churches or worship services, they always notice the differences. Most Protestants don’t take Communion every week. And we don’t stand, sit, and kneel throughout the service. But the thing I have heard more often from my Catholic friends than not is this: Where’s Mary?
My grandmother was a first generation Italian American, and a Catholic. Her name was Maria, though everyone called her Mary. Just about every family in her neighborhood had at least one Maria or Mary in it. And when she named her own kids, three have names derived from “Maria”, including my mother. And even when she and a priest had a bit of a theological disagreement, centered around the fact she married my Protestant grandfather, and she left the church, her devotion to Mary continued.
And so, like my Catholic friends, I often wonder why we in the Protestant tradition don’t lift up Mary’s story more often. Because, as one of you said to me this week, “without her, we wouldn’t be here at Christmas”. Mary remains one of many strong women in the Bible who changes the course of our faith and yet, like some of the other women in the Bible, we don’t tell her story nearly enough.
That’s unfortunate because we, and especially our kids, need to hear stories of Biblical women. But, most importantly, Mary’s story is not just one for girls and women. It is a story for people of all genders to remember, because it is a story of strength, of courage, and of choosing to glorify God.
In today’s reading we hear about how the angel Gabriel came to Mary and gave her the surprise of her life. She was pregnant, and not by the guy to whom she was engaged. She asks the angel, “How did that happen? That’s impossible!” But Gabriel just replies, “nothing is impossible with God.”
Mary goes from there to visit her cousin Elizabeth, a woman who was not supposed to be able to be pregnant, and yet who was about to give birth to someone else we know; John the Baptist. And when Mary enters the house John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. And when she tells Mary that, Mary responds with what we’ve come to know as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
The word “Magnificat” literally means “my soul magnifies”. And when Mary, a woman who was not wealthy or powerful or likely to be chosen for anything that had to do with royalty, really realizes the importance of what she has been asked to do, those are the first words she says: my soul magnifies the Lord. That’s her first response.
It’s sort of an odd turn of phrase in today’s language, though. When you think of what it means to “magnify” something, what do you picture? I can’t help it but I always go straight to a magnifying glass, like the kind I played around with as a kid. Except I wonder what it means to magnify the Lord. Because as a kid I’d use a magnifying glass to make something that was small look bigger. Hold a magnifying glass over tiny writing and suddenly it is readable. Or look at grains of sand through it, and all of a sudden you could see different colors. The seemingly insignificant became bold.
And that’s wonderful, but God’s problem is not that God is too small. God is immense beyond our wildest imaginations, and we only need to open all our senses up to know that God is all around us. But that’s the issue. Because sometimes, despite how big God is, and how much God surrounds us everyday, we just don’t acknowledge that God is present. Because it is our understanding of God is way too small.
And so, that’s when the magnifying glass comes in handy. Not because God needs to be made bigger, but because our attention to, and understanding of, God does. We are the ones who need the magnification that the glass provides, not God. We need help to refocus, and to see things in their proper light. And it is by looking at people like Mary, and what she did, that we are able to understand more about God, and about God’s love for us.
Mary said “my soul magnifies the Lord”, and that’s really true. Mary becomes a magnifying glass through which our focus is changed, and God becomes clearer to us. By magnifying the Lord, Mary also teaches us what it means to be loved by God, and chosen by God to do surprising and amazing things.
And Mary also teaches us that it’s not enough to just see God more clearly. Because God also requires of us action. Because just as Mary had to be an active participation in the story of Jesus’ birth, we too have to be active participants in helping to bring Christ’s light into this world.
And this reminds me of something else I learned about magnifying glasses as a kid, something that I am perhaps glad our own kids are down in church school right now and so will not hear. And that is, that you can use a magnifying glass to set things on fire.
I learned this as part of some sort of lecture given to kids in some youth program I was in about how to survive if you are ever lost in the woods. I’m not sure why they taught us this, because the likelihood we were ever going to be lost in the woods was much less than the likelihood we’d accidentally set our front lawns on fire, but I digress.
And so the teacher taught us that we should always carry a small magnifying glass if we are hiking so that if we get lost, and need warmth, we can make a fire. You just take a bunch of old, dry leaves, hold a magnifying glass over them, and the sun will hit the magnifying glass, and the reflection will burn so hot that the leaves will smolder and you will have fire.
Now I’m not recommending anyone try that, but I think there’s a greater meaning here. Because each of us, like Mary, can choose to magnify the Lord. Each of us can be the lens through which the world comes to see God in new ways. And each of us can let the light of Christ shine through us bright enough that the places in our world that need light and warmth the most can be set ablaze with Christ’s love.
We can make the choice to magnify God in this way with out lives. But in order to do so, we have to look at ourselves, and see what kind of lens we are. Have we covered ourselves so that the light of God cannot penetrate us? Have we shut our souls so that the warmth of God’s love is never reflected to others?
Or, have we cleared off the lenses of our life, and are we letting God’s light shine through them? Have we chosen to live our lives as magnifiers of God’s love?
The literal meaning of the word that the original Greek text uses, the one we translate as “magnify”, is “extol”, or to “praise” or “glorify”. And I like the idea that by magnifying the Lord we are glorifying God. In our historical tradition one of our catechisms even asks what our purpose in life is, and the answer is “to glorify God and enjoy God completely”.
And so, to me, the question is how do we use the lens of our life to magnify and to glorify God?
As we prepare for Christmas Eve, and as we reject today on “love”, the theme for this last Sunday in Advent, I think that’s what it’s all about. We glorify God by loving God, and loving one another, and loving others. And I think that letting God’s love pour through us unencumbered for all to see is the truest way of glorifying God.
Because you can spend your life talking about God. You can tell people all about God and how wonderful God is. But if you don’t live your life with love, nobody is going to believe you. They’re just hollow words, and the world is not any better for them.
But on the other hand, if you love, in every sense of that word, if you even just try…you glorify God, and your soul magnifies the Lord.
And so, today we lit that fourth candle, the one for love, as a sort of prayer. We ask that God will help us to love more this Christmas. We strive to love God, to love one another, and to love the world just a little better this year.
It’s that love that will bring us to the manger on Wednesday night. And it’s that love that we pray will remain with us all year, as we use our lives to magnify the love of Christ that is breaking into this world, and making it brighter.
May your last days of Advent be a blessing, and may we all prepare ourselves for the task of helping the light that shines in the darkness to burn brighter this Christmas. Amen.