Kurt Jacobson
9 min readDec 24, 2023

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“The Mary We Need to Know”

Advent 4 December 24, 2023

Luke 1:26–38, 46b-55 Mary’s Song (The Magnificat)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. …

And Mary said, ‘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. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’ *****

While the focus of many this morning is on Christmas Eve, it is the fourth Sunday in Advent and Mary is in the spotlight. So, dear readers, prepare for a last blush of the Advent season with its rich, prophetic and hopeful message. I am guessing you have not had much of Advent beyond the cursory lighting of another candle each week, because Sunday musical events, Kid’s pageants and the rush to start singing carols has again overtaken church calendars to satisfy the American rush to Christmas. We overlook Advent to the detriment of restoring our soulfulness. But that is another story.

Growing up Lutheran, I never learned much about Mary beyond her role as mother of Jesus. No one told me that Mary’s song comprises the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament. No one remarked on the revealing fact that Mary sang her prophetic song on the doorstep of her pregnant cousin Elizabeth’s, while husband Zechariah, the “official” spokesperson of God, endured his divine silencing.

No one told me that Mary’s song with its lyrics hinting subversively at socioeconomic and political implications has been banned many times in modern history. Some countries such as India, Guatemala, and Argentina have outright banned the Magnificat from being recited in liturgy or in public. No one pointed out that Mary is also a prophet, the voice of the downtrodden who sings of God’s beautiful justice.

But over the years, I have come to know Mary not as docile or unassertive, but as a key voice in broadening my understanding of God’s intentions and actions come in “the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Mary’s song does not originate from a spiritually intimidated soul. She announces an angel story no one believes. She declares, without shame or apology, that she is favored of God.

This is the song of a courageous young woman passionately in love with a God who is passionately in love with her

The song, known as “The Magnificat,” is told us by Luke. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Right at the start, the song points to joy, reminding us that the appropriate response to God’s complicated presence in our lives is joy.

Not fear. Not guilt. Not penance. Not obligation.

It is Joy. Deep and irresistible joy is at the heart of the coming of Jesus.

The angel tells the pregnant Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah that “joy and gladness” will mark the birth of their child, John (the Baptist). When Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth’s unborn baby “leaps for joy.” When an angel choir announces Jesus’s arrival to the shepherds, they describe “good news of great joy.”

Joy. We miss something essential about the life of faith when we gloss over Mary’s decision to rejoice in response to God. Consider the circumstances into which she sings her amazing words. Coming from a Palestinian family living on the outskirts of Nazareth under occupation while being scandalously pregnant, she knows women in her condition are to be killed.

At this point in the story, it is not clear if her fiancé will stick by her. In fact, it is possible that she has run away to her cousin’s house precisely because she feels vulnerable and threatened in her hometown.

And yet this young girl sings of joy. Her song demonstrates a foundational trust in the goodness of God, and her imaginative capacity to frame her story as one worth rejoicing over. Joy. Against all odds, she dares to believe that what is happening to her is not horror or tragedy, not random or meaningless. She does not yield to the judging narratives being whispered around her — of shame, scandal, and sinfulness. Instead, she insists that her very body is infused with the presence and power of a God who acts decisively and generously in history. In her history. In her life.

What would it be like to frame our own lives in this way? What would it look like if we reframed our collective life story infused with the goodness of God and thus with an imaginative capacity to see joy? What would it be like to look for God in the ordinary details of our days? What would it be like to make joy our baseline of living?

*“He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Do you ever imagine God gazing at you? Would that be frightful, judgmental or astounding? Would you characterize such a gaze as tender, warm and inviting? Mary finds the gaze of God to be wonderful. When God looks upon her, she is nourished and lifted up. Mary basks in God’s eyes. She senses God’s pleasure and returns it.

Moreover, it is in Mary’s lowliness that God favors her. God’s gaze accepts Mary’s poverty, her simplicity and favors her anyway, completely, and exactly for who she is and what she is.

How would life change for you by seeing into God’s delight in this way? Dare to entertain the possibility that God looks on you with favor and that God’s gaze lingers on you in love.

*“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

After Mary sings her joy and God’s delight, she finds the keen, sharp edge of her prophetic voice, and bursts into a song of hope and justice for the world’s poorest, most forgotten, brokenhearted, and oppressed people.

Surely, we have the mind’s eye of those people today. She describes a reality in which our sinful and unjust status quo is magnificently reversed: the proud are scattered and the humble honored. The hungry are fed and the rich sent away. The powerful are brought down, and the lowly are lifted up. In short, Mary describes a world reordered and renewed — a world so beautifully characterized by love and justice, only the Christ she carries in her womb can birth it into being.

Needless to say, these are the lines that get Mary into trouble. These are the lines that have gotten the Magnificat banned at key moments in history. These are the lines we Christians feel a perpetual need to either tame or ignore because we find them so deeply threatening to the lives we prefer to live.

Lutheran preacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who faced the Nazis and was executed in a German concentration camp in 1945 said in an Advent sermon on this passage in 1933: “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”[i]

For some years now I have been yearning for the world Mary describes. Can you envision it, even just for a moment? A world without scarcity? A world without hoarding? A world in which our economic disparities do not get in the way of our fundamental kinship as human beings? A world in which the poor receive truly good things — not leftovers, not hand-me-downs, not judgements that insult their dignity — but good things? A world in which our own cluttered, bloated fullness is mercifully taken away from us, so that in newfound emptiness, we find room for all that is truly life-giving? A world in which we are finally and permanently delivered from the insanity of our sense of possession, ownership, and stuff?

Isn’t that a world worth singing about? Even if it costs us before it fulfills us.

The thing is Mary’s song forever dismantles the self-protective walls we erect between our personal piety and God’s insistence on systemic justice. We cannot choose the first only and call it Christianity. To love the helpless infant who comes to us in Bethlehem is to love the One who grows up to raise valleys and level mountains, to liberate the oppressed and dethrone the arrogant. Imagine Jesus in his cradle, with Mary’s lullaby being the Magnificat he hears each night until his heart burns for justice as fiercely as hers does. This is the One we call God. To love this God is to yearn for a reordered world with the same passion and urgency Mary voices in her justice song.

Notice that Mary describes these divine reversals as if they have already happened: “He has brought down.” “He has filled.” “He has sent.” Barbara Brown Taylor[ii] writes in Home by Another Road: “Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it — not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone, maybe even God.”

What would it be like to mix up our tenses as prophets routinely do? To live in to the topsy-turvy, upside down world Mary foresees? To live as if that world is already here? The Messiah is at your doorstep, Mary sings across time. There is no unjust system, oppressive hierarchy, or arrogant leadership structure the Messiah will not upend. No promise the Christ will fail to keep. No broken, exploited life God will not save.

What if we lived into these promises and insisted they come to be in our day-to-day lives? What if the profound hope of Mary’s song is the take home message we are called to cultivate in our lives?

See what we are missing this Fourth Sunday in Advent because we are all hurrying to get to Christmas Eve?

So, what about you? Will Mary’s song and the One she bears inspire you to find your voice and share it with a world desperately in need? What does your Magnificat sound like this year? How is God magnified through your unique perspective and vision? What stories of divine favor do you have to tell? What glorious reversals do you see heading our way? What words will you choose to describe the joy of the Good News of the Messiah you carry? Sing them if you can. Speak them for you must.

*** “Christ is knocking.
It’s still not Christmas, but it is also still not the great last Advent, the last coming of Christ.
Through all the Advents of our life runs the longing for the last Advent, when the word will be: ‘See, I am making all things new.’
Advent is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, as we wait for that final Advent when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.” ~Concordia Christmas Concert 2023

Images: 1)Unknown; 2) pastorduncansblog.blogspot.com/2012/12/advent-iv-magnificat-luke-146–55.html

3) St. John’s Bible, Liturgical Press, Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota.

[i] Taken from The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer edited by Isabel Best. Copyright © 2012 Fortress Press admin. Published by Augsburg Fortress Publishers

[ii] Brown Taylor, Barbara. Home By Another Way. Cambridge, Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.