A reflection on Mary’s song.
Some moments from the Christmas story loom large in my imagination. The shuffling of feet through Bethlehem’s darkened streets in search of lodging. A new baby, all skin creases and twitching muscles laid in a makeshift bed. Shepherds on a hillside shocked and awed by light and song. A star shining brighter than those around it.
There is also another significant moment, precluding these nativity scenes. It’s two women, one young and one old, looking at each other wide-eyed in an ordinary house in Judea. The younger woman is Mary and her older friend is Elizabeth, and we read their encounter in Luke 1:39-45. The space between them is thick with the most wonderful revelation yet to be shared with the rest of the world: Mary is pregnant with a little boy. He is the Saviour of all, the Son of God.
Mary responds in song. This song, found in Luke 1:46-55, has come to be called the Magnificat (Latin for ‘my soul magnifies the Lord’) and in it Mary expresses her gratitude and awe at the miracle growing inside her and the One who made it happen:
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.”
Through her song Mary can teach us many things, from the power of God – “His mighty arm has done tremendous things!” – to the mercy of God – “He shows mercy from generation to generation” – to the generosity of God – “He has filled the hungry with good things”. But one thing I love from Mary in this song is her reminder to us, to me, of the beyond-ness and within-ness of God.
Mary sings of a God who is at work both beyond us and within us. She marvels at His work within: how He “took notice” of her, and the “great things” He is doing (literally) inside her. In the face of such a gob-smacking, ground-breaking, life-changing personal event it could have been very easy for Mary’s celebration to stay there; to be consumed with what God was doing within her and who He was to her. But she goes further. Still wide-eyed and with hands on her belly she looks up and out. She goes on to marvel at the work of God beyond her own circumstance, praising Him for how He has moved in other generations and other places in mighty ways.
I want to celebrate, like Mary, both the beyond-ness and within-ness of God. I want to remember that God’s plans, purposes and perspective are so far beyond our own little circumstance here and now. At the same time, He is so intimately involved in our lives that He created our inmost being and knows our every detail.
To neglect either would be to squash our perspective and subsequently our worship. Are the prayers I pray and the songs I sing focused only on the within-ness of God? Is it all: ‘What can you do in me, God?’ or ‘How do I feel about you today?’ If we focus only on the within-ness of God, then we miss the bigger picture of God’s grand story. On the flip-side, are the prayers I pray and the songs I sing focused only on the beyond-ness of God? Is it all: ‘Thanks for what you did back then, God!’ or ‘Look what you’re doing over there!’ If we focus only on the beyond-ness of God, we miss the opportunity to enjoy the intimate relationship He offers us here and now.
As Mary stood at the cusp of the story that would become Christmas, she sang with awe and thanksgiving of both the beyond-ness and within-ness of God. As we hold our candles, raise our glasses and ready our carolling lungs this Christmas, may we also celebrate the beyond-ness and within-ness of the grand-working, intimacy-seeking incarnate Son of God.