By Rev. Alicia Randolph Rapking
Magnificat. My soul magnifies the Lord. These are the long ago words of a strong, young woman name Mary, who gave birth to a baby and named him Jesus. These words are the beginning words of Mary’s song, words and ideas that she borrowed from the prophets that she must have known by heart, words and ideas that are powerful in their expression and indeed indicate what kind of person Mary was.
Probably, I have heard these words during all the Advent seasons of my life, but I know when I first became aware of these words. And I know when these words first began to take root in my heart.
My freshman year at Pfeiffer College, the symphonic choir began rehearsal for the annual Christmas Concert in late August. As a music major I was excited about singing a major work with a group of around forty or more voices—something that I had never had the opportunity to do before that time. We came together for the first rehearsal and there it was—the Bach Magnificat. At the first reading of the music, the notes sounded and the voices entered and I was swept away.
We worked hard on this piece of music all fall. I worked hard on the music, learning my notes and how what I was singing combined with all the parts to produce a sound that resonated in my ears and even worked its way into my heart. I fell in love with the Magnificat and yet, all during that time I never really thought about discovering what the Latin words meant. I never thought to discover where the words could be found. I knew vaguely that Mary had spoken the words, but I was more concerned about the music than learning everything I could about the text.
The day before the concert was an all day rehearsal with orchestra. I remember being excited that Saturday morning because we would sing with the orchestra for the first time. On that morning, when the first downbeat of the piece occurred with the decisiveness of the brass instruments I was mesmerized and forgot to sing. I was carried away on pure notes of joy!
I recovered my sense and began to sing. At that moment, at that rehearsal, in the Pfeiffer Chapel, I came to a realization—I could sing! I think before that moment I thought I was just pretending, but something was different about singing those words that time. I was strong and confident and joyful and excited and I could sing! I have never forgotten that rehearsal or the concert that followed.
That weekend set in motion for me a lifelong love for the season of Advent as it helped me to understand the Gospel and the birth of Jesus in a whole new way. The season of Advent became and is a powerful time for me. For the first time I understood that Advent is a time that reflects the longing and waiting for the joy that I felt singing Magnificat. It was Mary’s response to the darkness of the world around her, her longing for peace and justice, her excitement and understanding that the child she carried would carry love and justice in the depth of his heart and that his life and death and resurrection could save this world and teach us a better way.
Seminary study and years of preaching have offered me many opportunities to examine the words of Mary found in the first chapter of Luke, that we call the Magnificat. Over the years the meaning of the words and the life of the young woman have become clearer to me.
“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.” (Luke 1:46-55, NRSV)
For years I have thought about Mary as a young, impressionable, yet faithful young girl who just couldn’t say “no” to the Angel Gabriel. Obviously she had loving qualities that would make her the right woman to be the mother of our Savior. And we reinforce this understanding as we sing about her in such hymns and carols as Gentle Mary Laid her Child, lowly in a Manger.
Yet it is from the mouth of this girl that these strong words of Luke 1 are sung. Gradually, I have come to realize that Mary was a strong, young woman who loved God deeply and was tired of the evil and injustice of the world. She saw the coming of this child as God’s justice breaking in on this world, especially as the lowly are cherished and lifted up, as the hungry are filled with good food, as the rich and powerful are called upon to consider their actions, motivations and repent.
At this moment, when Mary is singing this song she is not a meek and mild young teenage girl. She is a strong young woman, who loves God deeply and is willing to be a part of this powerful moment in history when God is willing to come to us on earth, in the form of a baby, to live among us, to love us, teach us and die for us. Emmanuel—God with us!
So, on this dreary, bitterly cold afternoon, I am going to brew some coffee, sit in my rocking chair and listen to this powerful music by J.S. Bach, the Magnificat. As I hear the opening strains I will remember a time when I was a young teenager, just learning to be strong and I will dream about the world that Mary dreamed about—a world where everyone has what they need and peace is felt in all hearts throughout the earth.
To God alone be glory!