The Song of Mary as Overture to Jesus' Baptism

As we approach the remembrance of the Baptism of Our Lord, I think back to a sermon I preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent on the Magnificat, the Song of Mary. Let's not forget the Song of Mary as we continue the cycle of the Liturgical Year and hear again the proclamation of the Gospel According to Luke. Her Song sounded the themes Luke explores, and which appear in Jesus' post-baptismal announcement of his own ministry in Luke 4:14-21. As we seek to be faithful to Jesus' ministry in our own place and time, the Song of Mary sounds the themes that inform and empower our ministry in the world.

Advent 4, Year C December 20, 2009

If you've gone to an opera or a performance of an oratorio such as Handel's Messiah, you've heard an overture.

In musical terms, an overture is the first music you hear at such a performance. It is the prelude or introduction to what is to follow. It helps get you in the mood for the story, and may begin to sound themes that will be heard throughout the performance.

I always love hearing the opening measures of the overture to Handel's Messiah. It sets a certain solemn and joyful mood, with a promise of musical and textual riches to follow.

Today we sing and we hear the Magnificat; known to us also as the "Song of Mary". As you hear and sing the Magnificat today, you're hearing the overture to God's great work of Incarnation.

The words of the song come to us from the mouth of Mary, a young pregnant teenage girl of a backwater town in a backwater part of the Roman Empire, while on a visit to see her cousin Elizabeth. Mary, recently visited by an angel of God with startling news about the child she would bear, simply must be with someone with whom she can stay awhile and talk things over, and so to Elizabeth she journeys for companionship and strength. Elizabeth, seeing her arrival, is filled with the Holy Spirit and is the first to say "Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb."

This joyful greeting calls forth Mary's response in song, and what a powerful song Mary sings.

We Episcopalians and Anglicans most frequently hear and recite this Song of Mary at Evening Prayer or Evensong, dressed in our nice vestments, and then we go home to a nice dinner and a comfortable bed.

That nice comfortable setting should not blind us to the text itself, which speaks to us from a culture quite different than ours.

In his book on Mary, Scott McKnight tells us that the government of Guatemala during the 1980's forbade the public recitation of the Song of Mary, fearing that its recitation would incite unrest and uprising among peasants of that country. Small wonder this is so.

Listen to the text, this time in the rendition of Eugene Peterson's The Message:

"I'm bursting with God-news;
I'm dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I'm the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It's exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now."

Those Guatemalan peasants recognized in Mary's song the announcement of God's favor to them, and those powerful men who ruled Guatemala for their own ends also recognized in those words a threat to those who would rule the people apart from the fear of God.

Mary's context in singing her song is that of the rule of Herod the Great, appointed King of Judaea by the Roman Emperor; a ruler who had to fight to subdue his kingdom; who built the Great Temple in Jerusalem from the excessive taxation of the peasantry. Her song, if heard by an emissary of Herod, would have placed her under suspicion as well.

It's a song full of courage and steadfast hope in a God who delivers the poor from the hand of the oppressor; a song worthy of the great songs before it in Scripture: the Song of Moses, the Song of Miriam, the Song of Hannah.

And as you hear Luke's Gospel go forward into the Nativity story itself, you see that Mary's Song is a prelude to a Gospel that expresses what can be described as a Great Reversal of the categories of power and glory in this world.

In this sense, a secondary meaning of the word "overture" comes to mind; defined as "an opening or initiating move toward negotiations, a new relationship, an agreement, etc.; a formal or informal proposal or offer."

The Spirit of God in the mouth of Mary is declaring God's new relationship with us; God's new agreement. From this day forth God chooses to empty himself to join the human race. We, who have been unable to save ourselves, will find God among us, suffering with us, identifying with our every weakness, suffering at our hand, and redeeming our lives by forgiveness.

As another preacher puts it:

"When the congregation sings or says this song in the liturgy, taking Mary’s words as its own, we in our time and place are included in the work of the Great Reversal, we in our time and place are included in the bringing-forth of blessing that feeds the hungry and lifts up the lowly and transforms the distribution of power."

A little later in this service we’ll again sing words from the Magnificat paraphrased by Timothy Dudley-Smith:

“Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his might/ Powers and dominions lay their glory by/ Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight/ The hungry fed, the humble lifted high.” (Hymnal 1982 #437)

May God make us more worthy of the Song we sing today, empowering our service to Mary’s Son.

Image: Dansk: Kalkmaleri i Ballerup Kirke, Korsfæstelsen, Maria og Johannes ved korsets fod. Gunnar Bach Pedersen, photographer.