Saturday, December 10, 2011

Magnificent Things

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me. (Luke 1.46-49)

The Talk of the Town

Let’s pretend we’re young women of 16 or so coming into our own in ancient Palestine. Our parents have brokered a splendid marriage contract with a good family, whose son, our husband-to-be, is well established in his faith and trade. With betrothal—a public rite confirming community consent to the union—behind us, our wedding is the talk of the town. For the moment, we’re our tiny hamlet’s closest thing to celebrity. Smiles and kind wishes greet us wherever we go. Our sense that the future couldn’t be finer deepens by the day, as does our gratitude when we think of brides whose families saddle them with uncaring, faithless men. We rarely get to ponder these joys, however. With so much to do before the wedding, fatigue is a constant companion and nightfall an unlikely friend. Its stillness gives us time to reflect before sleep bears us away on its soothing tide. Then, all too soon, daybreak rudely returns us to another task-ridden day.

Can it really be morning? It seems we hardly slept. Before opening our eyes, the room’s brightness and warmth raise the possibility we’ve been asleep for hours and hours, late into the day. How can that be? (We’ll ask this again and again.) We shield our eyes to glance around. The rest of the family hasn’t stirred. We peer into the light and gasp. It radiates from a being unlike any on Earth. We know it’s an angel sent by God. And we suspect we’re unprepared for whatever it harbingers, as we also know angels always bring life-altering news.

The angel greets us, saying we’re highly favored and God is with us. Its voice thunders with majesty that curiously flows over us like gentle water music. While we’re gripped by fear and wonder, the rest of the house sleeps on. How can that be? The angel tells us not to be afraid, and then relays news so terrifying it defies comprehension. “How can that be?” we ask, assuming virginity disqualifies us to bear God’s Son. The angel says we’ll conceive the Child after the Holy Spirit descends on us. First, what’s a “holy spirit?” We’ve never heard of such a thing. Second, it’s humanly inconceivable. Third, what the angel calls a great blessing sounds like a curse. We catch ourselves from asking how can that be and think this through. This is an angel. It speaks God’s will. What else can we do but submit humbly in service to God? The angel leaves us in chilly darkness. Hushed breath of parents and siblings nearby is deafening; they'll never believe they weren't awakened by what just happened. Nobody will believe this—not Joseph, his parents, no one in the synagogue, nobody. And it’s not a secret we can hide. In time, everyone will see. Being the talk of the town won’t feel so wonderful then.

A Huge Song

Mary’s first move is a smart one. She gets out of town. According to the angel, her cousin, Elizabeth, is beginning the third term of a miraculous pregnancy. Mary decides—correctly—that Elizabeth and her husband will be receptive to her news. As soon as she crosses their threshold, Elizabeth’s baby leaps for joy in her womb and she prophesies, echoing the angel’s declaration almost word for word. A song wells up in Mary, an impromptu hymn of praise that also expresses profound assurance. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Mary sings. “For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1.46-49) Because we relate to Mary’s tangled emotions and unanswered questions, we hear her sing in a muted, melodious soprano. And we hear a simple, subtle tune—something closer to an Act Two reprise than a showstopper that rings down the Act One curtain. Yet the song’s lyrics and placement as the narrative’s first act closes suggest otherwise.

It’s a huge song full of huge feelings and ideas—an aria bursting with excitement and illumination, as Mary comprehends the scale of events thrust upon her. She bypasses her mind, where logic resides, and her heart, home of human intentions, to sing from her soul, where emotions live and flow freely. Her song is about releasing herself to God’s infinite wisdom and care. Her soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit—the God within her—rejoices. The sheer impossibility of what she must do convinces Mary it will be done. Why? Because God traffics in impossibilities. God brings down the mighty and exalts the lowly, Mary sings. God fills hungry hearts and sends those satisfied with riches away. God’s mercy endures the test of time, and God’s promises stand forever. Up to now, Mary’s only seen the enormity of her challenge and its enormous risks. All of that shatters, revealing a bigger, greater God behind the challenge, a God more than capable of managing risks. It’s a huge song full of huge feelings and ideas.

Magnificent Things

A thrilling realization turns up in Mary’s improvised verse. The Greek verb, “to magnify” (megalunó) derives from the word Mary uses to describe the “great” things God has done for her (megas). When we release ourselves to God’s infinite wisdom and care—bypassing human logic and intentions so our soul is free to magnify God and our spirits can breathe joyfully—magnificent things happen. We can’t help but sing. The angel’s final words to Mary become our life’s theme: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1.37) God purposefully designs insurmountable challenges and inevitable risks to be shattered, so that God’s supreme power can be revealed in and through us. Facing sheer impossibility is the most reliable indicator that God will do what can’t be done.

The only thing that hinders God’s ability to do magnificent things for us is our reluctance to magnify God. As long as we keep God in a box constructed of our reasoning and reasons, impossibilities box us in on all sides. We negotiate with ourselves, leveraging all sorts of excuses why God’s plan won’t work. We pull out sorry songs we should have thrown out ages ago. We disqualify ourselves before God finishes explaining how we’ll succeed. If it involves something we’ve not heard of or can’t possibly achieve without God, we mistake God’s blessing for a curse. We put more faith in our predictions than God’s promises. Mary’s aria is soul music. It’s bigger and greater than any song she’s ever sung, and she sings it in a big way. It closes Act One’s conflicts and rushes toward Act Two’s magnificence. Sing Mary’s song.

We magnify You from our souls, Most Magnificent God. Our spirits rejoice in You. Every impossibility You bring to us is another opportunity for You to reveal Your magnificence to us, in us, and through us. Teach us to sing like we’ve never sung before. Make Your infinite power our lives’ theme. Amen.

As long as we keep God in a box, our reasoning and reasons will keep us boxed in. But when our souls magnify the Lord, magnificent, completely out-of-the-box things happen.

Postscript: “Magnificat”

Bach’s unsurpassed rendering of Mary’s song needs no occasion. But seeing as we’re here…

No comments: