There are few, if any, more perfect proclamations of the Gospel, better models of faithful response to the Gospel, or stronger expectations of the effect of the Gospel than the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, in which God immerses us today. For here the author gets everything exactly right: God promises. God acts to keep those promises. God summons people to trust those promises and we respond; first by giving heartfelt thanks and then, by living transformed, fearless, Spirit-filled lives that transform a fear-filled, dispirited world.
But before we revel in that Good News, letâ€™s first clear up a little problem about what we Lutherans officially have to say about Mary, her ongoing role and our relationship to her. Itâ€™s only recently that I discovered that there is a problem with these questions, but it seems that some of us who are so-called â€ścradle-Lutheransâ€ť and many of us who have transferred here from Roman Catholic parishes seem to believe we think less of Marty than we ought. So to the best of my ability, let me set the record straight.
Until the mid-1800â€™s, the whole Church â€” everyone, everywhere, always â€” esteemed Mary and understood her historic and ongoing role in exactly the same light. For all of us, Mary was and is and always will be what the Orthodox communion most frequently calls her: Theotokos â€” the God-bearer â€” and nothing less than that. Since the Fourth Century, this is exactly what the Church â€” everyone, everywhere, always â€” proclaims in the Nicene Creed, as we do today. Although personal pieties have always been divergent on the how and why and what this all means, Eastern Christianity and all of western Christianity â€” Roman, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed â€” have always officially taught this and have regularly celebrate all the liturgical feasts â€” the Annunciation, the visit of Mary with Elizabeth, Christmas, the naming of Jesus, Christâ€™s presentation in the Temple (Candlemas), Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost â€” in which Mary plays a central and decisive role. Again, while personal pieties vary, what we say and how we pray had been more or less in sync. Together, we have affirmed, as one of our great hymns puts it,
that as Bearer of the eternal Word, Mary â€śleads our praises. Alleluia;â€ť this is precisely how we pray in the final petition of our prayers of intercession each week.
Beginning in the mid-1800s and through the pontificate of John Paul II, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic communion expanded and the rest of us non- Roman catholics, reacted. In 1854, Pope Pius IX explicitly declared to be dogma what until then was either implied or locally or personally practiced: that Maryâ€™ conception was immaculate and she was â€ścompletely prevented from contracting Original Sin.â€ť In 1950, Pope Pius X11, made the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary, again, often implied or locally or personally practices, to also be the official dogma of the Church. Lutherans, Anglicans and Protestants were not invited to participate in those decisions, many were deeply anti-Roman and particularly anti- papist so that, particularly in Germany and North America, the liturgical celebrations of Mary diminished â€” our practice changed â€” even though what we taught remained the same. Thatâ€™s basically our parentsâ€™, grandparentsâ€™ and our lifetimes.
That change in practice has led some to believe that we Lutherans donâ€™t take Mary as seriously as we ought. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But thanks be to God! And, I think, to the ecumenical vision and leadership of Gene Brand! With the publication of the Lutheran Book of Worship in 1978, which restored the propers for today, publicly and in print, how we worship with Mary once again matches what we and the whole Church â€” everyone and everywhere â€” have always taught and said. So none of us should think that Lutherans think less of Mary ever again. With the whole Church, we rejoice that Mary is Theotokos â€” â€śGod-bearerâ€ť and â€śleads our praises. Alleluia!
Now back to Maryâ€™s Song.
God promises â€śto our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
God acts on those promises for us: â€śRememberingâ€ť us. Looking â€świth favorâ€ť on us. Doing â€śgreat thingsâ€ť for us. Lifting, filling and helping us.
God summons us and we respond to Godâ€™s summons with heartfelt thanks: â€śMy soul magnifies and my spirit rejoices,â€ť and transformed, Spirit-filled lives as we expect and work to transform our fear-filled dispirited world into a world where the â€śhungry are filled with good thingsâ€ť and the â€ślowly are lifted up,â€ť and all share the power and the bounty and the peace of God.
At this time, on this day of your life, can you sing our Maryâ€™s Song?
Are you able to believe that God is â€śdoing great thingsâ€ť for you?
Are you able â€” from the depths of your soul and the depths of your spirit to not just praise but â€śmagnify the Lord.â€ť
Amidst the enormous inequities of which we are all too aware, can you rejoice that God will â€śshow strengthâ€¦scattered the proud...bring down the powerfulâ€¦lift up the lowlyâ€¦fill the hungryâ€¦and sent the rich away.â€ť Are you willing and able to work for that just and equitable societal scenario?
Or do you think that kind of just and peaceful existence will only happen on the other side of death and the grave? Or, worse, does that kind of just and equitable existence terrify you?
Godâ€™s Good News to us, no matter how we respond to these or any other such questions is the same as Godâ€™s Good News to Mary: God has chosen you. God has entered you. God is filling you to strengthen you so that filled with the Word the Word may become flesh and blood for the sake of the world; the Word may become flesh and in me and in you.
â€śUnexpected and mysterious;â€ť thatâ€™s how one of our hymns describes Maryâ€™s experience of God.
â€śUnexpected and mysterious;â€ť thatâ€™s how we describe our experience of eating and drinking the Word made flesh, the body and blood of Christ; the food through which God makes and keeps the Promise; the food by which God summons us not just to bear, but to be the Body of Christ, Godâ€™s Word made flesh for the sake of the world.
â€śUnexpected and mysterious;â€ť thatâ€™s what God says about Mary; thatâ€™s what God says about us, about me, about you? â€śUnexpected and mysterious;â€ť thatâ€™s how God is going to change the world.