Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 20th December 2015

Luke 1:39-55

Not long ago there was a feature running in our parish magazine ‘Together’ about favourite hymns. Today I want to talk about another hymn, which wasn’t mentioned: perhaps the favourite hymn in all of Christianity. This is far bigger than ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ or ‘Love Divine’.

In the Gospel, that I have just read, we heard it. It’s the Song of Mary, which is often referred to by its old Latin name, Magnificat. ‘Magnificat’ means ‘magnifies’, ‘makes bigger’.

Every evening, about 6 o’clock, in every cathedral in this country, a really good choir (because all our cathedrals have super choirs) will sing this beautiful song, using the words from the Book of Common Prayer – words which were written half-way through the sixteenth century, as a translation from the Latin of St Jerome, which was itself a translation from the Greek that St Luke the doctor actually wrote his Gospel in.

And every Sunday at Evensong, at six o’clock at our sister church, St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon, there too, we sing the Magnificat. It could be the number one hymn in the Church of England – and versions of it are sung by churches all over the world. Magnificat might even be the most-loved hymn in Christianity.

Evensong in cathedrals – which is broadcast as Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons – it’s on this afternoon at 3, if you want to listen, this time from Chester Cathedral [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06rwy7p%5D – is reported to be the service where the congregations have grown most in the Church of England in recent years: not, actually, a modern service, but a service which can trace its origins back to the fourth century, and which was first set out, in the form we use today, in 1549.

The music which they sing is really beautiful. Choral Evensong, in every cathedral, every night, with a wonderful choir in every one, is a secret gem. More and more people are discovering it.

These are the words of the Magnificat that they sing:

My soul doth magnify the Lord :
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded :
the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth :
all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me :
and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him :
throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

OK, some words we ought to explain a bit. ‘He … hath holpen his servant Israel’. ‘Holpen’ means helped.

He has ‘regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’: he has looked favourably on her, he has held her in high regard, we might say.

And presumably you all know what a handmaiden is. Mary was a ‘lowly handmaiden’. She wasn’t one of the great and good.

‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’. There’s that ‘magnifies’ word again. This time it’s not Mary ‘magnifying’ God, but her saying how God has magnified her.

And then the ‘purple passage’.
‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

Can you, really, see Mary, a teenager, a simple country girl, singing this song? Are they the sort of words which would just come tripping off the tongue of a teenager?

Not for the first time our Bible doesn’t really put this – even in a modern translation, like we used for the lessons – in the sort of language we would use today. ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’, in Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn which we’ve just sung, isn’t actually a very good translation either – although Bishop Timothy got it from my favourite modern Bible, the New English Bible.

The meaning is really better expressed by what a teenager today might say: ‘Deep in my heart, I big up the Lord’. I big Him up: that’s exactly right. Mary isn’t saying that she is somehow making God bigger – because God is bigger than anything – but she is bigging Him up, she is telling out His greatness.

Giles Fraser, who often does Thought for the Day on the Today programme, who was at one time philosophy tutor at Wadham College, Oxford and Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, who got fired for trying to make friends with the Occupy protesters camped out on the Cathedral doorstep, he, Giles Fraser, reckons that the Magnificat is one of the most powerful revolutionary texts. In September, he Tweeted, ‘BTW I don’t think [that] the Red Flag [is] anywhere near as revolutionary as the Magnificat’. [https://twitter.com/giles_fraser/status/643049147919110144]

Remember what Mary said. It could indeed be rather revolutionary.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

In these short lines, Giles Fraser thinks there is a revolutionary blueprint. There are some shades of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man. Jesus turns everything on its head. The last shall be first and the first shall be last [Matt. 20:16].

I said earlier that perhaps Mary didn’t think up her famous song all by herself. As a regular worshipper in the synagogue, she would have remembered the song that Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, sang, thanking God for his birth. You can read it in the first Book of Samuel, chapter 2. ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord,’ she sings. ‘The Lord makes a man poor, he makes him rich, he brings down and he raises up. He lifts the weak out of the dust, and raises the poor … to give them a place among the great, …’

It’s very like the Magnificat. There is the difference that Mary uses a past tense: God did these things, he put down the mighty from their seat, and so on, whereas Hannah uses the present tense, he does these things. God is capable of bringing the rich and powerful down, and he is capable of building up the poor and meek. Hannah’s emphasis is more on what God can do, rather than on what he has done. Mary on the other hand says what He has done.

Both songs are songs, hymns, of praise for God. They are hymns of gratitude: ‘Now thank we all our God.’ And given that Mary undoubtedly started on one of the bottom rungs of society, it’s not surprising that from her point of view, she emphasised how God has humbled the rich and powerful from time to time.

So – do sample Choral Evensong, either on the wireless or – better – by going along in person, on Sunday evening to St Mary’s, or indeed on any weeknight to Guildford Cathedral. And when you hear, indeed when you sing, the Magnificat, do spare a thought for the handmaidens, spare a thought for the people who have to come to the Foodbank. You could be surprised at what might happen.

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