Anticipating the Impossible
Advent is a season of anticipation. In the Christian liturgy it is meant to be a time to reflect on how the world waited and prepared for the redemption that comes through the Messiah, and to prepare oneself for meeting Christ. Fulfillment is always sweeter if it’s something we’ve had to wait for, and the story of the faithful waiting for the arrival of their Savior is compelling. Just imagine if Jesus had arrived on the scene in the Book of Genesis – where is the drama in that? Mary’s words of praise spoken in the company of her cousin Elizabeth, who had also received fulfillment after a long period of waiting, evoke a triumphant satisfaction known to those who have eagerly waited.
From Luke Chapter 1:
46 And Mary Said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
54 He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
Mary is celebrating fulfillment, but to be sure the world is still in need of help, and it often feels to me that Christianity is a religion of deferred satisfaction. God is supposed to scatter the proud, put down the mighty, exalt the low, and fill the hungry, but the world is still full of injustice and hunger. So why does Mary rejoice? Also, I am puzzled by her choice of verb tense. She did not say “He will,” she said “He hath.” And her son wasn’t even born yet.
Acknowledging that this grammatical subtlety may have arisen as the text was passed down through time, I want to think about what it means if “hath” was what Mary intended. It seems she was taking a grand view of things, seeing at once how God spoke to her fathers and will continue to speak to all his children forever. God speaks, and also acts in the world, and Mary describes this with active verbs like scatter, show, fill, send, and help. Indeed, few people could have been more aware of God’s direct action in the world than Mary. Perhaps she is also taking a grand view of time. To God who calls himself Eternal and Endless(1), “all is as one day, and time is only measured unto men.”(2) The Magnificat can be read as a hymn of praise to all that God does, past, present, and future.
Mary is also marveling at her role in God’s work. The handmaid of the Lord. When God does great things human beings are often involved, and in Mary the seemingly impossible feat of bearing and raising the Son of God became possible. The story of Christ’s birth is ultimately about God working in the world to conquer the impossible. To put things right. How is it done? How are the low exalted, the hungry filled, the captives delivered, and the brokenhearted healed? When is the gospel preached to the poor?(3) Often it is through inspired people working in partnership with Christ.
In our struggling world impossible things have become possible. Apartheid and legalized slavery ended even though some people thought they never would, women can own property, vote, and hold public office in most of the world, life expectancies are way up, infant mortality is down, people figured out how to fix and bottle nitrogen so that the massive famines Thomas Malthus predicted never occurred, religious freedom is common, and war may be decreasing.(4) And even though many hearts are broken, they are also quietly healed. All because inspired people believe change is possible. The world is far from perfect, but as King said, the though moral arch of the universe is long, it bends towards justice. We do not have to wait to be the change we seek in this world,(5) for with God, nothing shall be impossible.(6)
1. “Behold, I am God…Endless and Eternal is my name.” (Moses 7:5)
2. “All is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.” (Alma 40:8)
3. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at libertythem that are bruised.” (Luke 4:18)
5. “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
6. “For with God nothing shall be impossible.” (Luke 1:37)
As a post script, I’m including links to some of my favorite musical settings of the Magnificat. It has been set to music hundreds of times, and it must represent some of the most sung verses of the Bible. The first setting is Charles Villiers Stanford’s “Magnificat in G” (he wrote one in every major key). It’s a gorgeous example of the Anglican tradition. (Be sure to turn up your speakers because it’s a quiet recording).
The second is a movement from Bach’s Magnificat. Bach wrote a movement for every line (there are 12 since he included, as most musical settings do, the Gloria Patri of the Latin mass at the end: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”). It’s hard to choose just one movement, but I like Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiæ suæ (He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy) because it’s a trio for women’s voices.
Finally, Marc-Antonie Charpentier’s exquisite setting gives the whole Latin text in one eight and a half minute composition.