The seminary community gathered on Sunday, 9 September, 4pm, for a service of Evening Prayer to open the 43rd academic year. The Board of Regents were present before their Monday meeting, and the seminary welcomed four new pastoral students. The Emeritus Crucis (“Veteran of the Cross”) award was given posthumously to former Ontario/East District President Dr Albin Stanfel, who entered his eternal rest in 2011. The seminary’s annual theme for 2018-19, shared with Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Edmonton, is the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46ff.). Seminary President Dr Thomas Winger preached the following sermon on the theme text.
Lk. 1:39-56 (Magnificat)
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ:
When young Mary visits her elderly cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah, it isn’t her exuberant announcement, “I’m pregnant!” that Luke decides to record for us in His Gospel. Now, it’s pretty clear from the text that Mary did indeed recount the amazing story of the angel’s visit and her own faithful response to God’s promise. But what Luke finds fascinating is Elizabeth’s stunning response. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the infant John in her womb recognised his unborn cousin as the Lord God, as the Messiah whose coming he was destined to announce, and he leapt with joy. And then, kicked out of her gobsmacked silence, Elizabeth explodes: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:42-43). It’s a miniature divine service. God visits Elizabeth in the flesh, and moved by the Spirit she worships Him. Mary carries Christ to Elizabeth in her womb as the Tabernacle once brought the ark of the covenant into the midst of Israel, and Elizabeth responds to the miracle by praising both God and Mary.
But then Mary “one-ups” her brief song of praise with the magnificent hymn we call after its first word: Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (Lk. 1:46-47). For some reason in my mind the Magnificat was always associated with the Annunciation. I guess I always thought that as soon as the angel announced to Mary that she was pregnant with the Christ-child, the Holy Spirit inspired her to sing her great song of praise. Now, its inspiration I won’t deny. But the song’s story is a little different. The text doesn’t say how long she waited in Nazareth after the angel left, but Luke does tell us that Mary arose and “travelled with haste to the hill country of Judah” to visit her cousin (Lk. 1:39). On this lengthy journey she had many days, perhaps a week to ponder this great deed that the Mighty One had done to her, as she would later sing. And it seems that she turned to the Scriptures to help her understand it. But in her “lowliness” she didn’t go to the stories of the mighty warrior-women of the Old Testament, Jael or Judith or Deborah. She didn’t see herself as a hero. She praised the Lord that “He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden” (Lk. 1:48)—exactly the same words that Hannah used in her prayer to the Lord (as we heard in the first reading). Hannah was barren, despised by her husband’s other wife and her many children. She felt ashamed, unloved, worthless, helpless. There was nothing she could do to open and heal her womb. By prayer she confessed that only the Lord could help, and when she received young Samuel as His gift, she presented him in the Temple with her great song of praise.
Mary must have known that song well, for nearly every line of the Magnificat echoes it. Mary wasn’t only an obedient hearer of the angel’s word, she was a faithful student of Holy Scripture. She lived from it; it filled her, so that it gave her the very words to speak when the Lord’s gifts were showered upon her. And so Mary has been called a type of the Church, carrying the Saviour inside her, listening faithfully to God’s Word, and singing it back to Him in praise of His mighty deeds. She’s the liturgy embodied, bringing Christ’s Real Presence and inspiring thanks and praise. But it’s possible for us to say too much about her, and so fail to listen to her. Her words of praise show utter astonishment that she should be chosen for this greatest human role in history. But that’s the way it is with God. “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the lowly.” He has no use for Herod the Great, but places His hand under Mary’s chin and lifts up her gaze to meet His own. “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away.” This is the God who fed 5000 in the wilderness from the hand of Jesus, but turned away the rich young ruler who couldn’t love God above all else. And this is the way He deals with us. He has no interest in what we have to offer, but lifts our eyes to see what He gives. When we try to be in control of our lives, He breaks us; but when we’re broken He heals us. When we’re hungry for a food that will last for ever, He feeds us with the living flesh and blood of Christ, taking up the most meagre-looking morsels of bread and wine and giving them an exalted purpose.
The content of Mary’s song ought then to help us understand its title. Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Taken literally and out of context this could be the most arrogant opening line ever written. Who does she think she is? Her soul makes God greater? She magnifies the Lord? No, surely that’s completely the opposite of what she sings. For, after all, He has magnified her. She praises Him for what He’s done not just for her, but to her, knitting in her womb the flesh of the promised Messiah, coming to dwell in her like the glory of God descending on the Tabernacle in a cloud. She is the lowly one that He lifted up. So surely Mary can’t mean that she has made God greater. So we should perhaps understand what she means in the way of Luther’s Small Catechism, as if she were saying, “God is indeed great in and of Himself, but we pray in this song that He may be great among us.” Something like that. And we can, certainly, make God appear pretty small to the world by the way we act and speak as His people. How many are scandalised into unbelief by the way the church and her members behave, as we’re seeing with current scandals over residential schools and sexual abuse and financial mismanagement! Or even on a smaller scale by the way we fail to welcome guests into our churches, or destroy their harmony with backbiting and gossip and petty selfishness. And by contrast, surely we can help God to maintain and increase His great reputation when we speak well of Him and care for our neighbours in a way that shows His love. Yes, maybe that’s what Mary means when she starts off her great song of praise by saying that she’s magnifying, not diminishing, the Lord.
But perhaps there’s something simpler going on. Just think about a magnifier—not a pump that inflates a bicycle tire or a printing press that turns a tiny logo into a billboard, but rather a simple magnifying glass. What does it do? It does nothing but receive the light that comes to it. It’s the light that moves through the glass to enlarge the tiny letters and release their great mystery to our weak eyes. It’s the light that uses the glass and not the other way around. It’s the light that lifts that simple object made from ordinary sand and turns it into a marvellous tool. So also it was the Light of the world coming to Mary that used her to do something remarkable. Through her the Light of the world was magnified; through her it carried out its purpose. And there was a literal sense in which the Light was “magnified” as a tiny baby grew within her till He might come forth into the outside world and begin His march to the cross. There she would stand, there her heart would be pierced with a figurative sword as His life expired and His side was cut open to release the blood and water that would flow for the life of the world. And then she would be there among the disciples, fading somewhat into the background, as the Light of life was rekindled on Easter morning, when He came forth from the tomb as He first came from her womb, but with a more magnificent and unquenchable life. Yes, perhaps that’s what she meant when she sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord”, as she looked forward to what He would do through her, how the light of the Word that was spoken quietly into her ear would grow and grow to the ends of the earth.
You see, Mary’s song seems to fall into two parts. In the first, she praises God for what He’s done to her—such a remarkable thing that all generations would continue to bless her as the holy mother of God. But then—and very quickly—her song moves on. “And His mercy is for [all] those who fear Him from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50). That is to say, though He hasn’t done to us quite what He did to her, what He did to her He has done for us. By lifting her up He has also lifted us up. If we follow in her footsteps, we, too, magnify the Lord and we, too, are blessed by Him. Jesus Himself would later make this very point when a voice from the crowd cried out in praise of His mother, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which You nursed!” and He replied: “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!” (Lk. 11:27-28). That’s how and why Mary’s song can be Concordia’s song for her 43rd academic year. If we hear His Word and keep it, He lifts us up as well. Mary’s song sings of God’s works for us, how He strengthens our faith, comforts us in our depression, and promises to overcome our enemies (Luther). We haven’t often had a theme verse so explicitly focussed on worship. But what would happen if we could learn to see this place not simply as an academy for theologians or a training ground for pastoral practitioners, but as the place of our Lord’s visitation? This is where what we call the Great Reversal takes place. Here Jesus comes to us as He once sat down with tax collectors and sinners, as with 5000 by the Sea of Galilee and the twelve in the upper room, as He once revealed Himself to the Emmaus disciples through His speaking and breaking bread, and as He came to feed the hungry apostles on the seashore. In that very way He visits us here through His Word in the classroom, the library, and especially the chapel. And the Light of life lifts us up, shines through us, and is magnified among us. Amen.