In the UK, during the pandemic, singing in church has been forbidden for congregations. Last Sunday the ban was finally lifted and we could sing again!
Today, after a hiatus of sixteen months, we are allowed to start singing hymns again. We can once more give voice to our praises, and sing out as we worship. And singing is such an important part of our worship. It’s something that believers in our God have always done. The Old Testament is full of hymns – not just in the book of Psalms but elsewhere as well. The New Testament too. And there are three hymns in the New Testament that the Church attaches such great importance to that they are said or sung every day, as they have been since the earliest days of the Church.
And all three are in the gospel of Saint Luke. They are Mary’’s song of praise that we know as The Magnificat which is sung daily at Evening Prayer. Then Zechariah’s song of praise following the birth of John the Baptist, sung daily at Morning Prayer and known as The Benedictus. And Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis, which he uttered as he received the baby Jesus in his arms when Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple at 40 days old.
Now, as many of you know I rather like illustrating sermons with lyrics from popular music. So how could I pass by today without coming up with a song to fit? And given our gospel reading today, Mary’s song of praise, there really is only one song to choose.
I’ll give you a clue – it’s a Beatles song. And for those of you who haven’t immediately guessed let me tell you – it’s Let It Be. One of The Beatles most famous songs, with Paul McCartney singing:
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
McCartney wasn’t singing about the Virgin Mary – he wrote the song after he saw his own mother, who had died when he was fourteen, in a dream during a difficult time in his life. But the words seem so apt when as today we reflect on the role that Mary, mother of Jesus and spiritual mother to all Christians, has to play in the life of the Church. And in particular as we reflect on the words of her great hymn of praise to God.
For today we hear how Mary, having received the news that she was going to bring God’s Son into the world, goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, and speaks words of wisdom – the song we now know as the Magnificat.
When you look at the great hymns of the Bible, you will notice something hugely significant. They are not just songs where people sing: God you are wonderful. They also praise God for who God is, how God comes to save his people, how God acts in the world, and what he wants for his world.
And Mary’s hymn of praise is no exception. And what amazing words they are that Mary chooses.
Surely, at this point, Mary cannot have fully appreciated the import of the role that was being thrust upon her. She cannot have known what the future would bring – the heartbreak of the cross, the joy of the resurrection. And yet she knows that God is doing a wonderful thing. Somehow she is inspired to declare in this great song of praise the deep truths of God. She knows that she is truly blessed and that from this point on everyone – allgenerations – will honour her. And she knows that this amazing news, brought by Gabriel, that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son into the world means that God is bringing to fruition his desire to see justice in his world – to see the humble and the poor lifted up and the powerful and thrown down, the hungry fed and the rich sent away with nothing.
This young girl and her words of wisdom – this Magnificat – are so important in the life of the Church that they are said every day at evening prayer. Each priest repeats them daily. In them Mary proclaims a deeply radical agenda for God’s work – and therefore our work – in the world. For Mary proclaims a gospel, a good news, with a bias. The poor, no matter their circumstances or way of life – no matter whether they are what society might call the deserving poor or the undeserving – will be filled. The powerful, the rich, no matter their circumstances or way of life – no matter whether they are what society might think of as deserving or underserving of their wealth or position – will be brought down and sent empty away.
And when you hear people say that the Church shouldn’t be involved in politics, just point them to these words. This hymn of praise from Mary proclaims that God has a deeply political agenda. Mary understands and tells us all what the incarnation of God is all about.
And yet – if it hadn’t been for this young girl’s wisdom in recognising the blessing that came from God when she received her angelic visitor, God could not have achieved all that being brought into the world, becoming incarnate, would mean. What tremendous courage, amazing insight, to respond to the message of the angel with those words: Let it be to me according to your word.
The Early Church didn’t take long to realise that Mary, as the God-chosen mother of him who was to be Immanuel, God-with-us, was worthy of a special honour, a special place, in the life of the Church.
At this point a bit of history. After Christianity became the official religion of the Empire at the beginning of the fourth century, a number of Ecumenical Councils were held to discuss and determine various matters of doctrine. There were seven of them over the next few hundred years up until the Great Schism in the year 1054, when the Church split into its Eastern and Western halves. The Nicene Creed that we use each Sunday was formulated as a statement of doctrine at two of these councils. As part of the Western Catholic church the Anglican Church has always recognised the status of these Great Councils and accepted their teaching – hence our continued and regular use of the Nicene Creed.
What concerns us this morning is the third of these Councils. At the Third Ecumenical Council of the Church, held at Ephesus in the year 431, one of the main items on the agenda was the discussion about Jesus being at one and the same time completely human and yet completely divine. God, born into the world a human being. And to emphasize this Mary was given the title Θεοτόκος (Theotokos). A strict translation of this Greek word is ‘God-bearer’ – however, it is usually translated into English and other languages as ‘Mother of God’ and this is the title by which Mary has been honoured ever since. For it reminds us that through the child-bearing of Blessed Mary, God became incarnate and lived and died as one of us.
And now he is risen. And we rejoice that Mary, chosen by God, is now truly blessed for she is with her risen and exalted Son in heaven, joining with all the saints in the eternal worship of God and in prayer for those of us still on earth. And as she prophesied we continue to call her ‘blessed.’
But back to her great hymn of praise. We began with those words of Paul McCartney in his song Let it be, about Mother Mary coming and speaking words of wisdom. Today, in our gospel reading, we have been called to reflect again upon those words of wisdom in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s great song of praise, the Magnificat. It is part of the ministry of the whole of the Church today to listen to those words that proclaim God’s justice and to live them out.
For we can sing as much as we like in church, but our words of praising cannot have any meaning if we do not then as his people live out and proclaim his radical agenda for his world.
Mary understood and proclaimed what God coming into the world meant. We too need to understand and proclaim.
Mary was able to trust in God when Gabriel brought her the news from God and say Let it be… Let it be to me according to your word.
Let us too, as we sing our praises to God, accept for us God’s call to us all to go out and proclaim the good news of salvation, of justice, of a new world. May we too say Let it be…